A reflection on the sustainability of the “natural” skincare craze

The rise of the clean beauty movement in recent years has fuelled intense debates on the use of synthetic chemicals in cosmetic products that have led to skin irritations. Apart from the argument that petrochemicals are derived from nature too, I do not intend to wade further into the natural vs. synthetic debate.

This brief essay focuses on the environmental, socio-economic and political concerns raised by the popular use of natural and/organic skincare and cosmetic ingredients.

Firstly, setting aside the unnecessary waste created by minuscule packaging of most skincare products, most plastic pumps and sprays used to contain conventional and synthetic-free skincare products are rarely recycled.

Secondly, “miracle” botanical ingredients that power most reputable natural and/or organic cosmetic makers’ research-backed and/or anecdotal beauty claims often involved known vulnerable or endangered plant species that produce the highly sought after argan oil, baobab oil, Brazil nut oil (from the Amazon forests), frankincense, myrrh, rosewood (on CITES), cedarwood (from the Himalayas), sandalwood, agarwood (or “gaharu” from Southeast Asian rainforests) essential oils and shea butter. This list is not exhaustive. Many have been touted as “liquid gold”.

Some environmentalists believe that the cosmetic use and commercial exploitation of threatened plant species may help conserve critical rainforests in the Amazon. Current evidence in Asia, Africa and Latin America prove the contrary. This puts the onus on consumers to carefully screen sources of such ingredients.

Thirdly, few cosmetic companies provide the sort of transparency Florihana, a family-owned French distillery, does when it comes to their sources of ingredients.

Without consistent, high level of traceability and transparency, it is difficult for consumers to be confident that the supply chains of global and local natural/organic cosmetic manufacturers, including artisan ones, have not been tarnished with ingredients from the lucrative illegal trade in threatened plant species.

Fourthly, unless a cosmetic manufacturer actively and only sources certified Fair Trade/Fair for Life ingredients, one can assume often lowly paid indigenous women in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including those that do not even earn a minimum wage even in women-led, women-dominated co-operatives such as in Morocco as reported by the BBC, are working themselves to the bone to produce the “magical” oils that purportedly make you look younger.

Meanwhile, farmers in Egypt – the world’s biggest producer of jasmine blooms – are paid so little for their harvests that they have to rely on alternative sources of income such as ecotourism to make a living. Farmers in Bulgaria – the world’s largest producer of rose blooms and their pricey essential oils – also had to depend on subsidies from the government to survive when rose prices crashed in 2020 during the early onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fifthly, Israel is the largest producer of jojoba oil, another ingredient touted as akin to human sebum popular in most skincare products. It invites the question if supporting Israeli jojoba farmers is equivalent to supporting the continuous oppression of the Palestinians. Curiously the consumption of and popularity of jojoba oil have not received the same degree of flak palm oil had received from the Global North. To be fair, northern environmental NGOs have been vocal about the environmental impact of the cultivation of rapeseed and soybean oils. It was never just about palm oil.

Overall, buying products marketed as “clean beauty”, “natural” or “wildcrafted” do not automatically make anyone morally superior or better consumers. Despite the good intentions, such customers may unknowingly fuel the overexploitation of and illegal trade in threatened plant species, the economic exploitation of indigenous women and armed conflicts all at the same time.

As for whether synthetic preservatives are “unnecessary evils”, they may well be given emerging scientific evidence of the efficacy and shell life of various seed oils and hydrosols from cultivated sources. Cultivated botanical sources are not necessarily inferior to pricier, coveted wildcrafted ingredients, given persistent concerns of over-harvesting and illegal trade of vulnerable species.


A. The Case Against Skincare

[US Press] Your Skin Doesn’t Need Skin Care (2022) https://slate.com/technology/2022/01/skincare-science-cleansing-dermatology-truth.html

[US Press] The Skincare Con (2018) https://theoutline.com/post/3151/the-skincare-con-glossier-drunk-elephant-biologique-recherche-p50

B. A History of Skincare

The Use of Plants in Skin-Care Products, Cosmetics and Fragrances: Past and Present (2018) https://doi.org/10.3390/cosmetics5030050

Cosmetics and skin care products. A historical perspective (2000) https://doi.org/10.1016/s0733-8635(05)70206-0

C. Anti-Aging Skincare

Cosmeceuticals (2022) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31334943/

