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Beauty products – is ‘natural’ really better than synthetic?


Thao-Mi Bui

By

March 2nd, 2018


Are natural beauty products genuinely a healthier, environmentally and socially friendlier alternative? Thao-Mi Bui explores some of the hidden traps associated with the most recent pivot towards the natural health market.


‘Natural’ –  arguably one of the most profitable adjectives of the century. Many personal care brands are increasingly directly claiming their products are ‘natural’. Brands who shy away from making this bold claim may instead choose to build a brand image associated with what is ‘natural’. Either way, this new marketing paradigm has propagated the widely held implicit assumption that everything that is natural is good, and everything that is not natural is dangerous and bad. Brands which associate themselves with being ‘natural’ lead customers to believe their product is more environmentally sustainable and beneficial to health and the communities which supply the product or its ingredients.

However, the assumption that natural is intrinsically good is a far-cry from reality. Here we will investigate the growth of the global organic and natural personal care market and then explore if natural is a marketing gimmick or truly beneficial to health, communities and the environment.

 

The shift from synthetic to natural

The shift towards ‘natural’ personal care products has been driven primarily by health-related and environmental concerns but also increased use of cosmetic products in growing economies such as India, China and Brazil.[1] Increasing willingness and ability to spend on premium products including those that have been labelled as ‘natural’ and organic alongside the ability to reach masses of potential consumers online are also key explanatory factors[2].

Indeed, global natural and organic personal care was valued at US$11.06 billion in 2016[3] and is forecasted to grow to US$21.78 billion by 2024.[4] The sector accounted for 2.49%[5] of global personal care in 2016[6] but this figure is expected to grow to 3.35%[7] by 2024,[8] incentivising companies to fight to buy into this increasingly profitable pie. In October 2013, for instance, L’Oreal acquired The Body Shop.[9]

 

The unintended consequences of going ‘natural’

Natural and organic personal care products account for only a small but rapidly growing proportion of total global personal care. The absolute value of annual global spending on this sector is worth billions of dollars and is set to almost double in less than a decade. Consequently, we should be more aware of the negative impacts of buying into ‘natural’.

A video by Only Organic called ‘The Natural Effect’ criticised brands which claimed their products to be ‘natural’. It suggested that brands aligned themselves with ‘natural’ products, and misleads consumers as the products are actually full of synthetics. The fact that this video garnered 1.2 million views indicates that the common concern amongst consumers is that they are being duped into purchasing products which are not as ‘natural’ as companies claim them to be.

But misleading advertising is far from the issue here. The real problem is the assumption that products which are labelled as natural are better compared to their synthetic counterparts, whether that be in regards to health, the environment or the people involved in the supply chain.

Firstly, from a scientific perspective, ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ are a completely grey matter. An easily understood example is that clove oil, which is often used for antibacterial properties and is perceived to be ‘natural’, contains the chemical compound, eugenol. This compound is actually dangerous in higher quantities.[10] Similarly, other  ‘natural’ compounds like arsenic clearly do not provide health benefits. Companies which use essential oils are regulated to ensure that in combining various quantities of different essential oils, chemical compounds in essential oils do not exceed unsafe levels. ‘Natural’ versus ‘synthetic’ therefore does not indicate whether it is safer for human use nor has more or less health benefits.

Moreover, the assumption that ‘natural’ is more environmentally friendly and benefits communities is a less black and white issue than commonly believed. We see this is in the essential oils market. Worth US$5.91 billion in 2016,[11] the global essential oils market is forecasted to more than double in less than a decade by 2024[12] partly due to market growth in natural and organic personal care.

Spa and relaxation are one of the most prominent sectors in the essential oils market and accounts for personal care as well as aromatherapy and massage oils.[13]

Whilst this shift has been purported to bring about benefits for health and wellbeing, these must be weighed against the potential extinction of the plants we extract these essential oils from and even the communities which supply them.

Frankincense oil is one of many salient cautionary tales. Its increased use to substitute for synthetic fragrances, for aromatherapy and other personal care products, means that demand for it exceeds the regeneration rate of frankincense trees. As a consequence of increased demand as well as excessive cattle grazing, frankincense was listed on the IUCN red list in 1998.[14] Despite the trees’ endangered status, high prices resulting from demand exceeding supply incentivise locals in a region with a 40% poverty rate[15] to slash the trees more frequently for their resin. This endangers the lives of the trees but also means more people die each year from clambering up the dangerous mountains to harvest the resin.[16] This is far from the only story which demonstrates that shifts to what the public perceives to be ‘natural’ can devastate communities and ecological biodiversity. The fate of frankincense is hauntingly similar to that of agarwood, sandalwood and spikenard.

