by Alexis Elliott
We are living in the age of chemicals. Harmful chemicals appear everywhere, from our cleaning supplies to our cosmetics. As more information is being collected about how exactly these chemicals affect our health, the overall consensus is that our exposure is dangerous, and that women are disproportionately exposed due to the fact that they more often wear makeup and use products with scent. As women become more aware, many are starting to look for alternatives. Products advertised as “organic” or “natural” have become popular, one example alternative being essential oils. However, the question comes up if these “natural” and “organic” products are actually safer, and if substances like essential oils, that are marketed as natural, are viable alternatives, or if they contain harmful chemicals as well.
Walking down the beauty aisle any woman can see many products that labeled as “natural”. Take for example, Revlon’s Beyond Natural Skin Matching Makeup. The name, “Beyond Natural” implies that this product would be held to the same standards that natural and organic food must be held to; that there are no artificial or synthetic ingredients, that the minimum processing is done and that there are no chemical preservatives or colorations (Post, 1999). However, as consumers, we sometimes fail to remember that there are different regulatory agencies for cosmetics and for food, and even though the USDA defines these terms, the FDA does not. We also fail to remember that even in the USDA’s definition, there is no mention of these products needing to be safer, just less artificial. In fact, this same Revlon foundation that women put on their faces that is “Beyond Natural” contains propylparaben, a synthetic paraben already banned in Denmark, and a known endocrine disruptor (Parabens, n.d.).
To lower our exposure to chemicals a logical first step is to buy products that are free of harmful substances. It is easy to begin by buying products that are paraben-free, sulfate-free etc. However, there is still danger posed by the ingredient “fragrance” because the chemicals included in the fragrance do not actually have to be listed on the back of the bottle. Though fragrance-free products are available, some consumers feel that scent is necessary, either to mask the natural scent of the product or to just make it more enjoyable. In theory, essential oils can be great substitutes for fragrances in household cleaners or air fresheners because adding a few drops can give someone have a chemical-free scent. However, essential oils are not always perfect alternatives, and they are another example as to why “natural” may not always be safe.
Essential oils are substances that are extracted from plants, usually using steam. They are highly concentrated oils, that contain the smell of their host plant, without being synthetically manipulated (“What are Essential Oils?”, n.d.). Essential oils can be very useful in many ways. A few drops in a mop bucket can give one’s home the same lavender scent without the harmful health effects of typical cleaners. Additionally, some essential oils, such as tea tree oil, even have gentle anti-microbial properties that can be useful when cleaning up extreme messes. Seeing as women continue to perform more household cleaning jobs (“American Time Uses…,”, 2016), when it comes to women’s health, reducing the chemical content of household cleaners is a great benefit of essential oils. Some other well-known uses are in acne treatment. Speaking from personal experience, tea tree oil, when placed on the skin before sleeping, can reduce swelling and redness. Lastly, and probably most famously, essential oils can be used in aromatherapy. Putting certain oils in a diffuser have been shown to calm people down, and be a great replacement for air fresheners.
Though essential oils have many beneficial uses, there are still some things to be cautious of when dealing with them. As discussed above, many gravitate towards essential oils because they falsely assume that the products are safer because they are advertised as “natural” or “organic”. These misleading claims on packaging therefore represent the first problem when discussing whether or not essential oils are viable alternatives to synthetic fragrances. Essential oils cannot be guaranteed to be actually natural or organic, and there is currently no way for the FDA to regulate essential oils on the market. This means that consumers must become informed about the companies that are selling the essential oils, and make sure that the oils they are getting have not been synthetically crafted. Consumers must also be aware of the ingredients in these oils because due to their lack of regulation, the oils could be contaminated the exact chemicals that they are trying to avoid. Overall though, it is hard to know for certain whether or not there are any harmful impurities within the oils that leaked in through the manufacturing process (Soloway, n.d.).
Another common misconception is that because essential oils come from plants, they will be virtually safe for any household. However, just like any substance, essential oils can cause allergic reactions, and even if one is not allergic, essential oils are so concentrated, that having your skin come in contact with them can cause rashes, and ingesting them can be toxic (Soloway, n.d.). In fact, Web MD reports that “between 2011 and 2015, reports of toxic exposures to these oils [have] doubled” and that “four out of every five cases were in children (Dotinga, n.d.). Most of the times, the oils get into the lungs and cause pneumonia (Dotinga, n.d.). To avoid most of these issues, the oils should be kept in a safe place away from children, and should be used with caution.
Though chemicals are everywhere in our lives, steps can be taken to lower this exposure. There are alternatives to products that contain a lot of chemicals, however consumers need to be wary of the labels “natural” and “organic” because in the realm of cosmetics, they are solely used for marketing and have no regulation. We all must be informed consumers and customers, especially when it comes to products that are marketed to us as safe.
Alexis Elliott is an undergraduate student majoring in Society and Genetics at UCLA. She was a member of the Chemical Entanglements Research Group in Spring, 2017.
American Time Use Summary Survey. (2016). Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm
Dotinga, R. (n.d.) More Kids Accidentally Poisoned by Essential Oils. WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/children/news/20160513/more-children-accidently-poisoned- by-essential-oils
Parabens. (n.d.). Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Retrieved from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/parabens/
Post, R. C. (1999). Natural and Organic Claims. Labeling and Consumer Protection. Retrieved from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/larc/Claims/Organic_Claims.htm
Soloway, R. A. (n.d.). Essential Oils: Poisonous when Misused. National Capital Poison Center. Retrieved from http://www.poison.org/articles/2014-jun/essential-oils
What are Essential Oils? (n.d.). AromaWeb. Retrieved from https://www.aromaweb.com/articles/whatare.asp