How often have you placed things back on the supermarket shelf or beauty brand counter because the list of ingredients consisted mainly of hard-to-pronounce names of chemicals? In a market where terms like ‘natural’, ‘herbal’, and ‘organic’ are the by-words everyone swears by, anything that sounds even a wee-bit ‘chemical’ is seen as suspect.
Yet, the last couple of years have seen brands and entrepreneurs venturing into the Indian skincare market with products that are wholly made in laboratories with chemical formulations, and they want to tell the Indian consumer that not all chemicals are bad for you.
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“When you are talking about chemical skincare, you are talking about products like facial peels, facial kits or ingredients like glycolic acid. Now if you look at it, glycolic acid’s origin is sugarcane, so how much chemical do you think you are going to get out of sugarcane at the end of the day? When we say lactic acid, we are actually talking about extracts from fermented milk products, while salicylic acid is usually extracted from wintergreen leaves —now, how toxic can wintergreen tree be?” wonders Bengaluru-based cosmetic dermatologist Dr Chytra Anand, talking about how vague information can affect perceptions. “Over the years, the communication around ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ products became about them being ‘chemical-free’, while it really should have been that they were ‘toxin-free’.”
Young Indian skincare brand Minimalist intends to clear the misconception that chemicals are bad for the skin. “There is a misconception that 100% natural is safe and effective and anything that sounds like a chemical is unsafe. This is completely wrong,” reads a statement on their website. While the statements sound confident, Rahul Yadav, COO & co-founder of the brand, reveals that for a short period before the launch, they did have a few misgivings. “We had the conviction that this (science-based skincare) was a category that could do well based on multiple quantitative and qualitative data points like where the searches/trends were going, but overall, it still felt like it could be a niche space and that a significant part of the user-base may outright reject us by saying that ‘natural is safe’,” Yadav says. So how did they beat those initial doubts? “Thinking from my chemical engineer mindset, we decided to sell the solution to the problem (skin issues) in the most efficient, safest manner possible,” he explains, which meant “calibrating and calculating the concentration of ingredients you want (be it salicylic acid, lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, oleic acid, vitamin C, or vitamin B3) and getting it done in the safest environment.”
Dr Anand, who owns SkinQ, an active-ingredients based skincare range designed especially for Indian skin, says that ‘natural’ is not always best. Using Vitamin C as an example, she says that compared to the extract of the vitamin taken from a natural source like orange, lime or kakkadu plum, a chemical formulation of vitamin C made from ascorbic acid or ethyl ascorbic acid in the lab is more potent. “Vitamin C from an orange or lemon tends to oxidise faster if left in the open,” she says. Talking about the work that goes behind making effective products, Anand says, “It’s not about putting a bunch of ingredients together. The product has to be stable, the pH has to be right for the Indian skin. There are so many nuances to be considered.”
The absence of products that were consultation-driven and customised to individual skincare needs encouraged Mumbai-based entrepreneur Vandini Gupta to get the French skincare brand Mary Cohr, which combines natural and chemical ingredients, to India. Gupta believes that the right way to go about taking care of your skin is to “use products that are recommended after consultation from a skin expert” instead of making false distinctions.
Some of the newer brands entering the skincare market seem to understand that simply throwing around terms like ‘natural’ and ‘chemical-free’ is not enough. “These terms are loosely used and the definition of ‘natural’ is vague,” says Aarti Gill, co-founder and CEO of wellness and nutrition brand OZiva, which recently launched a new line of plant-based skin and haircare products called OZiva Clean Beauty. “Consumers also believe that a product with a ‘natural’ tag is good and safe for your skin. However, that is not always the case. It’s important to balance nourishment and safety with efficacy,” says Gill.