“Nature lover” is taking on a whole new meaning in the beauty industry, with consumer demand driving the growth of “natural beauty” retailers such as The Body Shop, Garden Botanika and Bath and Body Works. On the professional side, many companies are adding or reformulating products with herbal I and botanical ingredients, and if Revlon’s purchase of Creative Nail Design signalled the nail industry’s entree into the mainstream beauty industry, Estee Lauder’s recent purchase of Aveda demonstrates the enormous potential marketers see in products formulated with natural ingredients. On the service side, salons can’t go “day spa” fast enough to keep up with the demand for services such as aromatherapy manicures and pedicures.

Herbal and plant extracts have been used for health and beauty needs for thousands of years. From Asia to Europe, India to South Africa, herbal and botanical remedies for health and beauty needs have been proved effective not only by the test of time but, in some cases, by modern research as well.

When Christina of Boca day spa in Boca Raton, Fla., opened in 1987, clients were very skeptical of the Seasalt Body Scrubs, Herbal Body Wraps, and Seaweed Body Wraps she offered, says owner Christina D. Netsch. Today, they not only swear by these same services, but they have embraced the “Herbal Pharmacy” Netsch added to the day spa last November. “Attitudes have changed completely,’’ Netsch says of the American public.

“I think there are three things driving the trend toward natural ingredients,” says Norma Weinberg, an herbal educator and health advocate who hosts “Herb’s Daughter,” a TV series on holistic health, and who is writing a book titled Natural Hand Care.

“First, people want products that won’t cause allergic reactions. Second, people have a fear of cancer and are concerned about all the synthetics being used in products. Third, people are more interested in protecting the environment.”

There is no question that nature offers many solutions to health and beauty problems or that many synthetics duplicate nature’s resources. For example, digitalis, which is used to treat heart disease, comes from the leaves of the digitalis plant. And alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are derived from fruit, are very effective natural exfoliants and antioxidants.

With more and more companies and salons promoting products containing any variety of herbal and botanical extracts, vitamins and minerals, and proteins, we just had to ask Do these natural ingredients live up to all the promises made on labels and in advertisements?

Define “Natural”

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), natural is no better than synthetic when it comes to beauty products. “We haven’t defined ‘natural ingredient,’“ says Allen Halper, assistant to the director of the FDA’s division of programs and enforcement policy in the Cosmetics and Colors office. “We consider it to be more a term of puffery designed to get consumers to buy the product. Consumers think that natural is better or provides something more than a synthetic ingredient.”

Many consumers perceive natural to mean “healthy,” “gentle,” “pure,” and “nourishing.” Many companies encourage these perceptions, as they are the hook that helps sell the product.

In marketing the Nutrinzix line of holistic (whole-body healing) products directly to salons, Paul Connors, managing director of the W. Palm Beach, Fla.-based company, asks this question: “Is it fair to say natural is better for you than chemical? If the answer is yes, let’s begin with that premise.

“Long before companies created chemicals, natural derivatives were used not only in medicine but in cosmetics,” he continues. “If we view it this way and acknowledge that the Chinese have been using them for 5,000 years and that they are the basis for the pharmaceuticals industry, then one should come to the conclusion that a natural ingredient is a better thing to put on your nails than X, Y, or Z chemical.”

Yet the implication that “synthetic” and “chemical” is synonymous with “unhealthy,” “dangerous,” and “harsh” infuriates people such as Doug Schoon, head of research and development for Creative Nail Design (Vista, Calif.).

“Water, our biggest natural resource, is a chemical,” Schoon points out. “There are many arguments that synthetics are better than natural ingredients because you can get better purity and control.” For example, plant extracts are affected by the plant’s ever-changing environment and by how the plant is processed to remove the ingredient. The beauty of synthetics, he says, is that these variables are eliminated, guaranteeing consistency.

“I think that both groups are right,” says Heidi Zwicky, owner of Heidi & Company, an Irving, Texas-based maker of a protein-based nail cream. “We talk about natural always being good and yet many poisons are natural. Generally, I do believe natural ingredients are more gentle than synthetics. But natural ingredients don’t have as long of a shelf life and are more easily contaminated. We need some of the synthetics to keep the products fresh.”

Fact Versus Fiction

Understanding an ingredient’s specific benefit as it is used in a beauty product is difficult. “Stories are woven from threads of truth,” says Joanne Larsen, a clinical dietician and professor at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, citing the marketing of collagen in skin-rejuvenating creams in the late 1980s. “Collagen is present in young skin and it does decrease with age, so companies put collagen in skin creams and claimed it would give you younger, healthier-looking skin.” Yet, she says, there is no proof that collagen applied to the skin will be absorbed in a beneficial way.

Calcium-enriched nail strengthened are another example of wrapping fiction around fact, says Larsen. “The implication is that calcium makes bones and teeth stronger, so if you put it on your nails it should make them stronger, too.” Makes sense, right? Many nail technicians and their customers think so, but most experts say it’s not true. “Nails are composed mostly of keratin (protein) and sulfur, which is what makes them rigid. Calcium won’t be absorbed into the nails,” Larsen says.

Nor will protein-enriched products make nails stronger or healthier. “There are so many proteins in nature - not just the 22 needed by humans - but does that mean they be absorbed into or bond onto the nails? No,” Larsen says.

“The matrix makes the nail plate which can’t be affected after the nail grows,” Schoon explain. “Proteins can bind moisture to the nails making them more flexible and less likely to crack or break, but they aren’t absorbed into the nail plate so their benefit is superficial and temporary.”

