The back-left corner of my bathroom sink is home to a trio of bottles: Neutrogena gel cleanser, Clarins facewash foam and Aesop eye-make-up remover. A nearby countertop is cluttered with more – an overnight treatment by Glamglow, Elemis micellar water, Kiehl's sunscreen, a packet of make-up removing wipes and some Panda-shaped face masks by a Korean beauty brand. It's a diverse concoction of cosmetics and, I admit, I have never once checked the list of ingredients on any one of them. But with natural and organic beauty becoming increasingly popular, I find myself questioning my approach to skincare.
The beauty regimens of most women (and a growing number of men) in the UAE involve a mixture of products, often by a number of different brands. In the morning, face wash, moisturiser, foundation and sunscreen are avidly rubbed onto the skin; at night, the face is cleansed and toned, and smothered in serums and night creams. This is supplemented by weekly masks, scrubs, exfoliators and more. And yet, like me, many people will have no idea what is actually contained within all that pretty packaging.
For example, more than half of the beauty products on the market contain skin-penetration enhancers, according to holistic nutritionist and author of The Green Beauty Guide, Julie Gabriel. Which means that whatever goes onto your skin is going into your body. "Your skin is a living, breathing organ, and research shows that, typically, 50 to 70 per cent of what you put on your skin eventually finds its way into your bloodstream through dermal absorption," says Aly Rahimtoola, the founder of UAE-based cosmetics brand Herbal Essentials.
Although studies have shed light on the risks associated with using cosmetics laden with synthetic, chemical-infused constituents, natural beauty has had a relatively slow uptake in the UAE. Concepts like cruelty-free testing and organically sourced ingredients have been largely lost on residents who are quick to tie themselves to designer brands, or follow social-media-driven hype when it comes to beauty products and treatments.
However, there does seem to be a growing desire for more wholesome skincare options – a recent study commissioned by Facebook IQ (the site's consumer research arm) showed that 84 per cent of beauty shoppers (women ages 18 and older, in six countries including the UAE) agree that their make-up and skincare routine is focused on looking after their skin, rather than just making it look good.
With a bachelor's degree in biomedical sciences, a master's in social epidemiology and a background as a healthcare researcher, 31-year-old Vila Vasoodaven launched Greenchicme.com in Dubai three months ago. An e-commerce shop selling a curated selection of natural and organic beauty brands, the site also contains an informative blog about keeping your skin healthy.
"Over the past five to 10 years, we've seen a boom in the industry. Buzzwords and phrases like 'superfood skincare' and 'beauty from within' are now trending. There has been a change in perception about natural skincare; people are starting to see that it's actually effective," she says.
Margo Marrone, founder of UK-based skincare brand The Organic Pharmacy, agrees that awareness on a global scale has increased exponentially over the past few years. "According to a new report by [US-based market research and consulting company] Grand View Research, the organic and personal care market is expected to reach US$25.1 billion (Dh92.1bn) by 2025, compared to $5 billion in 2005," she points out.
"Europe, the United Kingdom and United States are the fastest-growing [markets], but the Middle East is catching up fast, as more and more people are becoming aware of the toxic chemicals used in mainstream skincare."
Natural deodorant brand Bionsen found that in the average woman's daily beauty routine, about 515 synthetic chemicals are rubbed onto the skin. Many of these chemicals have been linked to adverse reactions in the body – from minor skin irritations to serious cases of asthma, autism, breast cancer, liver cancer, reproductive complications and more. Sometimes, harmful ingredients – like phthalates, parabens, sulfates and triscolan – appear in the formulas, but aren't listed on the labels. "At Herbal Essentials, we produce to EU standards, so you have to list everything," says Rahimtoola.
"Here's something that a lot of consumers don't realise, under the EU, you always put the product that has the most content first. In most creams, this is usually aqua, or water. So literally, the ingredients are ranked in order of content."
Rahimtoola is the first to admit that he isn't a scientist; he's a businessman who has researched the market extensively. "To ensure that our products are naturally derived, as a brand, we have a blacklist that we give to our formulators in France. It's called 'the nasties'."
Similarly, Vasoodaven screens the products she stocks at Greenchicme.com, and has posted a list of 14 ingredients that will always be avoided when recruiting brands.
