As a former scientist who has entered the world of business, I am often surprised by the advertising used by some companies to convey a healthier, cleaner impression of their product. When it comes to food, a lot of people are well informed. I would think that most people with half an interest in health could scan the ingredients list of a food product and get a pretty clear idea of whether it is healthy or not. But when it comes to cosmetics, it’s a different story, and companies know this.
Some interesting marketing
Something happened this week that left me a little perturbed. A health-conscious friend of mine was super-excited to discover a new hair care brand. The brand claimed to make their products differently, without synthetic ingredients, that left your hair healthier and shinier. There were lots of positive reviews on the website. One site selling the company’s hair products stated:
‘Pure hand crafted hair care products derived from certified organic and biodynamic ingredients, free of all manmade synthetics and toxins.’
Well, that’s pretty exciting. Making shampoos and conditioners without synthetic ingredients is pretty impressive. Actually, impossible, as far as I know.
I took a look at the company’s own website. It stated:
‘Ingredients straight from nature, grown organically and sustainably without chemicals. Ethically harvested and sourced from trusted, transparent plantations, orchards and farms from around the world. Formulated through conscious chemistry; cold-pressed, distilled or otherwise processed without synthetics to preserve purity.’
So what is a synthetic ingredient?
Wikipedia defines a synthetic substance or synthetic compound as: ‘a substance that is man-made by synthesis, rather than being produced by nature. However, it may also refer to a substance or compound formed under human control by any chemical reaction, either by chemical synthesis or by biosynthesis.’
In the world of organic certification, it is defined as ‘a substance which has been formulated or manufactured by a chemical process, and has chemically altered a substance which was derived from a naturally occurring plant, mineral or animal source’.
So by these definitions, coconut oil is natural, but cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine is synthetic, even though coconut oil may have been used to make it. It’s not coconut oil anymore.
It’s easy to be fooled
So let’s look at the ingredients in one of the company’s shampoos.
Water, Aqua- EAU, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside, Glycerin, Glyceryl Stearate SE, Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil*, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter)*, Calophyllum Inophyllum (Tamanu) Oil*, Plumeria Actufolia Flower Extract (Monoi Oil), Hydrolyzed Quinoa, Hydrolyzed Rice Protein, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Cananga Odorata Flower Oil, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil, Salvia Sclarea (Clary) Oil, Vanillin, Pogostemon Cablin Oil, Glycine Soja Oil, Sodium Benzoate, Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Extract, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil*, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Extract*, Taraxacum Officinale (Dandelion) Leaf Extract, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Melissa Officinalis Leaf Extract.
I’ve highlighted in bold all the synthetic ingredients, by the definitions above. Out of 31 ingredients, 9 are synthetic - that’s nearly one third. What’s more, after water, which is the most abundant ingredient, the 4 most abundant ingredients are synthetic, so this product probably contains more synthetic ingredients than natural ingredients, if you don’t count water.
Is there a problem?
It may be that the shampoo is not harmful to human health or the environment, even though it contains numerous synthetic ingredients. It may even be fully biodegradable. However, it’s also possible that some of the synthetic ingredients in this product are harmful, or will in the future be found to be harmful, whereas the advertising led us to believe they were completely natural. At least, that is what how my friend and I interpreted their marketing.
The problem here is not telling the whole truth. The product is not ‘free of all manmade synthetics’, and not all the ingredients are ‘cold-pressed, distilled or otherwise processed without synthetics to preserve purity’. In fact, my friend bought a product which may well be more than 50% synthetic. It is not, as it seemed, a revolutionary shampoo that is completely natural, guaranteed 100% safe for her health and the environment. It is a product not very different from any number of shampoos on the market. The synthetic ingredients it contains could be unsafe for humans and could harm the environment. Her only means of finding out would be to research them herself, or accept the assurances of the manufacturer who misled her in the first place.
How to understand cosmetic labels
Sadly, understanding cosmetic labels is not for the faint-hearted. However, here is a simple rule. When an ingredient is natural and present in its natural form, it will be listed either as its botanical species name, or its common name, or both:
Persea gratissima (Avocado) Oil
Simmondsia chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil
Butyrospermum parkii (Shea Butter)
It’s not always easy to identify a species name, so it’s not straightforward.
If it’s synthetic, it will be identified by its chemical name and look something like this:
Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate
Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate
Sometimes this will be followed by ‘from coconut/sugar/vegetable derived’, meaning it has some input from a natural product. However, please note that there is no guarantee that an ingredient derived from a natural product is not toxic.
What do we do about it?
Unless you’re Donald Trump or Tony Abbott, you probably realise that our planet is in an unhealthy state. Every buying decision we make determines what sort of future we will create for our world. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations (of all species) to become educated about the impact we are having. It is uplifting to see so many people making ethical choices when they buy. However, when companies take advantage of ethical consumers by making claims that are clearly misleading, it is plainly wrong. What’s more, we need to inform the businesses who do mislead us that we won’t be fooled again.