Why I Stopped Buying ‘Natural’ Baby Products.
[Image Credit: cropped from Donnie Ray Jones, CC by 2.0]
[Maria’s Note: I’m thrilled today to introduce Meredith Riley, Fitness Reloaded’s latest addition to the Experts Team. Just like many new moms, Meredith was also persuaded that natural baby products where the best – since they were non-toxic. And if they were non-toxic that meant all non-natural products were toxic, right?
Why I bought Natural Baby Products
The diapers had anchors on them and promised to keep my kid safe, so I bought them. I thought it was a reasoned choice, but if I’m honest, the “natural” brand mainly appealed to me through a vague fear of toxic chemicals covering my son’s “peanut” (his word).
I eventually stopped buying the diapers because they didn’t work any better than cheaper brands and because my son’s peanut didn’t mind the thrifty alternative.
I also tried the “natural” and “ultra pure” sunscreen, but adequately rubbing 20% zinc oxide (a.k.a grease) into a wiggly toddler is an art project for which I don’t have time. This was before the company changed their formula and received subsequent complaints about sunburned little kids.
Next up was the toothpaste that “naturally promotes healthy teeth and gums.” I used it for a couple months until I took my kids to the dentist, who reminded me to brush with fluoride, apparently an ingredient many “safer” brands proudly shun.
But it wasn’t the pretty products that made me abandon “natural” or “non-toxic” brands. It was the marketing.
Sure, every company tries to sweet talk their way into my pocket book, but the green market has shifted away from guilt about the environment towards blatant “toxin” fear mongering.
I get annoyed when I notice someone profiting off my parenting neuroses, especially when they use cloying terms like “humble honesty.”
Implicit message: If you don’t go natural, the kids will get cancer
The not so subtle subtext of the emerging natural market is that buying the wrong baby wash or diapers will put my family in harm’s way. And “harm’s way” doesn’t mean a pesky rash.
Instead, the ubiquitous and vague phrase “non-toxic” casually suggests their competitors’ products are “carcinogenic” and “endocrine disrupting.” In other words, if I buy the wrong thing I’ll probably give my kids cancer and make them infertile. No biggie.
I started to wonder: If a company is “honest” and “pure,” are those drugstore brands super villains trying to inject their soulless poison into your baby’s butt? If a deodorant doesn’t leave a “toxic residue,” does this mean other deodorants do? Am I a bad mom for buying my kid Pampers?
These are questions many parents ask themselves, which is why the “natural” market is lucrative. For example, the popular brand The Honest Company—started by the actress Jessica Alba–is valued at 1 BILLION dollars.
As this Forbes article aptly observes, the market has tapped into “a growing demand for safe, nontoxic products, particularly among young helicopter parents who treat children — and what goes near or inside them — like porcelain.”
Natural Baby Products – a stepping stone to woo?
Forbes is almost right. The all natural demand started with the helicopter parents, but has quickly expanded to the rest of us. We got hooked by the cute diapers and the vague fear of toxins.
But the next step is putting amber teething necklaces on our kids or spritzing them with essential oil to keep the flu away.
In other words, those diapers and toothpaste in Target are the gateway drug to woo because once you buy into the message, you start to see toxins everywhere; you start to buy all the self-proclaimed safer products; and, you start to fear the chemical bogeyman.
Or worse, you jump feet first down the rabbit hole and become a direct sales representative selling personal care products and essential oils, believing anything other than these products is downright dangerous to everyone’s health.
You start to believe you have special knowledge about the scary world around you. But you don’t. You are just a consumer play acting at toxicology.
No, “unnatural” products won’t give the kids cancer
Perhaps my critique isn’t entirely fair. The natural companies played the market fair and square, and as ridiculously successful companies go, many are savvy enough to keep most of their claims obtuse and vanilla.
They also do lots of charity work, like swooping in and telling child care centers how to keep kids safe by… well, by using their products.
Frankly, donating products to daycares is nice. It’s innocuous. However, the message bubbling underneath is not— the claim parents protect their families by buying these products is also a claim that buying something else puts our families in danger. This is a claim that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny and is more than a little elitist.
For example, Slate did a good job explaining why natural diapers are not worth the money if you are worried about safety. All diapers are actually incredibly safe.