This list includes oxybenzone, a common sunscreen ingredient that can cause contact dermatitis or skin allergies; toluene, a possible reproductive and human developmental toxicant used in nail polishes; and formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical that is sometimes found in soaps, lotions and shampoos.
Vasoodaven points out that there is a difference between natural and organic components. "Natural ingredients are plant-derived while organic is about how the ingredients are sourced – so environmentally farmed, without pesticides."
She emphasises that it's not enough for products to just be natural or organic – they need to be effective, too, and the companies she buys from need to have principles that she's personally aligned with. "It's beyond just skincare – it's about supporting ethical businesses as well, like cruelty-free and vegan options," she says.
Along with Grown Alchemist, Absolution, Izil Beauty, Melvita and Shirley Conlon Organics, The Organic Pharmacy is one of the brands listed on her site. "[Products are] 100 per cent natural and between 70 to 99.9 per cent organic," claims Marrone.
Rahimtoola's Herbal Essentials, meanwhile, combines naturally-
derived ingredients and ayurvedic wisdom with what he describes as modern techniques. "I'm sceptical. I don't think anything can be 100 per cent natural," he says, explaining that if a product is completely natural, then its shelf-life won't be very long. "When you cook something at home in your kitchen, it's only going to last a couple of days in the fridge," he says. Papaya, for instance, contains an enzyme that helps regulate melanin production in skin cells but it can't be bottled on its own.
"If you have issues with pigmentation, we know from ayurveda that papaya has this inherit trait. We also recognise that papaya needs to be blended with something that can tackle the environmental stressors on your skin today."
Rahimtoola refers to small, homegrown skincare labels like his own as "challenger brands". "The industry is dominated by the Estée Lauders and the L'Oréals, but up until a few years ago, those companies focused mainly on synthetic products." Niche, challenger brands, he claims, have prompted a change in thinking, and have influenced established brands to dabble with naturally-influenced products.
"Since the whole natural trend has taken off, a lot of big brands are incorporating 'natural-esque' skincare," says Vasoodaven. "It won't be a natural product, but they'll sell it as, say, a lavender shower gel. They're trying to get on that bandwagon, which is a bit dangerous because normal consumers wouldn't look to check the ingredients list, which could have, for all you know, 20 ingredients, where the only organic or natural product is the lavender. If they want to go down the natural route, I'm all for that, but it needs to come in an authentic organic way that isn't trying to dupe consumers," she adds.
At the same time, she acknowledges that many women, especially in this region, stay loyal to particular brands. "The usual Chanels and Diors, they're so committed to them," she says.
Part of the challenge, says Rahimtoola, is the fact that in the UAE, non-mainstream, non-synthetic skincare brands are relegated to pharmacies, making it difficult to compete with department-store beauty brands, where costs for placement are often unaffordable for start-up brands. "The industry here is quite fragmented," he says. As awareness increases, he hopes more mass retailers will consider stocking smaller brands at more reasonable rent and consignment costs.
The consumer beauty business will always have customers, says Rahimtoola. "Whatever the state of the economy is, everyone needs to wash their face, everyone is concerned with their appearance, for their own self-esteem," he says. Not everyone, however, is concerned about the health risks attributed to some synthetic chemicals and ingredients found in mainstream beauty products. At least not yet.
The Facebook IQ study showed that between November 2015 and November 2016, there was a 32 per cent rise in the mention of natural beauty terms on Facebook. Both Rahimtoola and Vasoodaven are optimistic about the potential for growth in the Middle East, but believe that more steps need to be taken in order to educate the public about the wisdom and benefits of naturally-derived cosmetics. As a starting point, Herbal Essentials has launched skin labs in various neighbourhood malls around the UAE, where visitors can receive skin analysis from trained beauty advisors, free of charge.
Most beauty experts advise consumers to make a gradual move, rather than a dramatic, overnight change. "If you are a newbie, the first two things I would change are your body lotion or oil, as you use it all over, and your lipstick and lip balm, as you eat it," says Marrone. "Then, change your skincare and fragrance, as you breathe this. Finally, change your hair care."
Proponents of this budding industry will tell you that there's really not much to contemplate; it's as simple as the fact that you wouldn't knowingly ingest cancer-causing chemicals in your food. They'll assure you that making the switch is a risk-free and almost instinctive move – a return to old-age wisdom, habits and practices.