Cancer scares, rising allergies and global warming concerns are driving the boom for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ personal care products. But how do consumers know if they are for real?
IT all started with a personal quest to source for Malaysian-made natural and biodegradable products for my family. For the past three years, more so after I became pregnant, I was adamant to steer clear of harmful chemicals commonly found in mass-market personal care and household cleaning products. Besides, we are trying our best to tread lightly on the already fragile environment.
I have no qualms about forking out a little more for imported natural or organic-certified products since Malaysia does not have the legislation or a local certifier that governs the manufacture or import of such items. Hence, products slapped with labels of accredited and internationally recognised certifiers such as Ecocert from France, BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics Seal (Germany), NaTrue (Europe’s natural cosmetics industry lobby group) or USDA (US Department of Agriculture) do carry some weight and assurance. However, certifications have varying standards and loopholes, and are usually costly, which in turn trickle down to the price of the products.
So why not support local brands, certified or not? I found a small Selangor-based company that produces supposedly “100% pure natural ingredients” shampoo and body wash. The labels list the ingredients – mainly fruit extracts, foaming agents, natural chemicals derived from plants and natural preservatives. They also mention the nasties to avoid, like paraben, petrochemicals, artificial fragrance and sulphates. Good to know they are trying to educate the public. Plus, customers enjoy a discount if they bring back the original bottle for a refill.
After two years of using the products, I have not experienced any side effects like skin irritation. But can I say for sure if the products are truly natural? Nope. And the brand distributor could not answer my questions either.
Peeling back the labels
How do consumers wrap their heads around labelling claims and the not-so-straightforward world of certifications? Even a chemistry geek who can decipher complex scientific names for product ingredients can’t tell if manufacturers are revealing everything.
In theory, the manufacturers have to abide by the Guidelines for Control of Cosmetic Products in Malaysia, issued by the National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau. But you download the form online, fill it and wait for your certificate of notification from the Health Ministry.
“This is where abuse can happen but this is similar to most countries around the world,” says Jonathan Horsley, marketing and export director of I-Green, a Kuala Lumpur-based company that manufactures organic-certified skincare for adults. “The enforcement for checking what is on product labels needs to be improved. But to be fair, this seems to be a problem faced more in the natural and organic realm.”
Another Kuala Lumpur-based natural skincare manufacturer adds: “No one’s really checking on us so it’s basically self-regulated.”
To some extent, certified organic products do provide some level of comfort and assurance, according to Amarjit Sahota, founder and director of London-based Organic Monitor, a research and training company focusing on ethical and sustainable industries.
“Certified products give a guarantee to consumers that natural and organic personal care products do not contain potentially harmful substances,” says Sahota.
In Malaysia, I-Green is the first and only Malaysian company, so far, to receive Ecocert’s stamp of approval. Founded in France in 1991, Ecocert tests and certifies food products as well as cosmetics, detergents and textiles. They inspect about 70% of the organic food industry in France and up to 30% worldwide. Today the company has presence in 15 countries and conducts inspections in over 80 countries.
Briefly, Ecocert requires 95% of the ingredients in a product to be of natural origin and restricts what is allowed in the remaining 5%. And for a product to be labelled organic, 95% of the plant ingredients must be of certified organic origin.
“All of our products are 100% free from petrochemicals but we are allowed to add carefully selected safe and mild preservatives like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate (derived from salt of acids, these are food-grade preservatives generally regarded as safe worldwide),” explains Horsley who has a background in chemical engineering. “As for fragrance, we use specially blended essential oils from France. On average our products are 99.8% natural.”
100% natural, or not?
But is there such a thing as a 100% natural product, and does it matter?
“It’s nearly impossible to make 100% natural skincare products on a large-scale commercial business model,” says a Klang-based formulation pharmacist who declined to be named. “For boutique business, yes, it is possible.”
Preservatives are used to prevent spoilage due to contamination from bacteria or fungus. Without preservatives, the shelf life of a product will be months if not weeks, the pharmacist explains.
There are natural preservatives like grapefruit seed extract and essential oils but compared with synthetic preservatives, their antimicrobial activity is lower and they cover a smaller spectrum of microbes.
“So using a natural preservative will require good knowledge of the product,” explains the pharmacist. “For example, if you use single-use delivery systems (containers) like ampoules, you may not need preservatives at all.”
