Cosmetics advertised as natural and organic are a several billion-dollar beauty market, but those labels don’t mean much, experts say.
Actress Jessica Alba has benefited from the growing demand for wholesome items as her business, The Honest Company, has obtained a billion-dollar valuation. Major personal-care companies are rolling out “natural” products packaged with green letters and pictures of plants.
Shoppers can paint their nails with vegan nail polish, shine their lips with gloss made from goji berries or rouge their cheeks with mineral-based powders.
The global organic personal-care market was worth over $8 billion in 2013, according to market research firm Grand View Research. North America generated 35 percent of the revenue share that year, analysts found. They estimate that the sector will reach $20 billion by 2020.
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Natural hair dyes are now being marketed in major organic retailers like Whole Foods, which sells Naturtint and Herbatint. Even CVS and Walgreens have slightly more “green” options by household names like Clairol Natural Instincts and Shea Moisture.
While these products promote ingredients like coconut oil, olive oil or shea butter, the extent to which they are natural is debatable and loosely regulated.
Actual chemists agreed to comb through a list of 25 ingredients that were commonly present in the aforementioned brands to determine whether or not the ingredients in these hair dyes were as natural as the packaging indicated.
What they found was that most of the ingredients listed in the dyes may be based on naturally occurring compounds but most were synthesized or heavily processed from their original form.
Michelle Francl, a chemist at Byrn Mawr College, said it would be hard to call the ingredients “natural.”
“Most of this stuff is produced in a plant,” she said.
Acrylates copolymer, which is synthetic, can be used as a binder in skin and hair products or as an emulsion stabilizer.
Art Rich, a cosmetic chemist, said there are only a few ingredients that are actually part of the hair dyeing process. That’s the case for many skin and hair care products. “An acne cream has many ingredients, but only two work on the acne,” he said.
Rich examined the same list as Francl and ranked them on a scale from 1 to 4, the lowest number meaning the product was natural with little processing to the highest ranking meaning it was completely synthetic.
All four dyes had at least one synthetic material, and all four shared the same one: etidronic acid.
Etidronic acid, which is also used in some cleaning products, allows them to remain intact in water. It’s also used in many soaps and shampoos.
Francl said the naturalness and hazard of nearly every ingredient boils down to molecular chemistry. “To a chemist, it’s about structure,” she said. “The structure of a molecule determines what it does and how dangerous it is.”
Karla Siereveld is the Clairol Research & Development principal researcher. She said the Natural Instincts line was developed as a healthier alternative to other hair dyes offered by the company. The company has added naturally occurring oils and has removed ammonia from the formula.
International Trade Routes of New York distributes Naturtint. Brenda Boice, president of the company, said Naturtint had to reformulate some of its ingredients to comply with California’s Proposition 65 and the strict ingredients standards for Whole Foods. Proposition 65 requires California to state the chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm in each product.
“Naturtint is not 100 percent natural but is a great alternative to conventional hair color brands,” she said.
It’s difficult to determine how natural a product really is since the FDA doesn’t have an operating definition of “natural” when it comes to cosmetic labeling, and the USDA regulates the term “organic” only as it applies to agricultural products.
A product can, however, be certified under the USDA’s National Organic Program by a USDA-accredited organic certifying agent. After certification, the product can be labeled with one of four categories: 100 percent organic, organic, made with organic ingredients and less than 70 percent organic.
However, both Francl and Sierveld pointed out that it’s pretty difficult to have a hair dye that’s going to be all-natural.
“To deposit color onto the hair, you have to have peroxide, and you’ll also have to have an alkalizer,” said Sierveld. “You have to have those two ingredients, which are very far from being natural.”
Francl said if people want to color their hair in the most natural way possible, they should use henna, mineral powders or lemon juice mixed with sun exposure.
“To take the color out of your hair and put new color or to cover up the color is a nasty chemical process,” she said.