Ay, There’s the Rub: to be or not to be … a natural beauty

392775_10152667216810088_1070941758_nBeing in the unfortunate majority of the population that has not been graced by nature with flawless skins or barbiesque features, the natural thing to do is to elicit help from the artificial. But this age that we live in, this age that is so technologically advanced where titanium-built spaceships shuttle between Mars and Earth like we shuttle between home and work, is also curiously anti-artificial.

No, I don’t mean plastic surgery. The plastic age is pathetically last-century.

We are talking about advanced cosmetic technologies that can pass off as ‘natural’. Organic this and organic that, and more to the bafflement of most consumers, inorganic minerals.

The recent trend is that when it comes to choosing paint for your face, ground stone is the choice. That’s what the manufacturers claim at least, that they take ingredients directly from the earth, mostly mineral stones, pulverise them, purify them in Alpine snow water and bake them in the Italian sun. How about that for receiving gifts from Mother Nature? Some even claim eminent provenance from history, digging evidence from the Ancient Egyptians. So there you are, powerful energies from Nature combined with time-honoured wisdom of the ancients, and if that sounds too New Age for the sceptics, we also have medical experts to back their beneficial claims:

  1. their hypoallergic quality due to the elimination of nonessential additives e.g. fragrance, oil or water base, preservatives etc.; and
  2. the sunscreen effect they have as the main ingredients are essentially the same as in most sunscreens, i.e. zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Apart from the obvious false attribution to the Ancient Egyptians (we all know that Cleopatra plastered lethal doses of lead on her pretty face), there are also a few myths to break in this business. For a start, the ingredients do NOT come directly from the earth. The crystal form (i.e. pulverisable form) of zinc oxide is extremely rare in nature, and almost all the zinc oxide used in our makeup is manufactered in the laboratory (i.e. artificial). And while titanium dioxide is more readily available in crystal form, it has to be purified in chemical process before we can apply it on our face. And sadly to report that such process does not involve any Alpine snow or Himalayan water; instead it is chlorine that is used. There’s no Italian sun smiling in the laboratory either, at best, you get a pure oxygen flame.

The natural energies taken away, we still have a few objectivie scientific benefits to rely on. True, but some companies are making a circle progress. Actually there’s nothing new about the minerals in these mineral products, for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been in use ever since human started the ritual of face painting. What distinguishes these so-called ‘mineral makeups’ from ordinary ones is the fact that they do not contain other things than a few mineral powders. So when manufacturers started adding solution base or preservatives back, they are just going back to what they have always made.

So far so good.

But the medical debates surrounding the main ingredients are more complicated than the components that make up the products. Doctors have not yet come to a consensus regarding the potential harm that some ingredients can do to our health. International Agency for Research on Cancer classify titanium dioxide as a IARC Group 2B carcinogen, meaning that it is possibly carcinogenic to humans. When inhaled in dust, it could cause respiratory tract cancer and lung cancer. While traditional sunscreens mix titanium dioxide in a solution, ‘pure’ mineral makeups are sold in the powder form, and anyone who has used them knows how easily one inhales the powder while applying these makeups.

Yet it doesn’t mean that we are safe from harm when we put on our (recommended by dermatologist) sun protection. Thanks to the latest nano technology, many sunscreen manufacturers now use nanomaterials in their products to make sun-blocking ingredients like titanium oxide and zinc oxide rub on ‘cosmetically clear’ instead of white – that means they give you a sheer translucent finish rather than making you look like a light-reflecting geisha. The problem with this nano technology is that it makes the particles many times smaller, hence easier to be absorbed through the skin and by the internal organs. The particles are also potentially more excitable than ordinary ones as the surface area to volume ratio is increased significantly. What it means is that for ingredients with known excitability, they actually become hyperallergic, defeating their intended hypoallergic property. For example, titanium dioxide is known to be highly reactive when in contact with relatively stable metals such as aluminium or gold. In fact, there have been reported cases of gold allergy in patients who use products containing titanium dioxide. There are in fact other potential harms that nanominerals can do to our health, including increased risk of heart disease, genetic harm etc., explained in this report.

Both zinc oxide and titanium oxide are physical sunscreen agents. They are inorganic materials that protect the skin from UV rays simply by blocking them off. There are, however, also organic sunscreen agents that act by absorbing UV rays. Not all of them are safe, and some even have detrimental effects on our skins. For example, octocrylene and oxybenzone can penetrate the skin and act as photosensitiser, resulting in increased production of free radicals under illumination (sunlight) and therefore, potentially photocarginogenic.

So there’s the rub. When we are told to put on sunscreens to block off the risk of skin cancer, we have no choice but to use products that may lead to other forms of cancer, or even the very same form of cancer we try to avoid. While we’re told to organic or inorganic cosmetic products, we are NOT told of the whole range of possible adverse effects that they can bring us. While dermatologists recommend one type of product over another, their advice is strictly topical (a very apt word here). Anywhere outside of their territories of concern is not their business – naturally.

There is no such thing as natural beauty in this age of artificiality. To look for it you’ve got to look into the Romantic idea of aesthetic transcendentalism.

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