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Toxic or Therapeutic: What Indian Natural Skincare Industry Isn’t Telling You

The author decided to dig in and uncover the backstory of natural skin care products - to understand their formulations and assess their safety. But the more I dug deeper, the more dirt I found

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The word natural brings with it a certain kind of charm, almost a fondness. Especially to us Indians, living in a country laden with ancient herbal remedies and grandma’s homemade therapies, something “natural” feels even more personal. But we aren’t alone. There’s almost a revolution underway globally, with natural and organic skincare and cosmetics paving their way through the myriad of commercial chemically laden products. Consumers are getting more alert, more aware. According to Grand View Research, more and more consumers are looking out for natural and organic labels and the global organic beauty market is projected to reach $15.9 bn by 2020. A survey by Statista revealed that more than 59% of consumers prefer natural or organic skincare products. Natural means less toxicity and more therapeutic, potent and safe solutions for our skin and health. We think we are getting smarter, making better choices. But are we really?

It was about a year ago, when I started getting obsessive. Obsessive about skincare formulations – about uncovering what “really” goes in to my products. You see, I developed a skin sensitivity towards silica. While silica is a ubiquitous ingredient and generally deemed safe, it still reacted with my skin. That’s what sparked my foray in to the world of natural skin care and cosmetics products - and switched my attention from “marketing labels” to “ingredient labels”.

I decided to dig in and uncover the backstory of natural skin care products - to understand their formulations and assess their safety. But the more I dug deeper, the more dirt I found.

How Marketing Labels Mislead

In India, many products branded with “natural”, “herbal” or “organic” are often using just a few natural extracts and ingredients to stake that claim – i.e. the actual natural ingredients often comprise a minor percentage of the product. Rest of the so-called natural product is often filled with cheap, filler synthetics and chemicals such as mineral or paraffin oil and possibly harmful preservatives and artificial colors and fragrances. We are misled to think that the product is all or mostly natural but it is precisely the other way around - it’s often only a tiny bit natural (~ < 5%). The majority of the product ingredients are primarily synthetic and often controversial. But this is just the beginning.

How Ingredient Labels Conceal

Another challenge lies in the lack of transparency in ingredient labeling. Although, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has specified guidelines for full ingredient labeling, many brands in India don’t reveal a complete list of their ingredients. You seemingly get an all-natural product labeled with just “key ingredients”. These key ingredients are often just few natural ingredients that appear attractive, but likely form a small part of the product. Rest of the ingredients are shielded from the consumer under the garb of proprietary formulation or with a blatant disregard for he consumer’s “right to know”.

Decoding Ingredient Labels
If you flip over to the backside of a Patanjali cream container, you’ll see an ingredient listed as “cream base”. What is this cream base exactly? Patanjali doesn’t disclose this at all. (I reached out to Patanjali but received no response.) The “cream base”, in all likelihood, forms 60-80% of the product. Khadi follows a practice of listing only a few basic “key ingredients” as well – their cream reveals only the extracts and oils – no list of emulsifiers or preservatives are provided – ingredients that actually turn oils and water in to a stable cream. Dabur’s Almond Oil turns out, is primarily mineral oil. Mineral oil doesn’t hurt, but it contains none of the therapeutic properties of plant based carrier oils such as almond oil (almond oil for instance, is rich in Vitamin E and healthy fatty acids that nourish the skin and hair). I am not stating that Dabur should ban mineral oiI - I am asking them to not disguise what they are selling.

Why Should We Care?
This issue is absolutely preposterous and warrants urgent consumer attention. In a class action lawsuit, Johnson and Johnson was ordered to pay $4.7 billion in damages – its “talc” powders had traces of toxic asbestos that caused ovarian cancer among several women. Wen, a hair products company received over 21,000 complaints from consumers claiming hair fall issues caused by the company’s products.

Point is that, many synthetics and chemicals that are used in skincare products can often be toxic, have carcinogenic tendencies and disrupt the skin’s natural barrier and cause skin irritations. But many of such chemicals are still in use because they are often cheap and work as filler ingredients – natural ingredients are harder to produce and cost a lot more. Not all synthetics are bad, many are safe and actually help the skin. But until brands are held accountable, you as a consumer will never know whether you are applying a product that is toxic or therapeutic.

Can We Adopt Better Global Standards?
In US and EU, and pretty much rest of the world, brands reveal full ingredient lists of their products. No brand can get away with listing only key ingredients or generic terms like “cream base” in their products. Why? Because a) the market is better monitored and follows strict standards and b) the consumer is much more aware and simply won’t have it any other way.

Consumers have a right to know what they are consuming. It’s vital that full ingredient listing is made mandatory for brands in India and that consumers demand it. And, I am asking us to become more conscious and learn whether the product we are spending our money on is really natural or just disguised as such.

Now I’d like to try and get this issue under the attention of the relevant government authorities such as BIS, CDSO and FDA in India. But you as well as I know that this could take a while. In the meanwhile, I am urging you to demand transparency, to choose ingredient labels over marketing labels – to become consumers who simply won’t have it any other way.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Manika Bahuguna

Manika is a Delhi-based skincare entrepreneur who is developing natural, sustainable and high quality products for the modern consumer. With her venture, she is bringing together her international experiences in consulting and start-ups, her MBA education and her passion for green living, together. She is also striving to create wider awareness about healthy lifestyle choices and avoiding harmful products commercially available today.

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