On America’s obsession with the “natural”

Jumpers, as some of you may know, I’m a girl with sensitive skin and a ton of weird [not properly diagnosed] allergies. I also try to be healthy (most days—don’t ask about my recent head-cold-induced sugar cravings). As such, I’m always down to learn about a new line of things claiming to be better for you. I usually find myself disappointed, however, by the pseudoscience and buzzwords that pass for health knowledge. Two recent occurrences prompted this rant; one was a facial party featuring a line of botanical products, the other is a newfound fascination with fragrances. Here’s what’s up:

Synthetics are safe? How can I ever trust again?!

Raw sugar is still sugar and you still shouldn’t drink the perfumes.

“Synthetic” does not automatically equate to “toxin,” “poison,” “allergen,” etc.

Reading a wonderful book called The Perfect Scent, I learned that much of the commercial world is, er, confused about synthetics. So much so that there is a strong and illogical push to deny the use of them even though they define modern perfume. (Chanel No. 5, anyone?)

Synthetics are usually isolated compounds pulled out of naturals to give perfumers more control, the environment a break, and people with sensitive skin less to worry about. If anything, they are safer and far more eco-friendly on the whole than naturals. Researchers are constantly testing the safety of cosmetic ingredients and regulators, especially in the EU, are quick to ban questionable synthetics, just as they are with naturals like oakmoss; furthermore, synthetics let us mimic the scent of banned naturals and keep prices down so that even we plebes can enjoy the most exotic accords.

But they’re not “natural,” so they must be evil, right? Take, for instance, this comment on Creed’s blog:

I am super into natural ingredients and like that you use the most natural. Please do advise me if the synthetic you use is a preservative. So these are merely there to prevent the oils from breaking down? Just want to make sure I understand the type of synthetic used. I am sure you have done the necessary research to choose the least or not harmful blend.

*Facepalm.* Creed does use a lot of high-quality naturals—and their prices reflect this—but the synthetics they use are likely to be very safe and mostly there for aesthetic reasons, to this customer’s chagrin. Perfumers, like surgeons, are able to work wonders with precise tools; synthetics allow for so much more control, stability, and complexity than naturals, yet we have trouble accepting their beauty.

And then there’s the idea that “chemical” is the antonym of “natural”…

At the aforementioned facial party, I mentioned my sensitive skin to the lovely rep and she assured me that the company adheres to the stricter EU standards regarding banned ingredients, even for its operations in North America. As she went through her presentation, she noted that their [botanical] anti-aging products contain sunscreen and I mentioned that I am allergic to chemical sunscreen (which, technically is the only kind of sunscreen, the alternative being “sunblock,” which I use). After her talk, and because I’m so fair, she recommended the line as a way to protect against sun damage and I said that I would check it out in the catalog, but I remained skeptical. Sure enough, I’m crazy allergic to the ingredients that were listed, sometimes marketed under the brand name “Helioplex,” which is just as well since one of them is a photosensitizer that may increase the risk of melanoma. She was flabbergasted and because the ingredients were “all natural” and such, but turns out there are chemicals in nature. Lots and lots and lots of them. In fact, carrageenan, that additive that some folks are up in arms about, is just an extract from seaweed.

My mom is totally on this bandwagon, so I find myself reminding her when she refuses to take a prescription because she “[doesn’t] want all those chemicals in her body” that snake venom is all-natural, too. I’m not saying there isn’t a problem with overprescribing in the U.S. or that the medicinal version of cutting off your nose to spite your face isn’t where a lot of treatment still stands (surely you’ve heard of chemotherapy); I’m just saying that, for instance, all those plant estrogen products available over the counter are still a type of hormone replacement therapy and they only thing that might make them safer is the lower levels of the active ingredients.

“If it’s not processed, it’s not bad for you!”

One of my favorite quotes from Gossip Girl is from Vanessa’s mom: “I don’t use sugar; I only use agave.” Hah. I can’t tell if the writers want us to think that she’s laughable or if they think their viewers are, but for anyone who’s ever looked at the nutrition facts on agave nectar, honey, brown rice syrup, etc., it’s readily apparent that each is just sugar in a suspension. I assure you, your family history of diabetes does not care whether you snort Dominos confectioners’ sugar or gulp agave nectar; sugar is sugar. You can certainly prefer the labor practices, wages paid the farmers, taste, or any number of other factors from one option to the next, but let’s not kid ourselves that sugar isn’t sugar.

I hope to see a turn toward fact-based health and beauty discussions soon. I’m tired of shampoos telling me that they “[go] to hair’s cellular level.” (As opposed to, what, avoiding it? Going to the basement level?) I’m tired of aqueous coconut products being marketed as anything other than delicious sugar water with some marginal health benefits. I’m tired of being expected to think that petroleum jelly is just a “gross” byproduct of oil extraction with a marketing machine behind it, when it’s actually almost as good as Crisco at keeping my lipid-barrier-lacking hands protected during Chicago winters. (In fact, if it works and it’s safe, I don’t discriminate; I rub “all-natural!” butter and oils into my hands when I’m cooking, too.) I’m tired of being told that my perfume, specifically, might be poisoning me or something because it contains “synthetics!” that I’m not allergic to, while no one cares that, unless they specifically avoid them, synthetics perfume their every soap, shampoo, detergent, cleaner, lotion, and so forth. You should see my hands after cleaning, like, anything–I promise there are bigger fish in there than the fragrance.

And with that, Jumpers, I’m going to go make my synthetically-perfumed self some hot tea with that ultra-high-glycemic raw sugar and all-natural Madagascar vanilla extract. (No, seriously.)

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