But perhaps the story of palm oil rings more potently in the public consciousness. Again, the story begins with a shift in consumer consciousness – warnings of the effects of partially hydrogenated oils on cholesterol levels and the FDA’s mandatory labelling of food products that contained these oils shifted consumer demand towards oils that were free of trans fats. The substitute people discovered was palm oil.[17] Indeed, the shift to palm oil provided a healthier and cheap alternative and lifted many in Malaysia and Indonesia out of poverty through an increased agricultural industry, but the trade-off has been the loss of 20% of Indonesian rainforests across a decade[18] and potentially devastating effects on biodiversity, such as in much-publicised campaigns to protect the habitats of orangutans.[19]

The tales of frankincense and palm oil are alarming reminders that buying into alternative products can incur a counter-intuitive trade-off. Oftentimes, in trying to protect our health or be more environmentally and socially conscious, we may actually inadvertently endanger plant and animal species and create markets which incentivise people to jeopardise their lives. The list of unintended but nevertheless tragic consequences of our blissfully ignorant decision-making goes on. It is therefore important to understand that deciding to purchase a brand labelled as ‘natural’ versus one that is not must be thoughtfully weighed up with respect for the nuanced pros and cons of each alternative. Overarching assumptions that natural is better than synthetic will risk sub-optimal decisions being made.

 

 


[1] Grand View Research, (2016, November). Organic Personal Care Market Size and Forecast By Product (Skin Care, Hair Care, Oral Care, and Cosmetics), By Region (North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and Middle East & Africa) And Trend Analysis From 2014 To 2025. Retrieved from https://www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-organic-personal-care-market

[2] Formula Botanica, (n.d). Natural and organic beauty market to reach $22bn by 2024. Retrieved from https://formulabotanica.com/global-organic-beauty-market-22bn-2024/

[3] Statista, (2018). Forecasted market size of the natural and organic beauty industry in 2016 and 2024 (in billion U.S. dollars). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/750779/natural-organic-beauty-market-worldwide/

[4] Persistence Market Research, (2016, July). Global Market Study on Natural and Organic Personal Care Products: Growing Awareness Regarding the Benefits of Natural and Organic-Based Personal Care Products to Drive Market Over the Forecast Period. Retrieved from https://www.persistencemarketresearch.com/market-research/natural-organic-personal-care-product-market.asp

[5] Euromonitor International, (2017, May 15). THE BEAUTY AND PERSONAL CARE MARKET: GLOBAL AND REGIONAL OVERVIEW. Retrieved from https://www.beautyworldme.com/uploads/editor_images/file/beautyworld17/amna.pdf

[6] Statista, (2018). Forecasted market size of the natural and organic beauty industry in 2016 and 2024 (in billion U.S. dollars). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/750779/natural-organic-beauty-market-worldwide/

[7] Persistence Market Research, (2016, July). Global Market Study on Natural and Organic Personal Care Products: Growing Awareness Regarding the Benefits of Natural and Organic-Based Personal Care Products to Drive Market Over the Forecast Period. Retrieved from https://www.persistencemarketresearch.com/market-research/natural-organic-personal-care-product-market.asp

[8] Statista, (2018). Forecasted market size of the natural and organic beauty industry in 2016 and 2024 (in billion U.S. dollars). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/750779/natural-organic-beauty-market-worldwide/

[9] Grand View Research, (2016, November). Organic Personal Care Market Size and Forecast By Product (Skin Care, Hair Care, Oral Care, and Cosmetics), By Region (North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and Middle East & Africa) And Trend Analysis From 2014 To 2025. Retrieved from https://www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-organic-personal-care-market

[10] WebMD, (2009). Clove Overview Information. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-251-clove.aspx?activeingredientid=251&activeingredientname=clove

[11] Stratistics Market Research Consulting, Essential Oil – Global Market Outlook (2017-2023). Retrieved from http://www.strategymrc.com/report/essential-oil-market

[12] Ibid

[13] Grand View Research, (2016, November). Organic Personal Care Market Size and Forecast By Product (Skin Care, Hair Care, Oral Care, and Cosmetics), By Region (North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and Middle East & Africa) And Trend Analysis From 2014 To 2025. Retrieved from https://www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-organic-personal-care-market

[14] Thulin, M. 1998. Boswellia sacra. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1998:e.T34533A9874201. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.1998.RLTS.T34533A9874201.en. Downloaded on 28 February 2018.

[15] Ruiz, I. (2016, December 28). The disappearing frankincense forests. Retrieved from http://www.dw.com/en/the-disappearing-frankincense-forests/a-36923634

[16] Ibid

[17] Gro Intelligence, (2016, December 8). Palm oil: growth in Southeast Asia comes with a high price tag. Retrieved from https://gro-intelligence.com/insights/palm-oil-production-and-demand

[18] Ibid

[19] Oosterzee, P. & Laurnce, B. (2014, November 12). Palm oil continues to destroy Indonesia’s wildlife. The Conversation Online. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/palm-oil-continues-to-destroy-indonesias-wildlife-31831

 

Image sourced from: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/static/photo/1x/Female-Natural-Skincare-Healthy-Cosmetic-Treatment-2357981.jpg

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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