Organic and Natural Cosmetics Ingredients Aren't Necessarily More Eco-Friendly

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Or at least, so insists Katie Bird in an op-ed on Cosmetics Design Europe. Take palm oil, for instance, she says, which has resulted in deforestation to make room for expanding plantations.

Although petroleum is not renewable, it is clear that the sudden switch to a supposedly greener natural alternative has had untold environmental consequences that could have been avoided with a more intelligent approach.

She checks off a laundry list of scenarios where natural may not be all that sustainable, building a case for how synthetically producing certain ingredients might work out to be more environmentally friendly. Protesting that the the natural and organic movement places "an unrealistic focus on the part ingredients play in a product’s green profile," Bird adds that organic ingredients should not be regarded as sacrosanct.

Ignoring synthetic options that might prove more efficient is irresponsible; and switching to natural or organic ingredients without fully assessing the environmental impact of the change is similarly reckless.

While I agree a couple of Bird's points—the palm oil example is an excellent one, even if her other illustrations are rather broad and insubstantial—she only proffers half the story. For most natural and organic skincare and cosmetics makers, it's as much about what gets taken out as it is about what goes in. (Visit Planet Green for a quick rundown of the worst ingredients you need to avoid.) There's also a health angle: Petroleum byproducts can be contaminated by cancer-containing impurities, lead acetate is a brain toxin, toluene causes birth defects.

So yes, assessing an entire product's life cycle before it's marketed as "green," is necessary, but natural and synthetic ingredients aren't interchangeable, or at least, not in a way that is without consequences, on both personal and planetary levels. To regard one as simply an ersatz version of another, now that would truly be reckless.

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