Beauty is at a crossroads as eco-chic greenies and scientists square off on the safest and most effective methods for bottling youth.
Jo Wood, an attractive 52-year-old blonde with rocker-chic bangs, declares she’s hell-bent on selling the world on green living between sips of espresso at Todd English’s Olives restaurant in New York. She pauses, looking down at her cup, then explains that she allows herself a respite from green tea while on tour with husband Ron, guitarist for The Rolling Stones.
Wood normally shuns chemicals entirely, sidestepping them in food, cleaning supplies, bed sheets and toiletries. As an outgrowth of her perpetual detox, she formulated a line of namesake natural body oils and lotions infused with organic orange water. The range, housed in elegant glass bottles replete with organic ink illustrations, is sold at Holt Renfrew and Bergdorf Goodman.
“Whatever you put on your skin is drawn in by your skin. You need it to be pure, otherwise rubbish is going into your skin as well,” says Wood, wincing as she cites mineral oil and paraben, a chemical preservative commonly used in foods, drugs and cosmetics to stave off microbes.
Wood is hardly alone in her disdain for the unnatural. She, along with Stella McCartney, who has an organic line of her own, are simply two of a growing crop of eco-chic greenies who have developed skin care offerings sans man-made chemicals. Recently, a number of players have attempted to inject credibility into their organic positioning with various certification seals.
For instance, McCartney’s Care brand received organic certification from EcoCert, a regulatory body based in Europe. And this fall, the Estée Lauder Cos. brand Origins plans to introduce its first skin care collection stamped with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal.
As “au naturel” migrates from Whole Foods to high-end department stores, green enthusiasts are making the case that eco-consciousness and beautiful, wrinkle-free skin are not mutually exclusive.
The natural route is not, mind you, a quick fix, nor does it offer instant results, like plumper lips. But it will keep skin supple and healthy over the long haul, says Lara Deutsch, co-creator of Stem Organics, an Australia-based line sold in the Theory flagship in Manhattan. Chemicals can irritate the skin and, in turn, accelerate signs of aging, adds Deutsch. For every trend, of course, there is a counter-trend. In the midst of this move back to basics, bio-tech has churned out its own breed of skin care: science-backed offerings that scour the halls of medicine—mining wound-healing, anti-inflammatory treatments and DNA research—on a hunt for the next high-powered skin serum.
“Over the last five years, we’ve seen the rise of dermatologist skin care lines. The next step is the science brand,” says Daniel B. Yarosh, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and president and chief executive officer of AGI Dermatics, the formulator of Remergent, a skin care line based on DNA repair. Yarosh says the collective demand for products to perform has beauty companies looking to science for solutions.
Greenies and scientists may bristle at the thought, but there’s a point where the two camps converge: Both exhaustively ferret out botanicals to heal the skin.
“If you look at the composite ingredients of the two, they will not be all that dissimilar. It would be rare to find any product that is all natural, but it’s quite common to find products with natural actives,” says Boston dermatologist Alexa B. Kimball.
Scientists study botanicals to understand what part of a plant can be harnessed for skin care, says Deborah Lowery, senior scientist for SK-II, a high-tech, Japanese skin care range owned by Procter & Gamble. “One of the similarities between skin and a plant is their need for water, and their need to protect themselves. The skin is a barrier and when it’s working well, it looks beautiful. The same goes for a plant,” continues Lowery.
SK-II’s main ingredient, pitera, a blend of vitamins, amino acids and minerals, had a natural and humble beginning. Intrigued by the smooth hands of older workers in a sake brewery, a Japanese monk collaborated with scientists to isolate the nutrient-rich liquid from the yeast fermentation process that generated the young-looking skin. That said, science still trumps nature here. A given SK-II formula is loaded with 80 percent lab-born ingredients with naturals making up the remainder.
Naturalists and scientists’ opinions widely differ on whose product formulations are more effective.
The prevailing argument from the green side is that its products generally contain high levels of botanical actives and avoid fillers, including petro-chemicals, synthetic preservatives and artificial colors and fragrances.
“Many cosmetics products have two or three actives at most,” says Margo Marrone, creator and founder of The Organic Pharmacy, a trio of shops in London that sell organic goods, including the store’s own brand. “Because our products are 97 percent natural and of an organic origin, the skin recognizes the ingredients and absorbs them more readily than their synthetic counterpart,” continues Marrone, drawing a parallel between eating fresh foods as opposed to ingesting vitamins.
