Facts, half-truths, myths – do we know what’s what in ‘free from’ skincare?

The subject of fact in natural skincare is something Michelle and I think about a lot as editors of the SkinsMatter.com site – we want to bring you accurate information, after all – but getting to the bottom of certain issues can be hard, and time consuming. It may not even be possible. Are ‘facts’ facts, half truths or myths? Often, the answer depends on who is assessing them, and the information which they use – and dismiss – to reach a conclusion. None of us is right 100% of the time, and our contributors may see things differently to either or both of us, and to our other contributors. Micki Rose, one of our most dedicated and valued ones, regularly – and graciously – puts up with my disagreements with some of her views, and Michelle and I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on science and alternative therapies either. It doesn’t mean we can’t work together. The three of us happen to be great friends.

We’re as aware as any of the natural bloggers, writers, commentators and manufacturers that there is a lot of green-washing going on out there – and that has been covered widely online already – but what has been catching my eye more recently are some messages coming from those on ‘this’ side of the fence …

Recently, Natracare tweeted us a link to a video. I watched it. You can do so here. It turned out to be their own video, warning how make-up wipes “can leave your skin covered in toxic chemicals that dermatologists agree are bad for your skin”.

Some of the content, which is clearly aimed at women who use conventional products, concerned me and made me think more deeply about issues in skincare and health. I asked Natracare if they could tell me who the purported in-agreement dermatologists were. They didn’t, but founder Susie Hewson did tell me that their source was the Environmental Working Group and, specifically, the information from the Dirty Thirty cosmetics campaign, initiated by Teens Turning Green and supported by EWG.

Unpicking every chemical and the evidence supplied for its so-called toxicity or generic ‘badness’ is an impossible task. And this is a key problem. Who has the energy and time to prove or disprove definitively? There are thousands of ingredients used in skincare – and the qualities and safety of so many are disputed. One organisation or expert says one thing; another, the opposite. Studies are only as useful as the interpretations are accurate – and these are by nature subjective anyway. There are claims; there are counter-claims. Those in the middle end up confused and disengaged. We know some ingredients have larger question marks over them than others – and we exclude these within the Free From Skincare Awards criteria – but disagreements about others can be sanity-testing and paralysing for us, and the consumer.

What too many appear to forget or ignore is that toxicity is not a characteristic of a chemical, but of a chemical at a specific dose. A few hundred atoms of arsenic are not toxic; a few hundred grams of salt is. Studies cited do not always take this into account, and many are (regrettably) performed on animals anyway. It’s worth bearing in mind that chocolate can be toxic to dogs, but – conveniently, albeit quite rightly – we rarely hear health concerns about that …

Who agrees with the EWG? 

It doesn’t take a lot of online detective work to determine that dermatologists are far from in agreement with the EWG over the chemicals which routinely exercise them. Here’s the Center for Accountability in Science, reporting on the dermatologists who disagree strongly with EWG’s assessment of sunscreen products, and here’s another highly critical analysis from the Centre for Organizational Research and Education.

To be clear, this isn’t to wholly dismiss the EWG – we have used their Skin Deep resource ourselves, and it has its uses if you approach it with the precaution that the science may not always be the most secure – but the point is this: EWG has its critics. A lot of them. And dermatologists are in no conceivable way in broad agreement with them.

Natracare’s other claim that “everything you put on the skin gets absorbed into the body” seems at odds with how the skin works. Our friend and Award judge Sarah at Sugarpuffish recently blogged about whether we absorb 60% of what we put on our skin. In so doing, she reminded me of a terrific blog by Lorraine Dallmeier from Herb and Hedgerow, and drew our attention to another exceptional (and often funny) post from Siam Botanicals’ Polly Fox. All posts are worth your time.

In case there’s any doubt, we really are fans of Natracare products. We have told our readers about them many times before, we feature them on our site, and Micki is presently working on an investigative piece on feminine hygiene, which will no doubt include them and their many exceptional natural and organic qualities.

But I struggle with messages which appear designed to instil fear in consumers. Natural ingredients and cosmetics are great not because they’re not ‘toxic’. They’re great because they’re great, and using them offers many benefits, not least ethical and environmental. Can’t we hear more about that, please? Can we not win people over that way?


  1. Micki

    Hi Alex, great post there and thank you for mentioning me :). I have wittered on about ‘toxic’ toiletries now for about 17 years. It struck me as I was reading this post that things have moved on enormously in very recent times. I think we used to think there were so many potential toxins in so-called ‘natural’ toiletries and the dichotomy between being natural and potentially toxic was a source of great annoyance to me and many others; that’s where our ire was focused.

    Now, though, there are many more ‘good’ and actually much more ‘natural’ toiletries on the market, the differentiating factor has to now be are they any good to use, are they good value etc? I think this is fabulous news, actually, because it means that we are comparing like for like with standard toiletries not aimed at the ‘natural’ market, which is a sign of a market evolving to me. (And, by the way, I am putting the word ‘natural’ in quotes because I don’t like the word – all nature is chemicals; it’s a question of dose, as you say, and of potential harm.) I have now largely stopped wittering on now because the question is not so urgent in my mind; there is loads of choice for whatever someone is looking for in a ‘natural’ toiletry product.

    And thanks for the reminder about the feminine hygiene piece; am slowly gathering info and will get it together soon!

    1. Alex (Post author)

      Thanks, Micki. It wasn’t a nag about the feminine hygiene piece, I promise. Easy going editors, M and I ….
      I like the idea of an evolving market too, where we can just focus on (I’ll follow your style) ‘natural’ products and their qualities (or shortcomings), as we do in the Free From Skincare Awards, on the whole.

  2. Sarah

    When I first moved away from the big mainstream brands and took an interest in natural ingredients, my motivation was partly led by reading about “toxic ingredients & we absorb 60% of the chemicals/skincare”. I still have concerns about ingredients in connection to eczema/allergies but I realise that I have to question some of the claims I see online. I would like to see a move away from scare tactics and market products on their own merits as you have said “Natural ingredients and cosmetics are great not because they’re not ‘toxic’. They’re great because they’re great, and using them offers many benefits, not least ethical and environmental”

    1. Alex (Post author)

      I agree – and with regard to eczema too, which is a whole other ball game. I wonder whether scare tactics work anyway. Do they convince those on the ‘other’ side to move to ‘natural’? Or do they merely reinforce those already on ‘this’ side to stay put here? I wonder whether there’s been any research on it …

  3. Pingback: FreeFrom Companies: Beware – and play fair | Allergy Insight

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.