Most know I love using natural ingredients and particularly plant based ones, but there is something I really don’t like about the natural sector and that is the notion of  ‘toxic’ ingredients and how, in the natural and organic market there is a pervasive behaviour of painting all ‘non-natural’ as toxic.  This isn’t something new, there have been stories going round online  for years about paraben’s and petroleum jelly and how they are very bad for our skin and our health in general.  But it got me thinking about the concept of the ‘other’ and ‘othering’.

The ‘Other’  in the psycho-social sciences  means that in order to have an awareness of the ‘self’ we have to create an ‘other.’  This in itself is seen as quite normal as we all need to have separate identities.  To feel different we need to distinguish ourselves from others.  However it is quite disturbing when it is used for negative purposes. This is where  ‘othering’ comes into it.  Othering is a reductive way of labelling a person or group of people as  subordinate or having negative characteristics in order to exclude them or treat them unfairly. In history and in the present day it has lead to some pretty terrible things happening to groups of people. Doesn’t sound good does it?

I see parallels of this in the natural beauty sector (of which I am part).  Where a company or organisation might use this type of tactic to sell their products or promote natural beauty products as better than the non natural market.  So, instead of simply saying that natural and organic products are different from synthetics because they are based on  natural plant materials, are an exciting renewable option with inspiring new innovations, they reduce every single lab based ingredient to (a) bad for you (b) bad for the environment (c) generally evil.  Part of this is by creating other discourses which support that view based on a few select ‘evil’ ingredients.

One example was given quite well by a member of our  Facebook group .  She linked to an article titled ‘Stop using Vaseline immediately! 4 reasons you should never put petroleum jelly on your skin’.  The article claimed amongst other things  that petroleum (a) blocks pores and locks in ‘residue’ and ‘bacteria’ and; (b) it contains hydrocarbons which can be stored in the body.  It pointed to one piece of research to prove that petroleum was not good for health.  Other things were mentioned too, and surprise, surprise they gave an alternative of Shea butter which they said was much better for you.  Now Shea butter is a lovely product and could be an alternative to petroleum so why not just have an article about the great properties of Shea?

It didn’t take long for the group to identify some glaring errors in the article.  Some of our members are practising pharmacists and medical professionals who argued that petroleum products have been used safely in medicine for many years both externally and internally.  They are considered safe based on historical use as well as scientific research. People have success with treating a variety of skin ailments with petroleum jelly and that is why it is used so much in medicine. One woman said that it was one of the few ingredients that doesn’t cause her acne.  Some people also argued that as it is of such a limited resource, we should limit its use to purely medicinal purposes.

People were concerned with the environmental impact however it was also established that it is a by product of fossil fuel which is mined for energy (cars, electricity, gas cookers etc).  Some people (myself included) were not happy about the environmental impact, but conceded that at least all of the crude oil was used and nothing went to waste, since it was a secondary product from mining.  Another point was that often we ship our natural and organic ingredients using transportation.  This transportation uses gas which contributes unnecessarily to the carbon footprint.

Often you will see articles, which will cherry pick one or two pieces of research to prove their point, missing the wider picture and often going against any common sense. Labelling individual ingredients as toxic is also a great way to frighten people. Humans normally react beautifully to danger. We thrive in fight or flight situations.  So using alarmist language can frighten people into buying the non ‘toxic’ version.  The lesson from this is that we don’t need to use these scaremongering tactics, or, as one contributor said, ‘twist facts’ in order to make our products look better or to prove our subjective positions and we don’t need to resort to ‘othering’ to sell our natural products. All we need to do is talk positively about how our products function, the unique botanical ingredients we use and the great results they bring.

4 replies
  1. suki
    suki says:

    hi Rebecca! i am completely in accord w/your position re: ‘othering’! i, too, am a ‘natural’ skin care product formulator, but recently, i’ve begun to broaden my viewpoint, specifically re: the ingredients i will & will not employ. i started thinking about this very extreme trend towards all things ‘natural’ (observe the jumps in $s spent from 2010, 2012, & 2015, to today), not just in the western world, but the numbers from asia alone! If we continue in this direction, (& there’s nothing to indicate we won’t!), there are potentially many native plant species that could be & are threatened..especially when you consider the difficulties faced in cultivating mono-cultures, & the innate corruption & sometimes intrinsically irresponsible methodology of wildcrafting & its many filthy little transactions (i know of what i speak).
    This has led me to begin exploring unorthodox sources for materials for my products; ingredients which would not keep me awake @ night, wondering @ my part in the destruction of our natural world.
    1st, i’ve been exploring the synthetic, lab-made, basically benign GRAS ingredients you touched on in your article..including carbomer, silicones, minerals, such as all those ‘inorganic’☺ components of mineral makeup (which recently, i’ve actually been seeing articles online dissing, b/c they ‘sound’ toxic or chemical, like ‘titanium dioxide’! In lieu of using these ‘scary’ things, they advise to instead make your cosmetics from cinnamon & cocoa powder, which is fine, but is it necessary to freak out more people about more stuff that’s generally not dangerous?), also, propylene glycol, which i can’t actually locate any data to prove that its the poisonous villain some would suggest, & decent broad-spectrum preservatives that are reliable enough to not fail & benign enough to not instigate booby cancer, (i saw a reference last nite on alcohol & how its “dangerous, and makes skin irritable and is a known carcinogenic”!), & a number of non-vegan items, like lanolin & tallow in soap. Basically, just opening my eyes to recognize that a low incidence-allergen, generally mild & safe, tried & true product, in spite of being created in a lab, is a valuable asset, & not something to be discarded out of hand, simply because its not plant-based.
    2ndly, i’ve been reading this incredible guy, Stephen Buhner, who’s written a number of phenomenal books re: utilizing invasive plant species for medicine (& cosmetic, culinary, industrial, practical & novel uses & apps!). He cites innnumerable species, most, if not all, of which, grow directly in our yards, or somewhere nearby, & many which have substantial #s of valid, legitimate studies verifying these uses & applications..its a truly thrilling field & 1 which is just beginning to show enormous promise! Just, for example, using a bamboo or horsetail extract in a lotion featuring silica (biotin) as its star active, is a good step in that direction..i’m so freakin’ stoked about this, i just wanted to share w/someone who might understand.
    Sorry for the lengthy comment! i hope i haven’t taken too much of your time; i really respect your position & admire your blog & brand, & appreciate this site & resource! Thank you for all you do! Best regards, suki

    • Rebecca
      Rebecca says:

      Hi Suki,

      Thank you so much for taking your time to comment. I think I am like you in that I have been looking at things differently of late and seeing that things are not as benign as they may seem on first looking. We should never take anything at face value and deeper research is always needed.

      Thanks also for telling me about Staphen Buhner – I might just go have to take a look at some of his work.

      Bex xx

  2. Julia
    Julia says:

    Great blog, and so true – I hate when people complain about “chemicals” etc – in my latest research have found that most commerical brands who make products for sensitive skin using pertroleum jelly and mineral oils they are do not cause irritation.


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