Trends in the Use of Botanicals in Anti-Aging Cosmetics (2021) https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules26123584

Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation (2011) https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.91114

[UCLA researchers] The Truth About Over-the-Counter Topical Anti-Aging Products: A Comprehensive Review (2007) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asj.2007.05.005

D. Hydrosols/Hydrolat & Their Uses

[Malaysian researchers] Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activity of Plant Hydrosol and Its Potential Application in Cosmeceutical Products (2022) https://doi.org/10.5812/jjnpp-124018

[Slovenian researchers] Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Properties of Helichrysum italicum (Roth) G. Don Hydrosol (2022) https://doi.org/10.3390/antibiotics11081017

[Moroccan researchers] Antibacterial activity of essential oils and hydrosols extracted from some Moroccan Mentha species (L.) (2022) https://doi.org/10.55522/jmpas.V11I1.2650

[Polish researchers] Plant hydrolates – Antioxidant properties, chemical composition and potential applications (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopha.2021.112033

[Bulgarian researchers] Rose Flowers—A Delicate Perfume or a Natural Healer? (2021) https://doi.org/10.3390/biom11010127

[Greek researchers] Evaluation of Essential Oils and Extracts of Rose Geranium and Rose Petals as Natural Preservatives in Terms of Toxicity, Antimicrobial, and Antiviral Activity (2021) https://doi.org/10.3390/pathogens10040494

[Iraqi researchers] Antibacterial activity and medical properties of Witch Hazel Hamamelis virginiana (2020) https://faculty.uobasrah.edu.iq/uploads/publications/1599112544.pdf

[Turkish researchers] Relationship between volatile components, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of the essential oil, hydrosol and extracts of Citrus aurantium L. flowers (2020) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jiph.2019.06.017

[Vietnamese researcher] In vitro antimicrobial activity of hydrosol from Litsea cubeba (Lour.) Pers. against Helicobacter pylori and Candida albicans (2020) http://www.bmrat.org/index.php/BMRAT/article/view/610

[Moroccan researchers] Essential oil and hydrosol of Moroccan spearmint as possible antimicrobial products (2018) https://www.longdom.org/proceedings/essential-oil-and-hydrosol-of-moroccan-spearmint-as-possible-antimicrobial-products-44745.html

[Polish researchers] Preservative activity of lavender hydrosols in moisturizing body gels (2014) https://doi.org/10.1111/lam.12346

[Australian researchers] Antibacterial activity of essential oils, hydrosols and plant extracts from Australian grown Lavandula spp. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijat.2006.01.007

[UK researchers] The comparative effect of novel Pelargonium essential oils and their corresponding hydrosols as antimicrobial agents in a model food system (2003) https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.1086

E. Seed Oils & Plant Butters in Skincare

[Press] Shea trees are falling fast across Africa, victims of new pressures (commentary) https://news.mongabay.com/2021/09/shea-trees-are-falling-fast-across-africa-victims-of-new-pressures-commentary/

[Non-Academic] In a nutshell: a guide to using nut oils in your beauty routine (2019)

[Non-Academic] The truth about polyunsaturated fatty acids (pufa) in skincare (2019)

Vegetable Butters and Oils as Therapeutically and Cosmetically Active Ingredients for Dermal Use: A Review of Clinical Studies (2022) https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2022.868461

An updated review on efficacy and benefits of sweet almond, evening primrose and jojoba oils in skin care applications (2022) https://doi.org/10.1111/ics.12758

Quality assessment of cold-pressed strawberry, raspberry and blackberry seed oils intended for cosmetic purposes (2021) https://doi.org/10.17306/J.AFS.0884

Novel seeds pretreatment techniques: effect on oil quality and antioxidant properties: a review (2021) https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-021-04981-1

Identification of species-specific peptide markers in cold-pressed oils (2020) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-76944-z

Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils (2018) https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19010070

Green solvents and technologies for oil extraction from oilseeds (2017) https://doi.org/10.1186/s13065-017-0238-8

Chemical Characteristics of Cold-Pressed Blackberry, Black Raspberry, and Blueberry Seed Oils and the Role of the Minor Components in Their Oxidative Stability (2016) https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.6b01821

The Antioxidant Activity and Oxidative Stability of Cold-Pressed Oils (2014) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11746-014-2479-1

