USE OF NATURAL OR “ORGANIC” GROOMING PRODUCTS ARE ON THE RISE, BUT ARE THE CLAIMS ABOUT THEM VALID?
Nontoxic living took on greater urgency for millions of people with the phthalate scares in recent years. Products made of plastics containing this substance, in plastics holding our beverages, grooming products and toys we allow children to chew on, often contain this substance, which can have a serious effect on the human endocrine system.
This is just one example of a man made chemical that may pose a threat to human health, raising the question: What other chemicals are in our homes and on and in our bodies that might have adverse effects? American adults carry hundreds of synthetic chemicals in their bodies, says Brian Buckley, laboratory director at Rutgers University’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. Writer Arianne Cohen interviewed Buckley for a story she wrote on the chemical load typically carried in the average American body. A 2004 study she cites from the British Medical Journal says, “It is clear that environmental and lifestyle factors are key determinants of human disease, accounting for perhaps 75 percent of most cancers.”
This hairlosschat.com article looks at grooming, the nature of the products with which we clean ourselves and enhance our appearance. With greater scientific data and an exploding natural products industry, it’s a good moment to ask if are there benefits to using all-natural or organic products and if such products are what they claim to be.
Do we need man-made chemicals in our grooming products?
As an aside, note that there are many herbal remedies from various folk medicine traditions that purport to improve scalp and hair health, and some even claim to be able to prevent hair loss. They include saw palmetto (which might reduce androgen activity in the hair follicle), green tea (might reduce testosterone in women), licorice extract, horsetail, apple cider vinegar and sage tea (used in combination), psoralea seeds and ginger (drunk as tea or applied directly to the scalp).*
Beyond hair, there is a growing market for all types of grooming products made from all-natural ingredients. Scant clinical evidence proves the efficacy of any such method, as is the case with almost all traditional (non-Western) medicines — which is to say these may or may not work (no one knows).
But it’s logical that all products touching our hair, skin and the insides of our mouths be free of man made chemicals.
Several national brands of personal grooming products are sold in specialty stores and on the Internet: Tom’s of Maine, Burt’s Bees and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. They collectively sell soaps, hair conditioners, lip and body balms, body lotions, shaving gels, infant skin care, toothpastes, deodorants, mouthwash, dental floss, solid perfumes and colognes, and sunscreen.
Each of these three leading brands offers a folksy identity: Note how the names conjure the image of a Tom, a Burt and a Dr. Bronner tinkering away to develop new soap concoctions. Web sites for each company offer a complete mom-and-pop-like history and ample information on how they keep their products natural or organic, along with social justice components that include fair trade practices and sustainable farming sourcing. And each provides ample information on its sourcing, packaging and other factors of interest to the green consumer.
Natural, organic products are not rocket science, so certain claims can be verified.
It’s almost impossible to prove or disprove how any of their products affect human health, as it is with all food and furnishings claiming a chemical-free constitution. Consumers presumably take it on an article of faith.
But this is soap, not rocket science. Organic claims should be something that can be verified, for the benefit of consumers and the industry itself. Laura Stravino, director of Development and Strategic Initiatives for the Organic Trade Association (OTA), said in 2009 that indiscriminate or misuse of the term “organic” was beginning to “cast a shadow over all of organic.”
An attempt to provide clarity to consumers was made in 2002 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program when it first released standards for personal care products. But since then the government has not enforced the standards. Personal care products that contain certifiably organic agricultural ingredients are allowed to claim “organic ingredients,” but there is no official oversight or prosecution of violations.
Out of frustration with this government laxity, a consortium comprised of OTA, Whole Foods Market and the National Cooperative Grocers Association has written guidelines that will require meeting certain standards for personal care products by June 2011. The guidelines will be voluntary but could be the standard applied by major retailers working to build their own organic brand credibility with consumers. Going a step further, the OTA board of directors publicly called for mandatory federal regulation of organic claims on personal care products.
If government mandates go through, it could change the landscape of the 10,000 products currently claiming organic ingredients. Some may meet the standards, and some may not — but at least consumers could have greater confidence in what they’re putting on their skin, in their hair and into their mouths.
*Note that in an article on WebMD, Michael Reed, M.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine, writes that some synthetic hair care products may cause breakage, not long-term hair loss. But for anyone striving to make the most of the hair they have left, unnecessary breakage is certainly not welcome.