Similarly, a chemist— who works on establishing the safety of personal care products— told me she buys products from the large, so-called “dishonest” companies because she can be sure they are rigorously tested for safety and efficacy.
The lack of FDA premarket approval, a lack that many natural companies emphasize, works both ways. Those natural products aren’t getting approval either and aren’t necessarily safer (and companies that eschew synthetic preservatives could be less safe).
In fact, this chemist doesn’t put any stock in “natural” marketing. Natural doesn’t equal safe. Synthetic doesn’t equal unsafe. This is called the naturalistic fallacy.
Ironically, many of the products put forth by the self-proclaimed safer companies don’t even garner the illusive A rating of the dubious Environmental Working Group. This, of course, means nothing about the actual safety of their products.
However, companies claiming other products are unsafe now themselves defending their own safety record by trying to explain the fundamental rule of chemistry—that the dose makes the poison. In the natural product world, this comes down to a game of worry about those other company’s chemicals, but don’t worry about mine.
They also use marketing jargon to set a tone of fear. Let’s talk about deodorant.
The following is an actual description of a popular natural brand’s deodorant:
Clean and non-irritating with NO white, sticky, or toxic residues—won’t rub off or stain clothing. Unlike antiperspirants, our aluminum free deodorant doesn’t clog ducts or pores, allowing for natural breathability.
Okaaaay. I like to be stain free and poison free, so that’s good. What exactly are “toxic residues” anyway? And how do armpits breathe? If they don’t breathe naturally, what will happen? Will I suffocate?
And, if I actually want to combat funk, does this mean other aluminum filled antiperspirants will turn me into a toxic science experiment?
I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on breathing armpits is an ever so subtle allusion to the idea aluminum traps toxins and causes breast cancer (It doesn’t.) The language is vague, so I can’t be sure what claims are being made. However, the marketing is fishy, much like the smell of your naturally breathing armpits.
How a Natural Baby Products Empire Got Started
Leaving the actual products aside, let’s look at origin stories—I love origin stories. How do these natural companies come into existence? How did their founders gain insight into the scary world around them? For example, what is the origin story that turned a popular actress into a maven?
She got a rash.
In 2008, she washed some new baby clothes in a popular mild baby detergent. Her skin broke out painfully. This inflamed skin led to thoughts about chemicals and toxins and increased rates of autism and ADHD.
As she said, “I was like ‘What is going on? What have we done to the world?’” She then did some research on the internet, went on a 4 year quest to find the right business partner, and, voila, a billion dollar company was born.
Frankly, I can sympathize. I too have sensitive skin prone to periodic rashes. However, connecting our skins’ distaste for added fragrance to the rising rates of autism and ADHD is much too simplistic. Apparently, it is also lucrative.
And it’s not just about natural baby products, it’s also about (natural) personal care products
The big natural names are savvy marketers. But their language also tend towards temperance compared to the growing direct marketing companies.
For example, the young founder of a new direct marketing company claims to sell the “safest full line” of personal care products. This is a dig at those other natural companies who aren’t as honest as she would like.
This company not only sells products, but sells the opportunity to sell, to make a living convincing others their drugstore brands are poison. They mean this literally. They actively encourage women to take other products back to the stores from whence they came and indignantly tell the cashiers about their dangerous coffers.
This company was founded by a young teen who did some internet research and parlayed a blog into a growing business with the help of a grandfather in the direct sales industry.
Like others, she is a marketing genius. Unfortunately, this marketing acumen is joined with the critical thinking skills of a 14 year old (although, to be fair, she is about 20 now).
Think I’m too harsh? Then let’s take a peek at the website. It includes a prominent “Did You Know?” section that lists some facts.
For example, she writes, “the FDA does not regulate the personal care products industry and hopes that cosmetic companies will do their due diligence and issue safe products.”
This is true, but what conclusions does she want the consumer to draw from this fact? I suspect she wants us to believe her unregulated products are better than the other unregulated products. They could be better, or they could be worse.
Personally, in the wild west of personal care products, I believe I’m better off trusting the companies with large scientific research teams.
