Berkeley teen skin study could usher in a new era of opportunity for natural and organic

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Berkeley teen skin study could usher in a new era of opportunity for natural and organic

Related tags Organic food Organic monitor

Research from Berkeley University highlighting the potential effects of certain cosmetic chemicals on the skin of teenage girls’ skin could spark renewed interest in natural and organic products, experts believe.

The research was headed up by Kim Harley, associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at the University of California, Berkeley, and reported on by Cosmetics Design yesterday.

The research concludes that the potential for toxic build up hormone-disrupting chemicals found in conventional cosmetic and personal care products should send warning signs out for such products to either be used sparingly, and more importantly could lead to certain products having to be reformulated.

What does this mean to the industry?

Cosmetics Design spoke to two industry experts to determine what the research means to the industry and where it might spell opportunity for brands that have long avoided the use of such chemicals, many of which fall in to the still fast-growing natural and organic category.

Amarjit Sahota, the founder of Organic Monitor, which specializes in market research for the natural and organic food and cosmetics industries, believes there are parallels to the Berkeley research with another conducted by the Danish supermarket chain Coop, last year.​ It also highlights how potentially toxic residues can be eliminated from the body after just two weeks of consuming organic foods.

"The Berkeley study is positive in that it shows how contentious synthetic chemicals, such as parabens, phthalates, triclosan, are making their way into our bodies from the personal care products we use. The study shows that our skin is absorbing these contentious chemicals from personal care products. However, natural & organic brands need to be careful as the study does not prove that these chemicals directly cause health problems; indeed, the  jury is still out about the health risks e.g. role of parabens as hormone disrupters, phthalates to mimic female hormones,"​ said Sahota, who will be chairing Organic Monitor's Sustainable Cosmetics Summit​ in New York City in May.

"Natural & organic personal care brands can point to the study to show how contentious synthetic chemicals are getting into our bodies from the products we use, and that natural / organic brands give a ‘chemically-clean’ option. However they will find it difficult to make claims about the associated health risks," ​he added.

More research needed

Although Sahota believes the findings are extremely interesting for the future of the industry, he is also aware that this is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to research on this area, but ultimately it is the consumer who will benefit from better information and more choice.

"The first obvious implication is that more research needs to be done on the impact of these contentious chemicals on our health. The natural & organic products market will benefit from this study as it will raise consumer awareness of these synthetic chemicals. Even though brands cannot make actual health claims, they will benefit by consumers becoming aware of the presence of these synthetic chemicals,​" he said.

"Research by Organic Monitor has shown the biggest driver of growth in the natural & organic personal care products is rising awareness of synthetic chemicals in cosmetics & toiletries. For instance, a study we did in the UK in 2014 showed that 90% of UK consumers buy these products because they wish to avoid synthetic chemicals. Awareness of synthetic chemicals had almost doubled between 2007 (the first study) and 2014. The synthetic chemicals that consumers most look to avoid are parabens, SLS / SLES and petrochemicals. "

The start of something big

Gay Timmons, the founder of Oh, Oh Organics, an natural and organic ingredients provider, who has also worked relentlessly to ensure the validation of certification for the category, believes that the Berkeley University research is could serve to reshape the industry.

Speaking in an exclusive interview, she pointed out how it has already exploded beyond NPR and blogger sites and is now “blowing up to become something big”.

 “I think that this implies manufacturers and brands better be ready to explain how and why they choose specific ingredients. For brands that contain fragrances and the other problematic ingredients - they need to decide who they are selling to and what the risk is - and then how to communicate that risk,”​ Timmons said.

More research is inevitable

Although the study does have its shortfalls, Timmons also points to the fact that it provides a very strong launching pad to more comprehensive research into this area.

“It is not a replicated/validated study but it is so simple and so clear that it would be foolish to ignore the findings. This is similar to what Dr. Arlene Blum found in the 1976 that caused the CPSC to outlaw flame retardants in children's clothing & nightwear. A urinalysis from 100 girls is a very good sample size and they just need to expand their research now.”

Timmons also points to several positive outcomes for the study, including the fact that, with the exception of phthalates, the toxins leave the body relatively quickly once use of the products is stopped.

“The other good news is that the natural industry will explode!,”​ Timmons said, while speaking as a mother, she added: “Now I have to convince my daughters to go through all their cosmetics and toss anything with fragrance.”

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