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Are ‘natural’ products effective products? A cosmetic scientist’s challenge.

‘Natural’ personal care products are increasingly popular among the general public. What makes these products attractive compared to ‘non natural’ products? This article looks at the ‘natural’ trend objectively as a phenomenon that affects the cosmetic industry worldwide.

As nature and its wonders are indisputably rich in beauty, the cosmetic industry has persistently been inspired by nature in many ways. In recent years, the term ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ has taken an interesting turn. It embraces a significant marketing trend that sees ‘natural’ products become increasingly popular among consumers. In some cases their marketing strategy seems to suggest that ‘natural’ products are ‘safer’ while some ‘synthetic’ products could be ‘harmful’. In other cases it may imply that they are simply better for you.

IT’S ONLY NATURAL

In Australia and Asia Pacific ‘natural’ products have a huge appeal as they combine culture, heritage, naturally occurring raw materials, such as flowers and plants that are unique to certain countries. All that is ‘natural’ is an increasing source of business as well. There are companies manufacturing only ‘natural’ products, websites trading only ‘natural’ products, there are ‘natural’ shops, ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ markets and so on.

For the purpose of this paper we will not discuss the definition of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ product or ingredient and possible regulatory requirements (or the need for that), which have been examined in various papers and are still being debated. We will instead pose some questions on their functional properties and benefits.

TICKING ALL BOXES?

In order to differentiate from the mass produced international brands, it appears that ‘natural’ products have so far successfully created their own identity, while also offering alternatives that appear to suit a large number of consumers. From baby to adult, from people with sensitive skin to people considering the environment, there seem to be a lot of reasons why more consumers today are showing an interest in ‘natural’ products.

There are many ‘natural’ products that are marketed to improve appearance of the skin (e.g. anti-ageing etc.) or to improve skin ailments. But we all know that after captivating customers and acquiring a market segment, the biggest challenge for consumer products is to maintain their consumers. Is it just about perception or do ‘natural’ products also deliver? To find out the answer, we should take a look at reliable scientific data.

LOOKING FOR EVIDENCE

As a matter of fact, there have been a number of studies performed on ‘natural’ raw ingredients, which suggests effectiveness in the cosmetic field. What is important though is also to test the effectiveness of finished products. In fact, even if one or more of the ingredients contained in the product have shown certain effects, the effectiveness of the final product containing those ingredients needs to be investigated.

Extensive anecdotal evidence of product efficacy and/or existing data regarding the ingredients would suggest we should conduct an efficacy trial on the finished cosmetic product, which may help substantiate efficacy claims. A pilot study on a small number of subjects could be the first step to understand whether it is worthwhile to proceed with a proper statistically powered clinical trial.

Going further, it would be interesting to examine how ‘natural’ products compare with ‘non-natural’ products. One could look at whether ‘natural’ products are safer products because they are better tolerated by the skin (e.g. fewer side effects?); whether they are superior because they provide greater effectiveness; or whether they are better because they have less impact on our organism compared to ‘synthetic’ products. In order to verify these hypotheses, a trial comparing a ‘natural’ product vs. a ‘non-natural’ product under standardised conditions would be recommended.

THE BEST PRODUCT IS THE ONE YOU LIKE

At this stage, there are no definitive answers as to whether ‘natural’ products are better for you. In fact, there are probably as many ineffective and unsafe ‘natural’ products on the market as there are ‘synthetic’ ones. It comes down to the product formula and product’s formulators. What consumers need to consider when they purchase a product is whether the product, ‘natural’ or ‘synthetic’, has been confirmed to perform well in efficacy and safety trials.

In an ideal world, everything happens for a reason and everything has its logical explanations. But in the real world, often consumers’ decisions are driven by perception. This is especially true for cosmetic products. A positive attitude towards ‘natural’ products has been spreading over the years among cosmetic consumers. Besides, from a sensory point of view, there are different components in ‘natural’ products – for example their smell, their texture, their graphic element – that meet personal preferences beautifully.

Whether they work or not, ‘natural’ products seem to be able to deliver benefits of their own that truly appeal to the cosmetic consumer. Given their increasing popularity, perhaps today is too early to challenge them. Perhaps perception is what makes successful cosmetic products in our current society and that is what cosmetic companies should continue to focus on…until proved otherwise!