Organic Skincare – ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’ Is Only Natural

Parabens are the preservatives in cosmetic products most widely used to protect them against microbial growth, both to protect consumers and to maintain product integrity. But do current levels of parabens exhibit estrogenic activity that increases the risk of breast cancer? Phthalates are commonly used in cosmetics as plasticizers (to soften products), solvents and fixatives (to slow scent evaporation from skin). But does regular use of cosmetics containing phthalates pose a danger to hormonal and reproductive systems? Can long-term exposure to synthetic fragrance ingredients really contribute to damage of the brain and nervous system?

Scientific studies about all these questions have been conducted; some identified the respective risk, some disputed it outright, or at the chemicals’ typical concentration levels in cosmetic products. These opposed scientific positions accompany the opposed commercial interests between consumer activists and the established cosmetics industry, and the respective political repercussions between lobbying interests and the government.

Even though cosmetics are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, unlike drugs, they are not subject to market pre-approval. Although the FDA does have the power to intervene to protect the public from adulterated products, enforcement comes too late on an individual basis, since the injurious effect will already have been experienced. The FDA states, “Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing.”

In light of the possible health risks and regulation of cosmetics, consumers might be well-advised to adopt the ‘precautionary principle’ and opt for natural or organic products.

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In 1998, the Wingspread Conference defined the Precautionary Principle as follows:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

In other words, ‘better safe than sorry’. When Germany discovered in the 1970s that its forests were dying, the government acted to cut power-plant emissions, even absent scientific proof that acid rain was the cause. Soon thereafter, the precautionary principle was enshrined in German environmental law. In the meantime, the principle has been invoked internationally for many other hot-button issues with disputed causal and risk relationships, including genetically modified crops, beef treated with growth hormones, and greenhouse gases.

In the public arena of international trade and regulation, this principle is also politicized between its adherents, who see it as aligned with sustainable development and consumer protection, and its opponents, who argue that it stifles calculated risk-taking and technological advances.

But in the private space, featuring just the consumer and a choice of cosmetic products, the purchasing decision might be well-informed by the precautionary principle. In the absence of universally accepted scientific proof addressing the health risks of artificial cosmetics ingredients, will you take precautions?