Oxidative stability of tree nut oils (2008) https://doi.org/10.1021/jf8000982

Fatty acid composition and antioxidant properties of cold-pressed marionberry, boysenberry, red raspberry, and blueberry seed oils (2005) https://doi.org/10.1021/jf048615t

i. Argan

[US Press] Argan Oil: A Precious Ingredient Linked to Environmental and Ethical Concerns (2022) https://www.treehugger.com/argan-oil-sustainability-5212744

Argan Oil: Chemical Composition, Extraction Process, and Quality Control (2022) https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.804587

Oxidative stability of cosmetic argan oil: a one-year study (2014) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24797024/

Oxidative stability of edible argan oil: A two-year study (2011) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2010.07.003

Therapeutic potential of argan oil: a review (2010) https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2042-7158.2010.01190.x

ii. Sea Buckthorn

Abundance of active ingredients in sea-buckthorn oil (2017) https://doi.org/10.1186/s12944-017-0469-7

Fatty acid, phytochemical, oxidative stability and in vitro antioxidant property of sea buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides L.) oils extracted by supercritical and subcritical technologies (2017) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2017.08.042

iii. Prickly Pear (Cactus Seed)

Oxidative Stability at Different Storage Conditions and Adulteration Detection of Prickly Pear Seeds Oil (2020) https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jfq/2020/8837090/

iv. Brazil Nut 

Revisiting the ‘cornerstone of Amazonian conservation’: a socioecological assessment of Brazil nut exploitation (2017) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-017-1355-3

[Press] Are Brazil nuts really sustainable? (2006) https://news.mongabay.com/2006/12/are-brazil-nuts-really-sustainable/

[Press] Brazil nut harvests heading for crash (2003) https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4502-brazil-nut-harvests-heading-for-crash/

F. Essential Oils’ Efficacy & Trade

[US Press] What Science Says About the Potential Healing Effects of Essential Oils (2023) https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/what-science-says-about-the-healing-potential-of-essential-oils

[US Press] Do Essential Oils Work? Here’s What Science Says (2020) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-essential-oils-work-heres-what-science-says/

Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work? https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/aromatherapy-do-essential-oils-really-work

i. [UK Press] Shubra Beloula: The tiny Egyptian village few know (2022) https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220106-shubra-beloula-the-tiny-egyptian-village-few-know

ii. [US Press] Perfume trade fell the Brazilian rosewood (2005) https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/world/americas/perfume-trade-fells-the-brazilian-rosewood.html

Wildcheck – Assessing the risks and opportunities of trade in wild plant ingredients (2022) https://doi.org/10.4060/cb9267en

G. Hair Care

Coconut, Castor, and Argan Oil for Hair in Skin of Color Patients: A Systematic Review (2022) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35816075/

Hair Oils: Indigenous Knowledge Revisited (2022) https://doi.org/10.4103/ijt.ijt_189_20

Commonly Used Over the Counter Therapies for Hair Growth in Skin of Color: An Evidenced-Based Review (2021) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34231986/

Sensitive Scalp: A Possible Association With the Use of Hair Conditioners (2020) https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2020.596544

Hair Cosmetics: An Overview (2015) https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-7753.153450

Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage (2003) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12715094/

H. Health sites

They provide non-commercially-sponsored, independently researched, expert-reviewed articles on clinical aromatherapy and domestic uses of essential oils, hydrosols and carrier oils.

Healthline https://www.healthline.com/

WebMD https://www.webmd.com/

MedlinePlus https://medlineplus.gov/

U.S. National Library of Medicine https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Disclaimer: I am not a trained cosmetic scientist, dermatologist or aromatherapist. Just a curious researcher and consumer. Consult medical professionals for your skin ailments.

Malaysia Will Lobby Europe Against Palm Oil Ban – Plantation Minister

© Nikkei Markets

KUALA LUMPUR (Mar 21) — Malaysia’s Plantation Minister said Thursday she will visit Europe in early-May in a last-ditch effort to dissuade the European Union Parliament against adopting measures to phase out palm oil.

Prior to the tabling of the delegated act in May, “I’ll visit the government leaders again to explain to them [and] to push for sustainable palm oil,” Teresa Kok told reporters after a meeting with palm oil producers.

