With the pandemic bringing people closer to nature like never before, almost everyone has become super choosy when it comes to buying products — be it to build immunity, get healthy and fit or for that glowing skin.
But have you ever stopped to wonder if you’d even have a product if it was to be truly chemical-free? What do you think that ‘natural’ product you so love contains in the absence of chemicals?
Sure, nowadays, where everything healthy sells, chemicals are synonymous with toxins. The truth, however, is that chemicals are in everything — from the food we eat and the air we breathe to the water we drink. Dave Barry, American author and columnist, had nailed it when he said, “Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water.”
So are we just experiencing chemophobia?
Natural but inefficient
Browsing the Internet for chemical-free products will bring up a thousand options — from sunscreens and vitamins to eatables and whatnots. More than often, people fall for well-known brands’ eye-catching packaging and tall claims of being 100% natural.
Dr Ajay Rana, Founder & Director, Institute of Laser and Aesthetic Medicine (ILAMED), is a dermatologist and an aesthetic physician who tries to clear up the misconceptions around chemicals. “When it comes to beauty products, there is this myth that chemicals are always bad for the skin. There is a misconception that 100% natural is safe and effective and anything that sounds like a chemical is unsafe. This is completely wrong. ‘Natural’ is not always best,” he says.
In fact, almost no chemical can be called good or bad — it all depends on how much chemical there is and where it is.
Nikhil Maheshwari, a director at MPIL Wellness, is clear that we should weigh up the pros and cons before coming to conclusions. “Chemicals are not always bad. Even if we talk about herbs, it is the naturally derived chemicals present in the herbs that work on specific concerns. So, chemicals that are naturally derived have a high efficacy rate in the long run. The ‘bad’ chemicals that we hear about are harmful chemicals that have no benefits and are only detrimental for the body,” explains Nikhil.
So, ‘natural’ may not always be the best. For instance, Vitamin C extracted from a natural source like orange, lime or kakadu plum may not be as potent and thus beneficial to the skin as compared to the chemical formulation of Vitamin C made from ascorbic acid or ethyl ascorbic acid in the lab.
Then again, Dr Ajay Rana points out that it’s not about putting a bunch of ingredients together. “There are so many nuances to be considered. For one, the product has to be stable, and its pH has to be right for the Indian skin,” explains the doctor. “People who use skincare products generally believe that a product with a ‘natural’ tag is good and safe for the skin, which is not always the case. It’s important to balance nourishment and safety with efficacy.”
The good and the bad
Dolly Kumar, cosmetic engineer and founder and director at Cosmic Nutracos Solutions Pvt. Ltd., the parent company to skin care brand Skinella, reiterates that there are chemicals that are good and bad for the skin. Sharing some examples of both, she says, “Parabens, sulphates, phthalates, artificial fragrances, etc. are harmful for your skin in the long run. However, chemicals such as hyaluronic acid, Vitamin C, salicylic acid and AHA, which are derived from natural ingredients, do wonders to your skin.”
The cosmetic engineer goes on to break down the benefits of the good chemicals she’s listed. “For instance, hyaluronic acid is beneficial for hydration, while Vitamin C, one the most trending ingredients today, helps protect skin against sun damage, boosts collagen and helps maintain an even skin tone. Salicylic acid is effective against breakouts and AHA is good for exfoliation,” states Dolly. “These are some of the naturally derived chemicals. Because of their wonderful benefits, many skincare brands today use these ingredients in their products.”
While we like to choose naturally made products over chemicals to avoid their harmful effects, it’s also common knowledge that rubbing a lemon wedge (which is a rich source of Vit C) on your face could cause more damage than benefit.
Chaitanya Nallan, founder, SkinKraft Laboratories, elaborates. “There are certain natural ingredients scientifically proven to deliver benefits for your skin but it all lies in the delivery of the product. Skincare products made with ample research and deep understanding of the chemical and its efficacy will still be better than a tomato slice on your face. For instance, hyaluronic acid, naturally found in the human body, acts as a humectant, a substance that preserves moisture,” he explains.
Nikhil Maheshwari agrees with the above thought. “The most important aspect in building a product would be the research and development (R&D) it has gone through. This is the backbone of any product development,” he says.
According to Dr Ajay Rana, the right way to take care of one’s skin is by using products recommended after consultation from a skin expert instead of making false distinctions. “These chemicals are used in very small quantities and some, like shampoos and so on, for only a very short period. Cosmetic products and these chemicals are defined by their temporary effects and inability to change the body’s physiology. Very little, if any, of the product would be able to penetrate the outer layer of the skin.”
Adding that fragrance can be the most harmful part of a beauty product, Dr Ajay Rana warns that fragrances often contain chemicals that cause allergic reactions. “Avoid any product that includes the term ‘“fragrance’,” he cautions.
Let the experts decide
Even Vandana Luthra, entrepreneur and the founder of VLCC Health Care Ltd, a beauty and wellness conglomerate, reiterates that it’s not entirely fair to call chemicals in skincare products ‘bad’. “They do offer some remarkable results in skincare, especially in the area of aesthetic dermatology and repair of severely damaged skin. They can come to the rescue when conventional OTC and natural or organic-based solutions fail,” she adds.
Concentrations and mixes of various acids in chemical peels are beneficial in reducing acne, scar, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles.
“Cosmetics having actives like ‘Diamond Lite 60’, are also chemical-based molecules, using a Nobel Prize-discovery as an active,” adds the VLCC founder. “It unleashes exceptional brightening powers on skin, through three multi-skin layers to prevent and correct yellowish, dull and uneven skin tones.”
However, even Vandana Luthra insists that for skincare, moderation should be the mantra. “Read the labels on the back of your products to understand the ingredients used in the product. Do not decide for yourself; instead, let a dermatologist, a trained beautician or an aesthetic doctor decide,” she warns.
Ingredients such as parabens, formaldehyde, phthalate, carbon black and phenoxyethanol — which are unfortunately found in some cosmetic products today — have been linked (though not substantively confirmed) to some fairly serious health concerns such as cancer, hormonal imbalances (endocrine disruptors) and respiratory issues, among others.
Manmade or natural, they’re all chemicals
· Many chemicals are very good for healthy skin. Dermatologist and an aesthetic physician, Dr Ajay Rana, who’s also founder and director at the Institute of Laser and Aesthetic Medicine (ILAMED), lists the sources of many of these naturally extracted chemicals.
· Glycolic acid’s origin is sugarcane, while lactic acid is extracted from fermented milk products.
· Salicylic acid is usually extracted from wintergreen leaves, and it can remove dead skin while improving the texture and colour of damaged skin due to harmful UV rays of the sun,” elaborates the doctor. It also penetrates oil-laden hair follicle openings and thus helps with acne.
· Retinol, derived from Vitamin A such as animal liver, whole milk, shrimp, fish, fortified milk, butter, cheddar cheese and Swiss cheese, improves acne and acne-scarring, mottled pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture, skin tone and colour, and the skin’s hydration levels.
· Hyaluronic acid’s origin is potatoes, sweet potatoes, jicama and lotus roots and skincare products containing hyaluronic acid, also known as glycosaminoglycan, are often used with Vitamin C products to assist in effective penetration. It is also often touted for its anti-ageing abilities.
· DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol) is naturally produced in the brain, but DMAE is also present in anchovies, salmon, and sardines. DMAE in skincare products shows remarkable effects when applied topically to skin, resulting in the reduction of fine lines and wrinkles.
· Hydroquinone is extracted from plant-driven food products such as wheat germ and brewed coffee. Skincare products containing hydroquinone are often called bleaching creams or lightening agents, used to lighten hyperpigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots.