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Dirty Earth and You

June 1, 2011

We live on a planet of abundance, granted that we don’t always find ourselves with an abundance of the things we want – a bigger house, more time, better health or zero calorie chocolate but hey, life is good and generally speaking as long as we play fair and share we can all enjoy the fruits of our combined labor.   But while we are enjoying a beautiful life of care-free abundance so are billions of microbes and just guess where many of them call home…….in our mineral rich soil which goes on to become the feed-stock for our colour cosmetics, face packs and cleansing products.  When it comes to the earth it seems that the words natural and pure DO NOT go together……..

The truth about cosmetics – toxic bugs in, toxic bugs out.

OK, Ok so I took my inspiration from “THAT” video but hey, it works!   The collective move towards ‘natural'(in its broadest sense) cosmetics is something that I don’t see as a trend – that is too trivial. It is a (natural) progression really, a coming of age and a natural next-step along the journey of our human-cosmetic interaction.

In a nutshell we started off with natural and un-refined.  We would decorate ourselves with whatever we could find be it ash from the fire, chalk from the rocks, blood from the animals we ate or dirt from the ground that surrounded us.  This worked well up to a point – some of these bare naked chemicals are not safe to rub on because of their chemistry and others harbor dirty bugs (more about that later)  but this approach does make trade of these tools of beautification difficult – you really have to BE THERE!

A bit later on we had eye of newt,  foot of frog and eau-de-willow-tree salves, balms and tinctures to help cure our boils, soften our skin and keep us young but as many of these ‘Avon Lady’ forerunners went under the rather scary titles of witches, wizards or medicine  men they tended to only appeal to a ‘niche’ audience – too scary for your average Joe!

Some other stuff happened in between which filled  that ‘gap-in-the-market’ for non-scary mass-ish market cosmetic solutions leading to the modern 1800’s gal about town finding her elixirs in either a compounding pharmacy  or a perfumers (unless she opted to make her own).

By the 1930’s we had the start of the chemical revolution which saw the start of the cosmetics industry as we know it.  Chemical alternatives to whale spermaceti,  beef fat and lanolin became more widely available and existing chemicals used in ‘natural’ cosmetics were able to be refined and purified.  The mindset of ‘synthetic is sophisticated’ was widely adopted as you would expect for something so new, exciting and accessible. PLUS for the first time you could buy your favourite moisturizer and be guaranteed of its performance, colour, feel and smell year in, year out – no natural variability here madam!

But since the 1960’s and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ followed by the 1970’s  “Limits to Growth” and thousands of other research we have been falling out of love with synthetic and now, for many of us only natural will do.

So,  let’s get down to earth and see what nature gives us.

Mineral  make-up is a great working example of  where we are up to in terms of  ‘natural’ cosmetics,  especially in light of the fact that many brands use the words ‘naturally pure’ to describe their offering. However, this is somewhat of an oxymoron as digging mica, iron oxide  or titanium dioxide out of the ground and simply grinding them to give you a uniform particle size will not make them pure, it will just make them smaller.

Natural Earth minerals have two main problems:

  1. Chemical Purity.  This is just not the case as iron oxides, titanium dioxide and mica exist in complex mineral deposits often contaminated with traces of heavy metals and other minerals.
  2. Microbial Count.  Because clays, micas and iron oxides have a large surface area that is very porous they provide a large surface area for the entrapment of air-borne yeasts and moulds.  Additionally they can also harbor minute quantities of water which can form homes for bacteria.

Iron Oxides (of all colours) and mica when mined always contain some contamination from heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead; minerals such as  talc (which in its unrefined state can contain asbestos fibres),  calcium carbonates and clays and the microbial contaminant Clostridium Tetani.  These impurities can of course be removed through the process of refining and washing the mineral while the microbes are best dealt with via an irradiation treatment.  But the more you do to the pigments the less natural they become……

Titanium Dioxide is another good example as while this is a naturally occurring mineral not all natural titanium dioxide occurs in the form that is safe and stable for sunscreen use.  Titanium Dioxide occurs naturally in four different shaped molecules of which the two main ones are rutile and anatase. However titanium dioxide is most frequently found as the mineral ilmenite (which contains a fair bit of iron) and it is this that most often gets mined and processed for different application.  However, going back to Titanium Dioxide out of the ground it is the rutile configuration that gives the most photostable UV protection with the anatase being at the other end of the scale – in fact anatase titanium dioxide is often used as a photo catalyst and that is not something you want on your face or in your sunscreen.  So to summarise, titanium dioxide in its natural state is neither pure (it has iron in it) nor naturally safer (as it contains a percentage of material that acts as a catalyst with light) and so is arguably worse for us than the manufactured stuff.

Rather than leave you thinking that your mineral make-up is going to kill you it is worth having a quick sanity check as if dealt with properly, minerals are no more likely to kill you  than your dear old granny would be.

Like all chemicals that are used in cosmetics the safety of minerals are assessed by various different legislators. In Europe the COSING database  gives you the maximum permitted levels of trace impurities for each pigment and it is then up to the formulator to ensure that their product falls within these limits.  The FDA does not allow ANY  natural iron oxide pigments to be used in colour cosmetics because of concerns over the presence of heavy metal contaminants and as far as the global market goes,  many suppliers and manufacturers have decided to pull away from offering these pigments opting for synthetic (nature-identical) only.

The one area that remains potentially problematic is the area of microbial contamination.  Irradiation of minerals is ideal as via a dose of low-level radiation all micro organisms are quite literally fried leaving the product free from any harmful bacterial or mould spores introduced either from the manufacturing environment or from elsewhere within the supply chain.  Irradiation can be carried out at any stage in the process, even when goods are packaged. Organic standards do not permit irradiation as a sterilisation step and rely only on natural preservatives and packaging to help prevent contamination.  While this is OK for many materials  and processes it is often very difficult to achieve in practice for minerals, especially dry mineral powders that can’t take a wet preservative.  While Good Manufacturing Process will help immensely, if you have fungus in your clay on the way in, you will have fungus in your products on the way out.  GMP alone can’t take that away.

So what do we recommend?

In a nutshell the following recipe should lead to success:

Clean and pure ingredients in (which are then by definition not as natural as people might want to believe) +  GMP + Sensible packaging to control air contaminants + Safe storing (not too damp or hot + sensible in-use practices =  A clean and beautiful cosmetic experience.

Oh and if you are not sure, irradiate it. Please…………

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