Let’s look at other items on the “Did You Know?” list: “1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer in their lifetime, 1 in 68 children and 1 in 42 boys are identified with autism spectrum disorder in the US, and Alzheimers is up 500% in the past 20 years.”
Those numbers are not backed by any citations, but even if we accept them as true, what does this mean? That if I don’t buy the safest natural products, I’ll get cancer, give birth to autistic children, or lose my mind?
The facts page gets worse: “According to the President’s Cancer Panel only 10% of cancer is genetic and 90% is caused by environmental factors.”
I can read subtext. Buy our products or get cancer. This type of marketing makes my toxic armpits suffocate with rage.
The company also helpfully includes a list of products to avoid, a list she encourages consumers and direct sales representatives to print and take with them when shopping.
For example, she defines parabens as “preservatives linked to breast cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, and developmental defects. California Study (10/11) of BPA and methylparaben combination turned healthy cells into cancer cells, and rendered tamoxifin ineffective.”
That sounds pretty damning. Unfortunately, this description isn’t evidence based.
For comparison, the FDA, the same FDA she wishes would regulate personal care products, says, “at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”
Similarly, Paula Begoun has noted:
…how do tiny levels of parabens in skin care stack up against other phytoestrogens that occur naturally in food or the estrogenic effects of commonly consumed medicines?
In-vivo testing demonstrated parabens were 10,000 times weaker than naturally occurring phytoestrogens, such as those found in the foods and medicines we consume every day.
The problem: We think we’re thinking, but we’re not really
The fear mongering is bad enough, but the potential for misinformation spewing out via direct sales representatives is an even bigger problem. Women feel empowered by the “research” done by natural companies, and then draw their own conclusions.
For example, some claims sound like this:
Hearing [her] message has been life changing… after years of infertility, we are waiting on the arrival of our first child at the age of 38! We can’t fully understand how these harmful chemicals are affecting our health until we make the switch!
Is this woman suggesting her old products were making her infertile? Yes she is. This line of thinking lacks plausibility. It is also an extreme case of confusing correlation with causation.
She switched products around the time she got pregnant, and now believes, without any evidence, her old products were keeping her from getting pregnant. If this were true, fertility doctors would rapidly lose clients as they simply bought new shampoo.
The larger problem: Our unquestioned bias in favor of natural
Fearing chemicals, fearing hard to pronounce words, and fearing anything deemed “unnatural” is a waste of time and money. Moms are powerful. Our purchasing power matters. Therefore, we should demand safe products, but we shouldn’t be swayed by paranoia.
We should be wary of the naturalistic fallacy, of abandoning our critical thinking skills because someone tosses around the words “non-toxic,” “pure,” or “safe.” Buying into fear based marketing doesn’t make us part of a movement changing the world.
We are not being informed. We are not being empowered. We are being marketed to. Natural marketing and misinformation is toxic to our mental health.
Therefore, all you chemophobes, let me go buy my “toxic” baby wash, my “endocrine disrupting” sunscreen, my paraben filled cosmetics, my fluoride toothpaste, and my aluminum antiperspirant in peace. You have fun with your $18 face wash.
And if I get cancer, don’t worry, I’ll know who to call for my life saving smoothies and organic coffee enemas.
Now I have a question: How do you feel about the marketing tactics of “natural” companies? Do you agree? What products would you buy for you and your family? Leave a comment below.
