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Naturals: The New Cosmetic Religion
By: Johann W. Wiechers, PhD, JW Solutions
Posted: December 7, 2010
page 2 of 4
Recently, I gave a course on basic formulating in Bangkok, Thailand during In-Cosmetics Asia. The HLB concept of surfactants was discussed. During the coffee break, a woman approached me and asked what I thought of natural surfactants. I replied, "They exist," which amazed the questioner, who had anticipated I would sing the praises of natural surfactants. She argued that natural surfactants were better because they were natural, which I, as a non-believer in this "cosmetic faith" could not underwrite.
“Natural surfactants are better surfactants because they are natural” is a statement similar to “God exists because he exists.” One does not convince a non-believer with this reasoning. My first question was to her was “What is better?,” and the second was “What is natural?” The responses were: a natural surfactant does not irritate skin and is better for the skin, and that an ingredient with an endorsement from a natural qualifying bodies is natural.
On my follow-up question asking why natural surfactants did not irritate skin, the answer was “Because they are natural.” I explained that a surfactant is a molecule with a lipophilic and hydrophilic part in its structure that are spatially separated, causing it to have partial solubilities in oil and water and therefore solubilize oil in water or water in oil. The same structures also have a high probability of interacting with biological membranes such as phospholipids that have similar properties, which is the reason for the skin irritancy of surfactants.
The word natural does not pop up in this cause-and-effect explanation. Natural surfactants can also be irritating but don’t have to be irritating. Synthetic surfactants can also be irritating but do not have to be irritating. It's not that every natural surfactant does not irritate, nor that every irritating surfactant is synthetic. I asked this woman for scientific evidence that natural surfactants were milder, and she stated that they had to be as all major cosmetic firms were switching to natural surfactants. When I called this clever marketing, she called me a skeptic and ended the conversation. Obviously, I did not turn this believer into a non-believer, nor did she turn this non-believer into a believer, but it got me thinking how cosmetic scientists can even believe such non-scientific things.
In "When Scientists Sin," a recent Scientific American column, Michael Shermer asked what happens when scientists sin. He quoted Richard Feynman who said in 1974, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”