When Nature Meets Science

Green is good. But is it good enough? Therein lies the rub for environmentally aware consumers who expect high levels of efficacy from their beauty products.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 02/13/2009

Green is good. But is it good enough? Therein lies the rub for a generation of environmentally aware consumers who also expect the highest levels of efficiacy from their beauty products.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Ellen is about as green as they come. She’s never known the taste of meat, buys only organic veggies and has a penchant for natural fibers, clothingwise. When she buys something, Ellen likes to verify its provenance, since certain countries’ manufacturing practices don’t live up to her ethical standards.

Yet something unforeseen happened recently, which has to do with beauty.

“Since growing up with Weleda, The Body Shop and fennel-flavored toothpaste, I’ve mostly stuck to organic skin care products,” says the Paris-based 27-year-old. “But when more people started addressing me as madame rather than mademoiselle, I decided to buy an antiaging serum I’d heard was a sellout in the U.K. and that a colleague told me was really good.”

Ellen began using Boots’ No. 7 Serum, a decidedly high-tech alternative, and with the move, joined the legion of consumers trooping across the natural/non-natural products divide, willing to forgo their ideals for efficacy.

“We’ve found that globally, women want results [from their products],” says Jenny Belknap, vice president of global marketing at Origins. “If they can get results from a natural, organic product, they’ll choose that. But if they can’t, they’ll stick with the traditional product.”

Procter & Gamble has discovered something similar. “Women want the choice of natural organic products, but they don’t want it with any tradeoffs,” says Jenny Rushmore, sustainability leader, P&G Beauty & Grooming. “And the main tradeoff is performance.”

Such consumers have been dubbed the “sustainable mainstream,” and research shows that about 65 percent of women belong to the group.

A recent study by The NPD Group revealed comparable data. “Whether it’s makeup, skin care or body care, more than half of consumers are saying they’re using [natural] products in addition to their existing [conventional] products,” says Karen Grant, senior global industry analyst and vice president, citing as an example that 60 percent of those who say they use natural makeup also use regular makeup. For its study, NPD defined “natural” as what consumers perceive as such.
“The number-one thing that consumers are telling us about [natural] products is they feel they’re safer for them, safer to use on their skin, that they’re better for their health,” continues Grant.

“Today, even more than in previous years, consumers live in a world of fear—for their personal safety, the future of our planet, their economic conditions—and that has had an impact on the way they purchase products,” agrees industry consultant Leïla Rochet Podvin, founder of Cosmetics Inspiration and Creation.

NPD says natural beauty is most popular among the 18- to 34-year-old set. Some 32 percent of women older than 18 queried in the U.S. said they use organic beauty products, and of those not using them, more than 70 percent said they showed interest in the category.

While there’s no denying nature is a supreme beauty-ingredient maker and its appeal widespread, most agree that natural products—containing no synthetic ingredients—still fall short in numerous arenas. In skin care, two particular challenges have centered around creating efficacious anti-aging and sun protection products.

“There are still elements within the cosmetics world, particularly in the sort of  cosmeceuticals side of the industry, where the natural market still has a way to go,” says Yes to Carrots’ chief executive officer, Ido Leffler.

“There are limits in natural ingredients,” agrees Xavier Ormancey, head of Chanel’s Sophia-Antipolis research center. “The first is that when you extract from flowers, bark, leaves, fruits and roots, you have many molecules.” Some of the molecules are active, while others can compete with them or cause side effects, he explains. The challenge lies in identifying and separating out the active ones from those that aren’t.

Completely natural sunscreen is also difficult, particularly since most filters aren’t certified organic and the ones that are tend only to give SPF of up to 10. Further, it’s challenging to obtain a natural sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white film on skin. “Sun care is a difficult category to be in if you want to be 100 percent natural,” says Bénédicte Le Bris, L’Oréal’s worldwide director of applied research and development for natural and organic métier.

