There was a time when it took effort and know-how to track down an organic moisturiser or shampoo.
Now there’s a Neals Yard Remedies on almost every high street; supermarkets and chemists have got their own natural brands and mainstream glossies run features on how to be ‘naturally gorgeous.’
Over the last five years there’s been an extraordinary explosion in the number of natural and organic beauty products.
When I started working for The Ecologist four years ago the scene was easy to keep tabs on. There were the old-school brands like Weleda (founded in 1921), and Dr Hauschka (launched in 1967) along with a string of small-scale pioneers making handmade balms and body lotions from a workshop in their garden.
Growing green beauty
Now barely a week goes by without another press release about a new skincare line. Natural beauty which goes by many names – ‘eco’, ‘ethical,’ ‘green,’ or ‘organic’ – is big business. According to Organic Monitor, the UK market is worth £110m and global sales of natural and organic cosmetics are increasing by over US $1 billion a year.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Whole Foods flagship store in London where you can browse 25 different brands.
These days there is so much choice that there is even a book, The Green Beauty Bible (now available in paperback) that has tested 1850 products in a bid to help you find the best.
I spoke to the book’s authors, Josephine Fairley and Sarah Stacey, to find out why we now need a ‘Bible’ to show us how to shop.
Does the overuse and abuse of the world ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ on labels have anything to do with it?
‘There are now an extraordinary number of products,’ says Sarah. ‘But just because a product has a tomato on the label it doesn’t mean it’s natural.’
Looking at the label is fine if you have a ‘list of ingredients to avoid’ list or a search engine on hand. But for most people it’s a complicated and confusing experience.
To make things simpler they developed a ‘daisy rating.’ With the help of an industry expert they assessed each product based on their ingredients. One daisy indicates ‘mostly botanical’ (with a small percentage of petrochemically-derived ingredients.) Two daisies means ‘botanically-derived with no synthetics’ and three daisies is a mark that it is certified organic.
The best of the tests
For their book, all 1,850 products were sent to ten 'real women' to be tried and tested. There is, however, no such thing as a free lunch. Or mascara.
'We give very complicated forms to our testers,' says Jo. Only the top scoring products made it into the Bible.
The result is perhaps the most practical book on natural beauty available, covering everything from suncream and toothpaste to facial oils and fragrance. It’s more than just a ‘best buys’ product catalogue. As well as rating the top cleansers/eye pencils/conditioners it also flags up environmental issues such as the importance of buying organic cotton flannels. There are plenty of tips from experts too, that don't involve splashing out - the art of facial massage for instance.
Both Jo and Sarah’s interest in natural beauty goes back a long way. For Jo, the starting point was reading a series of books on natural living under the Vogue imprint when she was ‘about twelve’.
'There were lots of natural recipes for cosmetics, so I had a go. They had a very early influence on me. It was really weird that they were Vogue imprints!'
In the late eighties she wrote a green column for The Times called ‘Ecosphere’, and became a beauty editor in 1991. Since then she's been at the forefront of the organic food and natural beauty movement.
Sarah has written about the environment since the eighties, first in a column for The Telegraph, then at the Daily Express in the nineties when she began to look at what goes into skincare. ‘I was looking at campaigning on GM and I became aware a lot contained GM ingredients.’
Now she is the health editor of the The Mail on Sunday’s 'You' magazine, and prefers to use natural cosmetics and skincare ‘wherever possible.’
‘One of the readers of my column wrote in to say they had rung up the head office of L’Oreal and berated them about SLS [sodium laureth sulphate, a potential skin irritant] in their brands. It was marvellous,’ she says.
Despite their serious credentials there is a lightness of touch in the book. It isn’t heavy on the preaching or scaremongering. 'I don’t like killer cosmetics headlines or cosmetics paranoia,' says Jo.
Both now run the beautybible.com website, 'the No.1 source for independent beauty advice worldwide' which, I was surprised to find, rates a whole range of products – not just natural ones.
Jo says they always test everything, no matter if it’s high-tech or natural. ‘What we don’t want is women spending money on rubbish that doesn’t live up to its claims or promises. We like to think we can help people to be green by minimising the chance of buying stuff that doesn’t deliver so they throw it away.’
Ultimately no amount of cream (high-tech or natural) can help you if your diet is junkfood, you don’t get enough sleep and you smoke like a chimney. Lifestyle plays a big part in how you look and the final chapter in the book on ‘natural living’ does address this.
Jo describes herself as ‘ridiculously healthy’, does yoga four times a week, swims in the sea every day up until November (she lives in Hastings), eats organic food, goes to meditation classes and takes vitamins. Sarah lives in west Dorset with five horses and an office in the garden overlooking the hills. ‘I have better skin at 60 than I did in my 20s, 30s, and 40s largely due to the unpolluted atmosphere,’ she says.
There are obviously some things money can’t buy (like fresh air.) But this book may at least make sure yours is well spent.
The revised paperback edition of The Green Beauty Bible by Sarah Stacey & Josephine Fairley is out now (£14.99, Kyle Cathie)
For more information on natural beauty from The Beauty Bible website click here
Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor
- How to make your own skincare products
- 5 beauty products to avoid
- Behind the Label: Pantene Pro V Style
For ethical and sustainable suppliers of health and beauty products goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here