5 Truths about Commercial Skincare
A strange thing has happened to me since I started working in the organic beauty business.
I can identify synthetic chemicals on the back of a skincare label at 20 paces.
I dream about Amazonian organic butters (don't ask).
I've also learned a lot.
I understand the power, effectiveness and value of some of the simplest natural beauty ingredients.
I understand the reality of commercial manufacturing of organic beauty products.
I also understand the marketing machine behind the organic beauty business, the reality, the expectations and the tactics used by some of the players in the natural beauty market.
Lastly I understand women, the challenges and frustrations and what works and doesn't work when it comes to natural skincare.
The Mass Market Skincare Model
The truth of the matter is that mainstream skincare is designed and produced to give us exactly what we want. It is produced on a huge scale for a vast global market.
1 - Convenience
It's a convenience model, designed to give you and I our favourite organic beauty products available on the high street, via mail order, at the airport and at international destinations around the globe. Convenience rules.
To be able to deliver against this model, the manufacturing is done on an industrial scale in exactly the same way that your laundry detergent - or any other commodity - is made.
2 - Longevity & Stability
A key requirement is longevity. Manufacturing everything on a commercial scale means that the product has to be stable on the shelf in store for 2 or 3 years. That means using ingredients in your beauty products that won't spoil. Ingredients that are essentially long life ingredients. That also means a preservative.
3 - Compromise
To my mind, that also means compromise, trading the shelf life against the effectiveness of the ingredients:
The fragrance needs to be consistent across hundreds of thousands of units, which often means a synthetic fragrance and likely some sort of fixative.
The colour needs to remain consistent; that lovely creamy white colour often means additional colour or a whitening agent. Variance is frowned upon, consistency is king.
4 - Greenwashing & Clever Marketing in the Organic Beauty Market
Once you have a stable base product, be it an organic face cream, organic cleanser or serum, manufacturers can make a tiny tweak to the ingredients to deliver a variation.
For example, my fictitious company GreenBee Amazing Potions is struggling, my sales figures need a boost and I decide I want to create an amazing new wonder product, a face cream to target dryness and ageing skin.
I use the term 'new' loosely, because this product is going to be based on an existing face cream formulation in my stable of products.
I take the basic ingredients I am familiar with and I use that to build upon. So here's what I've got:
Water - a cream is a mix of oil and water, and water is often the first and largest ingredient by volume, in the region of at least 70% - and happy days it is free… I'm onto a winner!
Glycerine - a humectant which means it is used to hold onto moisture on the skin.
Dimethicone - This is a synthetic, silicone based product, it is inexpensive and it gives a lovely soft glidey luxurious feel to my cream.
Oil - Add in a spot of mineral oil, it is cheap, neutral, easy to colour and scent and has a long shelf life - exactly what I want.
Add in an emulsifier to mix and hold my oil and water cream, a preservative and a spot of synthetic fragrance and job done.
Let's take this a step further.
GreenBee Amazing Potions knows that consumers like you and I are getting more demanding and questioning about our skincare ingredients, and that green sells. So I am going to make a few tweaks:
I am going to change the water in my formulation. Rather than using 100% water, I am going to use 95% water and 5% orange blossom water. It sounds lovely, and heck it is lovely. Even better it's going to look great on my ingredients list, and I am only using a tiny amount so it's not going to cost me very much.
I am also going to add in an extra 'active' a value add ingredient. I'm going to swop out 2% of my mineral oil for argan oil, everyone knows that argan oil is great right?
Finally I am going to add a couple of drops of real lavender essential oil to my artificial scent.
Suddenly I have GreenBee Amazing Potions' Anti-Ageing Hydrating Crème with Lavender & Orange Blossom, which sounds quite enticing. And the best bit? My natural value add ingredients, the orange blossom water, lavender and argan oil probably amount to about 5% of my total ingredients, though don't mind me if I feature them heavily in the product name.
I'm feeling generous. I'm going to make my blossom water, lavender and argan oil organic, so my organic ingredients are going to total about 5%. Yup a whole 5%.
Beginning to see a pattern here?
The bulk of your skincare product and the largest proportion, is always gong to be the base ingredients, so knowing what is here is important, and that comes down to reading the label. Check out my Guide to Decoding Labels here.
The actives, whether it be exotic rainforest dew or the latest miracle ingredient will always be present in smaller quantities, sometimes because they are extremely potent and can only be used in small amounts.
5 - Synthetics to Mimic Botanicals
This mass market convenience model has also given rise a plethora of synthetic ingredients, ironically often designed to directly mimic botanical ingredients.
There is a drawback to using beautiful, organic plant oils. That is that they vary batch by batch.
Take organic rosehip oil from 3 different sources. The colour will vary considerably between batches, sitting anywhere between a deep red to a much paler gold. The scent will vary as will the strength. None of this is any good when you are manufacturing on a mass scale and where you want uniformity.
In this case synthetic ingredients will always beat natural ingredients, because they are predictable.
But the market is changing. Green beauty is growing a-pace, and consumers are becoming increasingly suspicious of the mainstream brands, with their catchy product names with natural ingredients splashed across bottles only to find the aforementioned exotic flower oil is right at the end of that ingredients list meaning it is present in only the tiniest of quantities.
Small Scale British Niche Skincare
All of this is at odds with the small scale organic skincare manufacturing that we undertake at The Rose Tree, and is the model for countless other small skincare providers. Small batch organic skincare? Artisan Skincare? Small Scale British niche skincare?
Of course that doesn't mean that artisan skincare is automatically better. Any organic beauty product is only as good as its ingredients.
But there are advantages.
Generally a small skincare producer has more flexibility, with ingredients, the proportions of these ingredients and the niche that they serve, vegan, sustainable, etc.
Small batch skincare will by its very nature be fresh. Without the preservatives and fillers, small producers have to be aware of where and when their fresh ingredients were sourced, and compliance with EU safety legislation means keeping detailed records.
Many small artisan brands have an ethical angle. We are passionate about sourcing all of our ingredients within the UK and about sustainable ingredients and packaging.
There is a personal touch, you're dealing with a person, and can actually communicate with the brand about the right skincare product, and ingredients for you and your skin. You can get a far more personal experience than with a faceless corporation.
Consumers have weighted up the pros and cons of mass market manufactured skincare products and found them wanting. Natural botanicals oils are chosen over petroleum alternatives because a period of 6 months to use a product is deemed plenty sufficient, and variability is revered. A delicate vitamin rich organic apricot oil with its variation in colour and scent is valued over inert mineral oil.
The mass market approach doesn't always win.
I have a different focus for my customers.
My customers do want convenience, they demand extraordinary organic products that fit their busy lifestyle, but first and foremost comes effectiveness and quality.
They want the convenience of simplicity and ease of use. The convenience of knowing that I select the best effective ingredients so they don't have to spend hours themselves researching ingredients.
The beauty of small batch skincare is that it is different and that myself and other similar companies have the freedom to put quality and effectiveness over the bottom line.
And I think that's important.