In hair care, shampoo in particular has proven complex to formulate, mostly because it’s hard to obtain a natural replacement for sodium lauryl sulfate, the ingredient responsible for creating lather, according to Organic Monitor’s director, Amarjit Sahota.

It’s extremely tough to make effective organic makeup products, too, many say. “It is very difficult to get certified organic/natural color cosmetics, since some of the petroleum ingredients in them cannot be replaced with certified ingredients that give the same performance,” says Sahota. “There is a smaller range of certified organic ingredients available for color cosmetics.”

Fragrance-wise, creating an all-natural product places extreme limits on perfumers. Hervé Fretay, Givaudan’s director of internal marketing ingredients, likens the process to a painter using only pigments coming from natural resources. “You can imagine that he would have a limited number of colors available,” he says, adding that a perfumer working only with naturals won’t have any musky notes and a reduced number of fruity ones, for instance.

Price is another hurdle. “Natural raw materials can be extremely, extremely expensive,” says Matt Frost, IFF’s global marketing director for fine fragrance and beauty care. In addition to careful monitoring, usually an enormous amount of such ingredients are needed: It takes about 4 tons of roses to create 1 kilogram of rose absolute, for example.

“To make organic products, it costs me two or three times as much as I would do with just conventional chemistry,” says Horst Rechelbacher, the founder of Aveda who recently launched a skin and hair care line under the moniker Intelligent Nutrients. The cost is one reason Horst uses ingredients sourced from his own organic farm in Wisconsin.

Other challenges in creating organic products include finding alluring textures and scents. “Some sensorial properties are not yet reached, like the feeling of silicon,” says L’Oréal’s Le Bris. “But is the [naturals] consumer willing to have this type of feeling on the skin? I’m not so sure.”

There’s also the necessity to keep color and odor consistent. “Naturals are a bit like grapes with wine,” says Frost, explaining that they can be affected by phenomena like the type of weather a crop experiences during its growth, the time of day the grapes are picked or how they’re transported. “All of these variables influence the way naturals will turn out in the end. Also, like wine, the natural ingredient itself will actually evolve over time, and as it ages, its olfactive characteristic will change. It’s part of the beauty of naturals, but it means you will also get some slight variations—or sometimes dramatic variations—in color of the actual batch.”

These days, natural beauty products tend to be most effective as cleansers, toners and moisturizers, most experts say. Sales data refl ects this. According to Organic Monitor, such products generate more than half the category’s revenues. The tracking firm’s latest statistics show that the estimated size of the purely natural and organic beauty market worldwide in 2007 was $6.9 billion, up about 16 or 17 percent year-on-year.

Natural and organic beauty’s 2007 sales made up about 2 percent of the global beauty business. The largest markets were the U.S., worth about $3.6 billion, followed by Germany and France, according to Organic Monitor.

That double-digit sales uptick in an otherwise depressed worldwide marketplace has been attracting the attention of larger beauty players. In the past few years, L’Oréal snapped up Sanoflore and Care by Stella McCartney as part of its YSL Beauté acquisition, Groupe Clarins took an active stake in Kibio and the Estée Lauder Cos. introduced a USDA-certified organic lineup in its Origins brand.

Retailers such as Parfumeries Marionnaud, Carrefour and Tesco also have gotten in on the action by introducing private label organic products, while Macy’s introduced an organic and natural products corner called Beautiful Planet. Brands such as Yves Rocher, L’Occitane and Nuxe, have recently launched organic lines, as well.

“One of the main benefits of using organic products on your skin is that they contain no synthetic penetration enhancers and are designed to feed the skin,” says Stella McCartney of her skin care lineup. “They also contain many more of the natural vitamins, trace elements, essential fatty acids—all the things you need to nourish your skin.”

Still, many mainstream brands are reluctant to take the all-natural route. “We thought that nature for nature’s sake is not enough…because we are seeking efficacy, safety—because we think that what really is important in the end is what the woman will see on her skin after using our products,” says Chanel’s Ormancey.