“A lot of their political leaders and MPs don’t understand the actual situation here,” she said. “Many of them have never come to Malaysia or visited oil palm plantations.”

Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producing nation, also planned to send envoys to protest the European Union’s plans to ban palm oil as biofuel by 2030, weekly magazine Tempo reported citing Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Darmin Nasution. 

– By Gan Pei Ling

Local, Foreign Parties Interested In Buying Malaysia Airlines – Mahathir

© Nikkei Markets

KUALA LUMPUR (Mar 20) — Some local as well as foreign parties have shown interest in buying flag carrier Malaysia Airlines, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Wednesday.

“There are interested parties to buy Malaysia Airlines,” Mahathir told reporters in parliament. “We will study whether it needs to be sold or not.”

The comments come a day after state investment arm Khazanah Nasional’s managing director said it would inject this year part of six billion ringgit ($1.47 billion) that was provided in 2014 to revamp the financially-strained national airline.

Malaysia Airlines has been struggling to turn in consistent profits over the years despite several attempts by the government to restructure the company grappling with volatile fuel prices and brutal competition from low-cost carriers such as AirAsia.

The most recent effort was launched in 2014–involving massive job cuts, rebranding, management changes, and buying out the then-listed airline -following losses of two of its planes that killed hundreds of people in that same year.

The company, now wholly-owned by Khazanah Nasional, however has missed a crucial target to return to profitability by 2018 despite axing thousands of jobs and disposing of some of its planes.

An outright sale of the airline appears unlikely in the near term, said analysts, noting potential hurdles that include resistance from its highly-unionized workforce of 14,000.

“The turnaround probably hasn’t been successful,” said Singapore-based Brendan Sobie, an analyst for Centre for Aviation. “In this case, selling the airline is going to be challenging because Malaysia Airlines still needs a major overhaul.”

“It’s a national carrier so national interest is involved,” said Tan Kam Meng, an analyst who covers the aviation sector at brokerage TA Securities. “The company is also in a tough industry.”

Earlier this month, Mahathir had said that the government would study and soon decide whether to shut, sell or refinance the flag carrier.

“We will consider whether we want to change (the airline’s) management or to scale down or to expand,” Mahathir said. “We have a lot of planes that are not use fully utilized.”

– By Sarah Nadlin Rohim and Gan Pei Ling

Malaysia Hopes EU Commission Won’t Shortly Submit Draft Law To Ban Palm Oil In Biofuels

© Nikkei Markets

KUALA LUMPUR (Mar 13) — Malaysia hopes the European Commission will not submit a proposed ‘delegated act’ to phase out palm oil in biofuels by 2030 in the next EU Parliament session even as the world’s second largest exporter of the commodity has no immediate plan to approach the World Trade Organization to resolve its differences over EU’s move on palm oil exports.

“As member of the WTO, Malaysia has an option to bring this palm oil issue to the Dispute Settlement Body in WTO, but it only can be made if we have the details and clarity of the new law on palm oil from the EU,” International Trade Minister Darrel Leiking said in parliament. “Then only Malaysia and other members that are affected by the ruling can see whether it is against WTO rules.”

The EU Commission is still discussing the so-called delegated act for Indirect Land Use Change, which once approved as law, will have a big impact to the palm oil industry, Leiking said. “So we will wait for more information before we take decision with our counterpart from other countries,” he added. 

Last month, the European Commission said the use of palm oil in motor fuel should be phased out because oil palm cultivation often leads to deforestation. Top palm oil producers Indonesia and Malaysia, which together control about 85% of global oil palm output, have repeatedly voiced their protest against the EU’s move and recently met the EU executive to discuss the issue.

“Our expert team has made a presentation to the European Commission and related bodies. We just hope the European Commission won’t table the delegated act to phase out palm oil in the European Parliament’s sitting in April,” said Teresa Kok, minister of primary industries.

The European Commission published a draft of the delegated act to phase out palm oil but not soybean on Feb. 8, a week later than its original deadline. The commission is expected to finalize the act this week that will give the European Parliament the required two months to review and potentially object to the act. The issue assumes importance as the European parliamentary election will be held in May. 

– By Sarah Nadlin Rohim and Gan Pei Ling

Malaysia ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ Of Members Ending RCEP Talks By Year-End – Ong

© Nikkei Markets

KUALA LUMPUR (Mar 11) — Malaysia, which is currently focussing on a speedy conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, is “cautiously optimistic” that participating countries can conclude talks by this year-end, the deputy international trade minister said Monday. 

