'Nature has created its own ways of making essential ingredients to save itself from environmental onslaughts. So nature can be a rich source of beneficial ingredients, if properly researched.'
- Board adviser for Skin Inc Global Shekhar Mitra
SWAPPING out a face serum with an ingredient list longer than the telephone book to a cream labelled "organic" may sound like the easiest way to becoming a natural beauty. And with established British organic and natural skincare behemoth Neal's Yard Remedies opening a standalone store here next month, stocking up on green skincare will be even more of a breeze.
But just because a skincare potion claims to be "natural", "organic" and even "vegan" does not automatically make it a miracle in a jar. As it turns out, the level to which a product is organic varies as much as Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez's relationship status.
"Skincare, unlike food, has few legal regulations preventing it from being falsely labelled 'organic'," explains Calum Mackay, Neal's Yard Remedies director of international sales. "This means that a product can be marked as 'organic' without containing any organic ingredient at all."
Currently, there is no legal restriction set on skincare to ensure that a product is truly organic. Quite often, a formula could include a miniscule percentage of organic ingredients, blended together with a cocktail of other chemicals for better results or other cost-effective reasons.
"Due to the increasing demand for organic and natural products, there is an increase in brands releasing natural, botanical and organic versions of their products," says Monika Tjia, founder and director of new green shopping portal Envysg.com. "One reason why most have not converted their entire range is due to shelf life. Products last longer due to the chemicals used to preserve them."
While retailers such as Ms Tjia try to take the guesswork out of shopping for greener prettifiers - she sources for products that are 80 per cent natural, compared to an average of 50 per cent natural ingredients used in more mainstream products, a trick to selecting truly green skincare is by checking out its ingredients list. According to Ms Tjia, all skincare products, natural or otherwise, are legally required to list down their ingredients in descending order of the amount used.
"The first third of ingredients listed contains 90-95 per cent of the product, so a good rule of thumb is to look at the first three ingredients," explains the businesswoman with a background in banking.
As for those who are considering organic beauty regimens for ethical reasons, delving into the background of a beauty brand before slathering on its concoctions might be a good start. Neal's Yard Remedies, for example, oversees the production of its own stable of organic and natural beauty products, which allows the 33-year-old brand to control the source and contents of its formulations. The company, first founded by former teacher Romy Fraser who started the holistic health and beauty shop in the eponymous square in London's Covent Garden, prides itself on building strong relationships with its suppliers for a more transparent supply chain - and maintaining standards for its products.
"We grow some of the ingredients ourselves at our factory in the English countryside so as to ensure zero transport miles," adds Mr Mackay. "Even our plastic blue bottles are made from 100 per cent post consumer recyclate, and our blue glass is fully recyclable, while the dark blue pigment reduces the amount of light reaching the contents, allowing us to create a natural skincare with few, if any, preservatives."
Putting aside the impact on the environment, most turn to natural products because they are perceived to be gentler on the skin. However, organic unguents sometimes take longer to yield visible results as compared to skincare containing active synthetic ingredients.
"Our clients have come to understand that a product made with 100 per cent organic ingredients may not necessarily deliver the best results they expect, as current organic certification standards have not caught up with the development in cosmecuetical science," admits Eric Chew, founder of seven-year-old organic beauty boutique at Mandarin Gallery, Bud Cosmetics. "Most of such products tend to be more basic in formulation as the certification is largely based on the raw ingredients. However this does not mean the products are not effective, they are still, in my opinion, safer and better for the well-being in the long run, and generally suitable for clients with sensitive skin types."
Sometimes, high-tech methods have to be applied to ingredients found in nature for the best skin benefits and to minimise skin irritation, explains Shekhar Mitra, former senior vice-president of global innovation at Procter & Gamble. For example, the current board adviser for beauty brand Skin Inc Global has derived a compound called glycyrrhizate from liquorice. The anti-inflammatory ingredient helps inhibit melanin production and is used for skin lightening in the brand's Relieve Licorice Serum.
"Nature has created its own ways of making essential ingredients to save itself from environmental onslaughts," says the scientist. "So nature can be a rich source of beneficial ingredients, if properly researched."
And while certification from various regulatory bodies help consumers avoid being green-washed, Neal's Yard Remedies readily admits that not all its ingredients are certified organic. For one thing, it harvests certain ingredients through wild-crafting, whereby frankincense resin, for example, is collected from wild trees in Somalia and Kenya, rather than from a certified organic farm. Although its products are free from nasties such as synthetic fragrances, mineral oils and parabens, it sometimes incorporates non-natural "functional ingredients" such as emulsifiers and seeks out the natural alternatives whenever possible. The company's herb and plant extracts, and essential oils, are certified organic by the British Soil Association.
"There are often myths around the efficacy and texture of organic products not standing up to more conventional products, but through education and awareness, this perception is changing," says formulations manager Fran Johnson. "With advancements in green science, organic products are consistently proving that they both perform, and have beautiful consistency and texture."