"Clean beauty", "chemical-free", "paraben-free"—these are some skincare products-related tags that we've seen more than ever in the past year. As brands, many of them new, opt for ways to match the demands of today's conscious beauty consumer, it's important to understand what these labels really mean, and what ingredients we should look for when buying a product.
Shivam Goyal, the founder of Dr. Shivam's Skin Center in Jaipur, who specialises in dermatology, cosmetology and permanent makeup, recommends using licensed pharmaceutical products that have undergone safety testing recommended by government authorities. "Glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid are all natural derivatives. If a company is marketing a product as completely organic or 'clean beauty', then the story is being twisted because even pharmaceutical companies are obtaining these compounds from plants. This tag just seems like a marketing gimmick in that case."
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Over the past few months, there have been instances of "natural" skincare products developing moulds or having odd tinge of colour. More than a week ago, a user on Instagram, for example, reported that their bottle of Niacinamide serum by Dr. Sheth's, a popular vegan skincare brand, had developed strange "white" growths. Dr. Sheth's statement on their Instagram page acknowledges three users having this problem with their bottle. As the story went viral on social media, Dr. Sheth's arranged for the products to be picked up from the concerned customers to be tested. They even shared in an Instagram story highlight, "we use natural extracts and there may be minor variations within batches. This is normal and nothing to worry about."
Real or not
When asked about the "preservative-free" marketing and the importance of broad spectrum preservatives, Dr Goyal says: "Some brands are marketing themselves as having no preservatives, which is very harmful because if there are no preservatives then the natural consistency of a chemical and the efficacy along with its shelf life is lost. Without preservatives, you are actually more prone to develop allergies as these bases (like creams) may grow microbes or infectious materials (like moulds)."
He suggests parabens as a safe and cheap preservative.
Mumbai-based Manasi Shirolikar, who's a head dermatologist at Remedico, an online dermatology service, too, recommends parabens. She explains that parabens aren't just one ingredient but a group of compounds—methyl, propyl, ethyl and butyl paraben are the most commonly used versions. They help formulations by stabilising them and decreasing chances of oxidation, she explains.
Dr. Shirolikar insists that "parabens are very less likely to cause allergies and even won the non allergen of the year award in 2019 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. Personally, I would rather have a product with a paraben based preservative, which has been studied extensively than with a new preservative that doesn't have a lot of data."
Dr. Goyal suggests a general precaution to take care of skincare products. "The safest packaging is completely opaque but even reputed big brands have started commonly using dark glass bottles, so what one should do is to keep them in dark and cool environments."
A precaution when buying skincare products from newer homegrown brands recommended by Dr. Shirolikar is to check the packaging's label for a detailed mention of the manufacturing facility.
Further, while "clean beauty" claims to be free of toxins or fragrances, the definition is still unregulated and differs from brand to brand. There is then no guarantee that the products will not irritate your skin. Both the skin experts recommend going for a patch test: apply a small amount on a spot on the arm for a week and check for reactions, like redness or small bumps which could mean that you're allergic to the product.
Some certifications to look out for on natural and organic products' packaging that indicate that they've been through thorough testing are: Ayush Mark for Ayurvedic and Herbal products, regulated by the Ministry of Ayush in India; Ecocert (France); a COSMOS symbol from the Soil Association(UK); USDA - United States Department of Agriculture and NOP - National Organic Program (USA); and BDIH (the German Association of Industrial Companies and Trading Firms). This is not an exhaustive list but brands like SoulTree, Juicy Chemistry and Earth Rhythm are certified by at least one of the above, so it's always worth checking the brand's website for certification before buying a product.