“We make slow progress in terms of each session but I’m sure we’ll get to the end,” Ong Kian Ming told reporters on the side lines of an event. “The percentage of goods that will not be charged tariffs, whether it’s 70%, 90%, 80%…the number is still being deliberated by member countries. Some want more, some want less.”

RCEP is a free trade agreement being negotiated between the 10 countries in ASEAN with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s federal cabinet is still discussing pros and cons of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans Pacific, or CPTPP, Ong said. 

In March 2018, Malaysia signed the CPTPP that is expected to account for around 13.5% of global economic output and a market of 500 million people, sharply shriveled from its initial avatar – Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP – which would have covered 40% of the global economy and 800 million people if U.S. had remained as a member of the trading bloc.

Malaysia, which once relied mostly on commodity exports – crude oil and palm oil – to earn precious foreign exchange has steadily turned into electronics manufacturing base for several transnational companies cranking out computers and digital storage devices for global shipments. Electronics and electrical items account for more than a third of Malaysia’s exports, which find ready takers in the region, China as well as in the developed Western markets. Over the years, Malaysia has forged strong trade ties with regional neighbours as well as other Asian power houses such as India and China to keep its factories humming with export orders. 

– By Gan Pei Ling

Malaysia Khazanah To Split Assets Into 2 Funds As Portfolio Value Erodes

© Nikkei Markets

KUALA LUMPUR (Mar 05) — Khazanah Nasional said Tuesday it will split its assets into two funds after the value of its portfolio eroded in 2018, dragging the investment holding arm of the Malaysian government into its first pre-tax loss in a decade.

The company will separate its investments with CIMB Group and Axiata Group among others in the so-called commercial fund, Managing Director Shahril Ridza Ridzuan said in a media briefing. Holdings such as in Telekom Malaysia and Tenaga Nasional will be placed in “strategic fund,” he said. 

The commercial assets will diversify revenue sources for the country, while the strategic assets are expected to generate long-term economic benefits for Malaysia, he said. “We needed to restructure the assets to better meet our mandate and objectives.”

The company is targeting return of 3% above consumer price index on five-year rolling basis for commercial fund portfolio, Shahril said. The strategic fund, meanwhile will aim for return equivalent to 10-year Malaysian government bond yield on a five-year rolling basis and “measurable economic benefits.”

Since sweeping to power in last year’s shock election outcome in May, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has criticized Khazanah for deviating from its so-called initial goal of supporting local enterprises. He appointed Shahril as the new managing director after Azman Mokhtar resigned in July along with the entire board to help an orderly transition under the new government.

The Mahathir-administration, burdened with massive debt, in part arising from multi-billion dollar scandal at state investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Bhd, is relying on hefty dividend payouts from state-run enterprises such as Khazanah and Petroliam Nasional to help fix the government’s strained finances. 

Last year, Khazanah’s realizable asset value fell 13% to 136 billion ringgit ($33.36 billion). Net worth adjusted, Khazanah’s preferred measure of portfolio value after stripping out liabilities and net transfers to the government, declined 22% to 91 billion ringgit.

Khazanah also suffered pre-tax loss amounting to 6.27 billion ringgit due to fewer divestments, reduced dividend income and higher impairments, amid weak capital market conditions. The company booked 7.3 billion ringgit in impairments and 1.4 billion ringgit divestment gains last year.

Following the change in its entire leadership, Khazanah has reviewed and revalued some of its investments in 2018. “The organizational restructuring we are currently undertaking will enable us to execute and deliver on our role of growing Malaysia’s long-term wealth, beginning from this year,” Shahril said. He is confident of returning to profitability this year as Khazanah sharpens focus on executing its portfolio rebalancing strategy, investing 60% in equities, 30% in private companies and 10% in property investments, while strengthening its financial position. 

Apart from listed entities, Khazanah also owns stakes in a mix of privately-held companies that range from national flag carrier Malaysia Airlines to film studio Pinewood Iskandar. It has also invested in semiconductor manufacturer Silterra and Themed Attractions Resort & Hotels that owns Legoland in Malaysia. 

– By Gan Pei Ling
– Edited By Jason Ng