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Published on: 11/29/03 9:40 AM

Feature: Are Herbal Cosmetics Really and Truly Natural?

Really and truly natural?

Cosmetics that proclaim they are herbal and natural could well do with a closer look. 

Oh, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water, I’m not tarring all natural cosmetics with a
brush of suspicion. I am myself an enthusiastic user of both botanical and chemical-based cosmetics. And one is happy to believe that the more reputed a manufacturing concern, the less they would like to muddy the waters and risk losing the consumers’ goodwill.

However, in these days of unalloyed contamination, it pays to be careful. Natural and herbal-based cosmetics claim to be better than the ordinary chemical-infused products a woman uses on her face, skin, lips and eyes. The former don’t use artificial dyes,scents or preservatives, or so they say. However, all the hoo-haa about botanicals could blur some facts about their relevance and efficacy.

India, of course, has a rich tradition of plant-based medicines and cosmetics. Extracts from the leaves, stem, roots and flowers of herbs and plants have been used to great effect in Unani, Ayurveda and indeed, has spawned an ancient but revived branch of Herbology. So much so that people are willing to blindly believe that all plant-based stuff is safer than the run-of-the-mill cosmetics.

A product can be called botanical only if 50 per cent of its ingredients are plant extracts. Here
is where the unscrupulous elements enter, selling ‘botanical’ creams and lotions which sometimes
have less than 10 per cent of plant-based ingredients. It helps them, of course, that as a nation, we are still not too careful when it comes to reading the fine print on packaging.

Plant extracts are undoubtedly superior to chemical-based ingredients. They are complex and tough to duplicate, with a distinct smell and texture. The moot point is, when a manufacturer claims a plant-based hair product tames tresses better just because it is made of plant extracts, it need not be true. This fudging of basic facts extends to aromatic oils that profess to calm nerves, decrease stress levels or relax limbs. Part of the claim and its acceptance both, is psychosomatic, part based on our rich history of plant-based healing.

Let’s look at some of the more popular herbs and its attributed benefits. Aloe vera, say herbalists,
is an excellent healer of sundry wounds but can cause allergy if used in large doses. Calendula is supposed to cure warts, chamomile to cure insomnia, eucalyptus is a stimulant; evening primrose helps heal atopic eczema and jojoba is a lubricant.

Lavender is supposed to balance the nervous system, peppermint’s menthol effect is a coolant,
sage has astringent properties, shea butter is an efficacious sunscreen and witch hazel, an excellent astringent. Well, dermatologists refuse to give any of the above plants unqualified approval, with the exception of witch hazel, saying that indiscriminate use of plant extracts can do more harm than good. At best, say these skin specialists, most of these herbs and plants assist in healing skin conditions.

Well anyway, you anoint your bath water with some peppermint oil and emerge minutes later,
feeling refreshed and content. Now is that the mind taking control over the body? The jury is
still out on that. Likewise, aloe vera and lanolin is a proven skin-soother in cases of inflammation
or burs; however, it is yet to be proved that these plant extracts deposit benefits on smooth and unblemished skin.

Of course, it probably doesn’t do any harm, since most savvy manufacturers always err on the side of caution and use very limited amounts of these extracts.

Then again, one must remember, the absence of harm does not always equal benefit, does it?

Plant extracts are by no means inexpensive so most of these natural products, the top-draw ones that is, invariably cost more than your other cosmetics.

Aromatherapists will tell you that it takes 2,000 kilos of rose petals to make a kilo of oil. While these products are biodegradable, they do have a limited shelf life in the case of lotions and creams. Add to that the time and effort in locating and processing these extracts, and overheads for the ‘different’ packaging, though no one will admit to that.

Another blurring occurs when it comes to the chemical-botanical mix. Dermatologists will tell you that if you dip your unsterilised finger into a jar of botanical cream, you are only helping bacteria flourish. The result will show on your face and the pot of cream. So, some synthetic preservatives are invariably added to keep the product from changing colour, consistency or separating, to ensure you can leave it around in the sun or inside a dark drawer without it going bad.

As a process, this is pragmatic, useful and not in the least harmful because years of experimentation has eliminated toxic chemicals, but manufacturers just don’t talk about these things because it dilutes that image of pure, plant-based creams and lotions for you to soak in.

So there you have it: plant-based, no animal testing done, eco-friendly, with some proceeds even going to charity. Yes, there is a peculiar paradox here; the run for natural and herbal cosmetics is increasingly plundering the earth’s resources. Well, no one is talking about that, either.


fakesgenuineherbal cosmeticsnatural beauty

Sheila Kumar • November 29, 2003

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