There are also other compounds that are used to prevent products from spoiling or oxidising, such as antioxidants like vitamin E or vitamin C. The pharmacist says these antioxidants are natural but come in synthetic forms like Buthylhydroxyanisole (BHA) or Tert Butyl Hydroxy Quinone (TBHQ) and can be found in ointments or lotions. “Again, it’s possible to use natural antioxidants but it can get very expensive as you require higher quantities of the ingredient.”
But Penang-based Indochine Natural, a company that churns out handmade natural soaps, body wash and shampoo for local and international markets, did away with preservatives by sticking to old-fashioned soap recipes.
The germicidal action of soap has been known for a long time. Natural soaps are alkaline – a characteristic that favours the destructive effect of soap on micro-organisms. Scientific research from the 1920s has shown that soaps loose their germicidal action at pH7 or more acid conditions.
“Indochine soaps (as well as shampoo and body wash) have a pH of around nine and are formulated with 100% pure essential oils, many of which have documented anti-microbial activity,” says managing director and founder Dr Mike Thair, a trained chemist. “Therefore, the combined effects of the soap itself, the pH, and added essential oils make it unnecessary to use any form of preservatives.”
Natural or organic certification is not the be all and end all in ensuring consumer confidence as companies like Indochine and Alive Group, a Kuala Lumpur-based organic products manufacturer, demonstrate. Indochine’s production facility implements a quality system that conforms to the cosmetic guidelines of Asean, Japan, the European Union and the United States.
For their raw materials, Alive imports only those certified as organic. “Before every purchase, all the organic certificates provided by the suppliers or growers are examined,” says Alive nutritionist Sai Chia Chin. “We also do random lab tests on the raw materials to ensure they meet the required organic standards.”
Like I-Green and Indochine, Alive follows Good Manufacturing Practice standards to ensure product safety for its consumers. Alive personal care products are not certified but it is a member of Organic Alliance Malaysia which is working with the Department of Agriculture to enhance the competence and credibility of the organic sector.
In the field of certification, there is no shortage of mudslinging, accusations of false labelling and debates over mutual organic standards. Which explains Indochine’s reservations about applying for certification.
“It’s something we have deliberated over long and hard as currently there is a cloud hanging over many of these certifications,” admits Thair, whose company operates under Fair Trade principles as defined by the World Fair Trade Organisation. “We have decided to take a wait-and-see approach.”
An anomaly amongst manufacturers who guard their secrets zealously, Indochine practises an open-door policy at its factory in Tanjung Bungah, Penang.
“We are happy to show customers the entire production process plus all of the quality documentation and certificates of analysis for our ingredients and products,” says Thair. With the exception of essential oils, all the raw ingredients used by Indochine are sourced locally. These include turmeric, powdered lemongrass and vegetable oils.
“Our distributors from France, Switzerland and the US have visited and did thorough audits of our company’s production and work practices in order to satisfy quality standards,” he adds. Indochine’s Japanese distributor has had a third-party audit done on its finished products, which included laboratory analysis for 22 potential contaminants.
“At the end of the day, we welcome rigorous quality testing and auditing as a means of ensuring consumer confidence,” says Thair.
One thing all three companies – Indochine, I-Green and Alive Group – have in common is they are committed to strong research and development, strict quality control and reaching out to their consumers through awareness campaigns, education and consumer fairs.
The role of ensuring safe skincare products lies with retailers, too. Organic retailer Justlife, for instance, gives priority to certified organic and certified natural personal care products.
“It is very important that all the ingredients, from the base to active ingredients, are from natural sources such as extracts from plants and natural minerals from earth. Products should be free from any synthetic and harmful ingredients, petrochemical derivatives and animal ingredients,” explains chief executive officer Callie Tai.
“We do not promote products made of animal ingredients because animal farming is one of the industries that exhausts the world’s natural resources and causes global warming,” Tai adds.
Justlife’s team of technical staff, including biochemists, evaluates all new products and reviews them from time to time based on latest findings.
So do Malaysian-made natural and organic products measure up against international brands?
“Definitely, the local brands are growing steadily, with very promising future potential,” says Tai, who founded the Justlife chain in 1999. “Brands such as I-Green and Indochine are already making inroads by penetrating the overseas market and getting good feedback.”
As for Yours Truly, I’m still none the wiser when it comes to sifting through so-called natural products.
Maybe it’s time to raid the kitchen pantry and whip up some home-made beauty remedy.
Article excerpted from www.thestar.com.my