The art of naturals is a mindful one, so YSL Beauté set up its own “kitchen” to formulate Stella McCartney’s Care range, built on organic active ingredients. Care’s manufacturing codes mandate that raw organic ingredients be stored separately from other raw ingredients, and that the finished formulas are sequestered from the rest of the products churned out at the facility. To obtain the organic actives, formulators rely on natural processes: Vegetable seeds are run through a simple screw press to extract oil, and plants are brewed in a large steamy pot to release oil. The plant’s essential oil then rises through a condenser and collects in a separate vessel, while the floral water remains behind.
In the mass market, Be Fine Food Skin Care’s research starts in the grocery aisles. “We took a look at the whole food basket to find ingredients for a nourishing formula,” says Florence Sender, founder and chairman of Be Products Company, which launched the Be Fine brand in CVS stores in January. The line’s Gentle Cleanser, for example, features sugar, mint, oats and rice. Despite her natural leanings, the power of science is not lost on Sender. She relies on a team of four chemists, and acknowledges that her products will not banish wrinkles. “If you want to take away wrinkles, you have two choices,” she says bluntly. “Don’t age or go see a surgeon.” Sender describes her products as nontoxic, paraben-free and vegetarian protein-based, but declares, “Natural isn’t always enough. It can become an excuse for inconsistencies in quality. Chemistry adds value. It doesn’t diminish value.” In green circles, organic ingredients up the ante from natural, a term that any product maker can stick on its label. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does put some parameters on the use of “organic.” Products labeled “100 percent organic” (or made with only organically produced ingredients) and those labeled “organic” (or made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients) can wear the USDA Organic seal. Items containing at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase, “Made with organic ingredients.” [Please see Label Laws, page 34, for more on this topic.]
Despite the green decree that the skin is more welcoming to natural ingredients, chemists argue that scientific technology enables them to concentrate a botanical substance and create a purified synthetic alternative.
Glycolic acid, for instance, is found naturally in sugar cane but in relatively low concentrations. By extracting the substance from sugar cane and concentrating it, chemists have been able to make a synthetic version that the body will recognize, says Rob Kalafsky, executive director of research and development for Avon Products.
While a gaggle of green-minded beauty enthusiasts make their case, the mainstream medical community still nods to the power of science.
“Many of the organic creams contain excellent ingredients, but the high-tech creams are probably going to be more potent because their active ingredients are stronger,” says New York dermatologist Diane Madfes.
Scientists acknowledge that natural products can be effective, but say that without chemical preservatives, like parabens, the formulas could also be unstable. Paraben is frequently shunned by naturalists who claim the preservative accumulates in biological tissue and may be linked to cancer. Many experts outside the natural realm, citing a lack of clinical data to confirm any such link, deem the FDA-approved ingredient safe.
Madfes says preservatives, including parabens, are larger molecules and, therefore, generally cannot penetrate the top layer of the skin.
“Parabens are a very stable preservative, and there isn’t enough proven evidence showing they cause any type of cancer. They are simply working to stabilize a topical treatment,” she says.
In fact, it’s the absence of parabens in some natural beauty products that concerns a number of scientists.
“It’s possible to make natural products that soothe the skin. The challenge is keeping them preserved. Microbes grow in natural things and natural ingredients do spoil,” says Mathew Gurrola, chemist and vice president of operations for By142, a skin care range with ingredients found through military medical archives and medical journals.
He cautions, “A natural product doesn’t necessarily mean that the formula is completely pure. Most natural products come from the ground, which can contain lead and arsenic.”
Naturalists and scientists do seem content to coexist, preoccupied with their endless search for the next wonder ingredient. Even Wood, despite being dubbed “extremely green” by her son Tyrone, acknowledges there’s room for both approaches in skin care, pausing a moment to ask the waiter for brown sugar.
New Science Based Skin Care A. Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream, $24.99. An amino-peptide-infused formula designed to add volume to the skin. B. Osmotics Cosmeceuticals Blue Copper 5 Firming Eye Repair, $75. A tri-peptide formula designed to boost elasticity. Available in September. C. Freeze 24-7 & Go Instant Smoother & Brightener, $65. A portable cream designed to erase flaws and increaseradiance. Available in September.
D. Comfort Zone Skin Defender Cream, $80. Antioxidants, UV filters and a polysaccharide Glycofilm shield skin from pollution and sun. Available in September.
The Lastest Natural Offerings A. Stem Organics Intensive Eye Serum, $69. An organic ginseng and hibiscus peptide formula designed to nourish the eye area.
B. The Organic Pharmacy Self Tan, about $61. Relies on natural DHA from sugar beet to deliver a uniform glow.
C. Chantecaille Rose Eye Makeup Remover, $33. A botanical-laden, paraben-free formula that moisturizes with chamomile and cornflower waters. Available in September.
D. Sukicolor Triple Cream Eye Definer, $38.50. A hypoallergenic formula that uses organic pressed fruit oils to impart color.
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