Clare O’Conner. “How Jessica Alba Built a $1 Billion Company, and $200 Million Fortune, Selling Peace of Mind.” 27 May 2015. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2015/05/27/how-jessica-alba-built-a-1-billion-company-and-200-million-fortune-selling-parents-peace-of-mind/
David Gorski. “Breast Cancer Myths. No, Antiperspirants Do Not Cause Breast Cancer.” Science Based Medicine. 6 October 2014. https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/cutting-the-other-breast-off-does-not-improve-breast-cancer-survival/
Deodorant Product Description. The Honest Company. https://www.honest.com/bath-and-body/deodorant
“Fluoride.” Mouth Healthy by the American Dental Association. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/f/fluoride
“Ingredient and Issue Information and Resources.” Ava Anderson Non-Toxic. http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/why-non-toxic/
Kim Masters. “Jessica Alba Tears on Her Way to Building a $1 Billion Business.” The Hollywood Reporter. 3 October 2014. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jessica-albas-tears-her-way-736714
Lisa Parker and Robin Green. “Burn Notice: Angry Parents, Sunburned Kids and Complaints About a Popular Brand of Sunscreen.” NBC Chicago. 24 July 2015. http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/Angry-Parents-Complaints-About-Popular-Sunscreen-Brand-318367591.html
Melinda Wenner Moyer. “Are Jessica Alba’s Trendy Diapers Really the Poop?” Slate. 20 June 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2013/06/honest_diapers_are_all_the_rage_these_days_but_are_they_really_any_better.single.html
“Parabens.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 31 October 2007. http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm128042.htm
Paula Begoun. “Parabens. Are They Really a Problem?” Paula’s Choice Skincare. http://www.paulaschoice.com/expert-advice/myths/_/parabens-are-they-really-a-problem
Robert Farrington. “Starting a Million Dollar Business at 14 with Ava Anderson.” The College Investor. 15 September 2014. http://thecollegeinvestor.com/8955/starting-million-dollar-business-14-ava-anderson/
“What is Polysorbate 80?” Honestly. The Honest Blog. 26 February 2015. https://blog.honest.com/polysorbate-80/
Excellently researched and written.
Thank you Diane!
Great article. Appreciate the citations/research you did.
Great article but just wanted to point out that Paula Begoun is not a dermatologist. She was originally a makeup artist and esthetician, and now she is an entrepreneur and the founder/owner of “Paula’s Choice”. She does employ a team of people with scientific training who provide good information re: cosmetic ingredients in the Beautypedia section of the Paula’s Choice website.
Great catch. Yes, that’s right.
I am a chemical engineer, and toxicologist. While I agree that it is true that natural doesn’t equal safe and obviously there is a
lot of marketing and fear factor that goes into all products (both natural and
conventional). Your argument has 2 major flaws. It is totally
ignorant to idea of cumulative
acceptable levels. While product x may be at or below the acceptable level of
chemical y, and that has been deemed safe for humans, no one uses only one
product. Therefore if you use 10 products on a daily basis that are all at or
below the acceptable level you end up being exposed to 10 times that acceptable
level on a daily basis. Also these chemical are more harmful to
babies/small children as the enzymes (CYP 3A4’s primarily) that work to
detoxify chemicals are still immature in children. Children also have a higher
body fat percentage than adults, which is where these chemicals like to
“hang out”. This means that they can get into their fat cells and get
released over time as they grow
This is a great comment and something I actually had in the back of my mind when writing the post. I was thinking about accumulated levels, but was not convinced that natural products had a better grasp than other companies on this topic or that their products were indeed any safer. I’m all for more research and possibly regulation, but I believe this research is currently being done by some of the larger companies. I was also under the impression that environmental exposure was much much more prevalent than any exposure in personal care products, which are actually tested quite rigorously. Additionally, this assumes levels are very close to the minimum acceptable level. These are all questions that I’m happy chemists are asking themselves, but currently the marketing of the natural products preys on unfounded fears and a general fear of chemicals without any of the nuance. Again, thanks for a well thought out comment. Too often comments are polarizing or link to the EWG (which doesn’t have the best scientific reputation).
I’m not a toxicologist, but I understood that the recommended safe levels for day to day chemical exposures have a large safety factor built into them precisely to allow for multiple exposures in the environment. For example, isn’t the maximum safe level set for daily dietary exposure to aluminum two orders of magnitude below the level of detectable harm? (i.e you would have to consume 100 times more aluminum every day simply to reach a level which has not been shown to cause any harm over a lifetime.) Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Watch “The Human Experiment” (on Netflix) 80,000 chemicals are on the market in the United States. 62,000 of these were grandfathered in after the TSCA Act of 1976. 42 billion pounds of chemical enter American commerce every day. Most of these chemicals are not tested for safety because industry in America does NOT have to prove it is safe before it goes on the market. Vote with your $$ people, supply and demand. Read the labels. At the very least, just give a shit about nature… if you’re not outraged then you’re not paying attention to what the hell is going on.
Find out the “score” of your product at ewg.org/skindeep