Yet there are natural derivatives that do promote the health and beauty of skin and nails. “Alpha hydroxy acids have proven, demonstrated benefits,” says Schoon. “They cause the top layer of skin to come off more quickly, which gives it a smoother appearance and gets rid of dryness and flaking. It’s the first real breakthrough ingredient in cosmetics.”

Other natural derivatives that show promise for beauty applications include vitamins E and C, “Most dermatologists believe skin damage is caused by the generation of free radicals [extremely reactive molecules that can negatively alter other molecular structures],” Schoon says. “Vitamin E is a free radical absorber, or antioxidant, and if it is, in fact, true that free radicals damage skin, then vitamin E will be of great use in correcting the damage.”

“Antioxidants are very important right now,” agrees Pat Peterson, manager of research and development at Minneapolis-based Aveda. “Vitamin C, in particular, has been shown to help prevent sunburn.” Both she and Schoon predict “exciting new product developments” using vitamin C in the coming year.

When customers want – and companies try to provide – the magic elixir, the true benefits of natural ingredients are found in the familiar workhorses such as aloe vera, tea tree oil (a natural antiseptic), jojoba oil (an excellent moisturizer), and other natural moisturizers and emollients. “Consumers tend to want something new all the time, but there are lots of tried-and-true ingredients that shouldn’t be ignored,” says Connors.

Likewise, Connors adds, “When you highlight a specific ingredient and say this is going to do this, it’s marketing hogwash. You have to look at how ingredient X works in the formulation and have some sense of why the ingredients have been linked together.” In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

And just how great are those parts is a question Brigitte Mars, an herbalist and nutritional consultant in Boulder, Colo., says nail technicians should answer when evaluating a product. “I would look and see where the so-called natural ingredients fall on the ingredients list,” she advises. “I think there are a lot of companies using herbs in their marketing yet the product contains only one-tenth of a percent of herbs.” She also warns that many products will claim to contain herbal ingredients, but the herbs they do contain are for fragrance or color—or for no reason at all.

Get What You Ask For

Like any other products, those making the “natural ingredients” claim must ultimately be judged by their own merits - do they work for you and your clients?

Ultimately, says Zwicky, nail technicians and their clients are the ones who will punish a company by not buying its products. “If a product doesn’t work, nail technicians won’t buy it again,” she says. What works and what doesn’t is sometimes an emotional judgment based on the odor and texture and other sensory stimuli of a product For example, a cuticle treatment containing almond oil used on one hand may have no greater effect than an unscented cuticle oil used on the other, but the person using it may perceive a much greater benefit.

The emotional response to a product can be so strong that people can realize the promised benefits even when the product itself can’t live up to its claims. It’s called the “placebo effect” and it works on 35%-40% of people. “No matter what you’re testing, even a nail fungus, one third of the patients will get better with a placebo,” explains Dr. Richard Scher, professor of dermatology and head of the Section for Diagnosis and Treatment of Nail Disorders at Columbia University-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. “One theory is that people start to pay more attention to the problem and take better care of themselves. Then there’s always a percentage who will get a spontaneous cure.”

Stanley B. Levy, director of medical affairs for Revlon Research Center and a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, N.C., agrees. “People feel like they’re doing something and say they feel better and look better as a result. Placebo and emotional benefits are tied closely together,” he says.

But for Levy and others like him, I the emotional benefits and placebo effects are not enough. “There is some validity in looking to natural sources,” he says. “Most original medicines were, and many still are, derived from nature. But everyone likes to get on the bandwagon. These lists of extracts, many of which can get thrown randomly into a moisturizer, don’t necessarily do much for the product.”

Proponents say much research has already been done and, clinical tests aside, no one can deny the test of time many natural ingredients have already passed, handed down through the centuries in cultures around the world.

Nature’s Path Leads to Green Door Day Spa

Aveda and The Body Shop aren’t the only businesses succeeding with the “back to nature’’ movement Salons such as Green Door Day Spa in Manchester, Vt., are investing lots of time and effort in developing natural ingredients-based products and services.

“I’ve been using naturalingredients for as long as I can remember I believe that what you put on your body is as important as what you put in it,” says owner Ruth Gurry.

Green Door manicure clients enjoy a hand mask that contains powdered seaweed, bee pollen, oat bran, and clays as well as the clients personally chosen essential oil

Gurry credits herdayspa’s use of aromatherapy and essential oils with setting it apart from other local salons. “We use a diffuser (which emits fragrant oils into the air) to create a natural, inviting atmosphere, judicious combinations of essential oils have mood- enhancing effects and help our clients to leave the stress of their daily lives.

“Aromatherapy and the use of essential oils is net a passing fad,” she asserts “As a way of enhancing personal wellness and well-being, they are here to stay We are all looking for alternatives to synthetic-based products that often irritate skin, create allergic reactions and trigger a host of unpleasant symptoms. Through the personal use of many naturally based products, I have felt changes in my skin my sense of well being and my general emotional state.”

Clients, too, note the difference “I remember an older gentleman who came in for a pedicure one day” she recounts. “A half hour after he left he suddenly returned to ask me what he had been breathing during his service. I told him about the diffuser and explained it had been diffusing rosemary and peppermint.

“It seems that the gentleman had been plagued by congestion and an annoying cough for days, but suddenly felt much better As a result he purchased a diffuser and a selection of oils”

Gurry has studied botanicals for several years, and she and her staff continue to educate themselves or botanicals and essential oils. She and salon owners like her are in a small but growing category of nature-based salons that may prove to be a new frontier in nail and body care.


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