Groupe Clarins’ director of R&D, Lionel de Benetti, like some others, believes consumers have been manipulated into believing conventional beauty products contain dangerous ingredients. He cites parabens, which many fear as toxic. “It is completely false,” he says. “Using them in the doses we do, they are the most effective preservatives. Unfortunately, I am obliged to progressively make them disappear from my products because [Clarins], after all, is a company that is there to sell.”

He adds many consumers don’t realize that, in taking out parabens, other preservatives must be added as replacements, which, comparatively speaking, are relative unknowns.

“Natural products are not inherently safer than synthetic products,” says Rushmore, who explains that products and ingredients go through safety assessments, including dosage and the way a product is used—or possibly misused. “Some natural products can be dangerous in certain situations. Synthetic ingredients are safe when they are used as directed. So safety really isn’t linked to whether something is natural and organic or not.”

In fact, green or no, all beauty products go through the same approval hoops and must meet certain criteria. “Organic beauty products are submitted to the same regulatory constraints as conventional cosmetics,” says Joëlle Guesnet, R&D development director of L’Oréal’s YSL Beauté. “This is true not only for safety, but also for efficacy. That means each claim has to be proven by studies.”

“There are many people who think that nature is sort of a soft-efficacy story when, in fact, it’s really very powerful,” agrees Lynn Mazzella, senior vice president of global product development and sustainability at Origins.

While the efficacy debate rages, the feel-good factor inherent in purchasing natural products is an increasingly important lure for people who believe they’re buying what’s good for them and for the planet. “People interested in organic products are deeply concerned with environmental and health benefits,” says Guesnet. “For this reason, they accept to abandon instant benefits reached in no more than a few days.”

The Boomer demographic, which generally is already committed to what’s natural, organic and sustainable in other realms, is dedicated to natural beauty products, as well. People with small children are taking an interest, too. “We also think there is an interesting connection between becoming more green and natural when you maybe are considering starting a family,” says Origins’ Belknap.

So how long will it be before natural products technically rival their conventional counterparts in all domains? “Every year, we’re seeing more and more advances in natural technology,” says Yes to Carrots’ Leffler. “Within a very short space of time, you’re not going to be able to find a single part of the industry where you won’t have a natural alternative that will have as good an efficacy as—if not better than—the traditional brands.”

That goes for the particularly difficult categories, as well, such as antiaging skin care and sun care. “Many laboratories work [on organic antiaging products],” says Anne Kayser, director of marketing at Yves Rocher, who thinks the day will come when such high-caliber products will make it to the marketplace. Her company, for one, already has worked on such products for three or four years, and it’s not alone in its research efforts.

Clarins’ de Benetti believes there surely will be enormous industrywide focus on natural beauty products. “It’s certain that, for the moment the trend is strong, everyone will put lots of energy into trying to better the quality of the products,” he explains. “It will progress. It will take a bit of time.”

Regardless, the focus on organic continues unabated. L’Oréal in January 2008, for instance, created a department to oversee the company’s natural and organic product development.

“In the next two years, I would expect to see most of the big beauty companies, if not all of them, in this market,” says Organic Monitor’s Sahota.

Some say a key to the segment’s growth is establishing clarity about what constitutes a “natural” or “organic” beauty product. Complicating matters is that there has been little alignment of the certification bodies, which include Ecocert and OASIS and the Natural Products Association.

“Now, there are a lot of beauty products with the words ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in them, and it’s an amazing range of products— from those that only have edible ingredients in them to the ones where the vast majority are synthetic or have some natural ingredients, but aren’t really active, so they aren’t doing anything,” says one source.

Some say there’s no comparing natural beauty products with those using synthetic ingredients, since they exist for different reasons and appeal to different consumers. Kibio’s co-founder and managing director, Laurent Potier, for one, believes his brand already has achieved high-performing antiaging products. “Natural cosmetics are like conventional cosmetics,” he says. “That is to say, you can have very effective products and products that seem a lot less so.”