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Do we really know what goes into organic skincare products?

Or, why I fell back on my mother and grandmother's home-made skincare rituals

In India, cosmetic companies are under no obligation to provide detailed information on ingredients
In India, cosmetic companies are under no obligation to provide detailed information on ingredients (Seksak Kerdkanno/Pixabay )

Organic skincare is the hottest new trend cutting through the noise of the skincare market in India. Brands like Disguise Cosmetics, Ras Luxury Oils, Biotique, Himalaya Herbals, Kama Skincare, Khadi Essentials, Mom & Company, Plum Goodness, Jovees, Indus Valley, Forest Essentials and many many more cater to the ever-growing conscious Indian consumer who wants to feed their family organic food, buy naturally made personal products and overall, strive towards a mindful lifestyle.

Organic cosmetics have received a lot of attention in the recent past, despite their steeper price points. After all, the skin is the body’s biggest organ and absorbs over 60% of all the products we use on it. In the case of lip balms, lipsticks and chapsticks, we end up ingesting over 3.2 kg of these products over a lifetime.

This begs the question: do we actually know what goes into products we buy that claim to be organic? While homegrown brands have certainly benefited from the gap in the market with a cultural revolution that began in the West and has solidified in the East, the problems at play here are two-fold: how are the products any different from the ones stocked in our grandmother’s shelves and kitchens? And, how do we really know that these products are organic?

In India, unlike Europe or the USA, cosmetic companies are under no legal obligation to provide consumers with information on the ingredients used in their products. There is a certain risk of having petroleum-derived emulsifiers and stabilizers in creams and lotions, chemical preservatives to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination and chemical compounds for scents. Without legal parameters, Indian organic make-up companies can often resort to smoke and mirror labelling, with no real legal recourse for consumers, in case things were to go wrong.

Dermatologists are seeing a rise in allergic reactions to products labelled ‘natural,’ especially those with heady scents of lavender and jasmine. Researchers have compiled a list of roughly 80 plant-based oils that can trigger allergic reactions. And since plant-based or organic products are not tested on animals, it’s harder to determine what a user might react like, without patch tests.

“In a market like India where herbal and ayurvedic hair and skin care has a legacy of usage (for example, henna, bhringraj or brahmi oil, or herbal face packs), awareness and benefits of herbal or botanical ingredients is high,” says Priyanka Bagde, a Euromonitor International survey analyst.

“Millennials are leading this trend; they are increasingly seeking the natural, untouched, unmade-up look from their beauty care products. As they become savvier about ‘green’ choices, we are seeing a marked shift in preferences in favour of natural products,” says Praveen Jaipuriar, marketing head-personal care of Dabur.

A significant demand in this sector is the need for products that suit Indian skin and hair. Ishika Srivastava, a designer and animator based out of New Delhi, had a bad experience with a shampoo from a luxury skincare brand that led to drying out of her scalp and a break-out. She’s switched to Johnson’s & Johnson’s baby shampoo since. Ishanou Mohindra, a designer based out of Florence, sticks to Kiehl’s unscented cream for the face and believes skincare is more diet-related. Diya Gupta, a journalist based out of New Delhi, says, “When I was in college, I was using a lot of products with essential oils, AHAs and BHAs, made with witch hazel and such, that caused me milia (small white bumps on the skin) by stripping my skin barrier and depleting my skin of any hydration. Meeting with a dermatologist, using old-school, regulated chemicals is what has helped my skin get back to some kind of normalcy.”

In India, the fastest growing consumer market in the world, the meteoric demand of the organic skincare coupled with lax legal obligations can lead to a lack of responsibility on the company’s part to correctly label their products. While there is a difference between a product labelled organic or natural, since organic products claim to use no chemicals whatsoever, it’s hard to verify due to the lack of autonomous Indian bodies, like the FDA in America, that can confirm this.

My mother and her mother, well into their 50s and 80s, both possess luminous skin. Naturally, I asked them about their skincare routine. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been a staunch believer in using home-made rose water as toner and glycerin as face cream. On special occasions, I would use a scrub made of dal, oats and a little haldi or yogurt, honey and egg white to brighten my skin up. I only started using packaged face cream when I saw you and kids your age buying these products. I oil my hair with coconut oil every weekend and eat 4-5 portions of vegetables a day. That’s kept me healthy and beautiful so far,” my mother said. My grandmother’s routine is a little less extensive: “I wash my face twice a day, use glycerin before bed and drink a lot of water.”

Alina Gufran is a Goa-based wellness writer and podcaster

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