Lorraine Dallmeier knows a thing or two about formulas. I first discovered her expertise from her blog Herb & Hedgerow and realized instantly that this woman not only knows her stuff, she has also integrated it. Lorraine is someone we can all learn from.
Wait til you hear about her many achievements (truly impressive!) and how she has used hardcore wisdom and knowledge to train a new wave of skin care professionals. In this candid interview, I get down to the nuts and bolts on how to read a product label and what ingredients you’d want to find in your anti-aging, blemish preventing, or skin brightening formulas.
So let’s dive right in to these revealing answers that Lorraine generously shared with us….
Q: Lorraine, you have been incredibly productive—so much so that you not only run a highly informative website Herb & Hedgerow and contribute DIY recipes to DIY Beauty Diva, but you are also director of Formula Botanica, a school geared to training people in the art of skincare formulations. Can you give us a line or two describing how each of these platforms serves others and what your goals are for these endeavors? What drives your motivation and passion? Are they equally important to you or is one of them “your baby”?
A: It’s been a whirlwind of activity and fun over the last few years since I got involved in the world of natural and organic skincare. It all started when I launched my BeautyCraft app for iPhone in 2012.
I was on maternity leave with my first son and decide to channel my passion for DIY beauty recipes into my love of tech so I developed a DIY beauty app. BeautyCraft contains 101 DIY recipes that you can make using ingredients that are easy to find in your local shops. I noticed that all the DIY recipes on the internet required you to go out and buy expensive oils, essential oils and butters, so I thought I’d focus on the fruit, vegetables and herbs you can buy in the supermarket instead. It turned out to be a popular subject and BeautyCraft app has now been downloaded in over 70 countries worldwide.
Following the launch of the app, I set up DIY Beauty Diva—a website that provides and curates homemade beauty recipes. In the meantime I also started blogging about the science of botanical skincare at Herb & Hedgerow, which has proven to be extremely popular as I now have about 25,000 readers a month. My ultimate plan was to start my own natural and organic skincare brand, selling a range of high performance herbal facial masques. However, by now I had two small boys running around the house and I knew it wasn’t going to be an option for a few years (but you never know what might happen in the future!).
In 2014 I was given the amazing opportunity to take over the running of Formula Botanica, the online Organic Cosmetic Science School. The school now has over 800 students from over 65 countries and teaches people how to start their own natural and organic skincare business. It’s been very exciting working with all these inspiring and amazing women and men from all over the world – many of them have gone on to launch their own skincare business and many more are working on it as we speak! We run 11 different courses or programs; the most popular is our flagship program—the International Organic Skincare Entrepreneur Program—which only opens for enrollment twice a year.
Out of all these different projects and websites, my ultimate first love is still blogging and researching and I have LOTS of exciting plans for the coming years. I just need more time to do them all!
Q: A while ago, I carelessly bought a cosmetics label that had the word “Naturals” in the brand name, but found that it contained ingredients I prefer to avoid. I consider myself an educated consumer. There are many more people new to the clean beauty scene who want to make the switch to greener and cleaner products, but find it hard to navigate the confusing labels. What is the first thing to look for when you’re analyzing a beauty product?
A: It isn’t easy reading cosmetics labels if you are not familiar with the ingredients that are listed on them. Learning what these ingredients do takes time and effort, which is often confused by many well-meaning websites. I like the idea of some of these online ingredients websites where you can research what’s in your cosmetics and then get a ‘rating’, but even in those cases the information is often taken out of context and isn’t giving you the entire picture.
The other problem I see is that so-called ‘facts’ are picked up and go viral around social media. I would be a very rich woman if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen someone talk about our bodies absorbing 60% of what we put on the skin, but unfortunately this is simply not true – you can’t put a figure on something so complex.
And as if all of that isn’t confusing enough there is an additional layer of complexity in that many ingredients are naturally derived and nature identical. This means that they are synthesized in a lab but are chemically exactly the same as the plant extracts you get from nature. A good example of this is sorbic acid, which is often used as part of natural preservative systems in cosmetics. I would love to tell you that all sorbic acid used in cosmetics comes from rowan berries, but the truth is that this simply isn’t commercially viable for the industry and would probably also wreak environmental havoc with the world’s supply of rowan trees.
It really comes down to what the word ‘natural’ means to you. For instance, the global cosmetics industry uses huge amounts of palm oil (most of it unsustainable) which is causing long-term irreversible environmental impacts in the Indonesian rainforest. I’m sure many of your readers avoid products filled with palm oil at all cost (as do I). Now imagine scientists inventing a nature identical but synthetically derived version of palm oil – how would you feel about that being used in cosmetics?
There are three main things that I always look for when I’m reviewing a label:
- Whether I think the manufacturer has left anything OFF the label – particularly preservatives and emulsifiers (and this happens frequently outside of the EU, unfortunately). What to watch out for: It’s generally the preservatives and emulsifiers that tend to be the ingredients that get left off the label most often. I always look at how any water-based cosmetic is preserved and sometimes see that no preservative is listed on certain products. That either means that product is not preserved properly or that the manufacturer hasn’t declared sufficient information on the label. If you see a water-based cosmetic, always ask yourself ‘how is this preserved?’. If you see a cosmetic that combines water and oil, ask yourself ‘how are these two phases emulsified?’.
- How the manufacturer preserves their products – I look for products that are properly preserved (I don’t like putting microbes on my face) and that use natural or naturally derived preservatives. What types of preservatives to look for: I prefer not to publicly back preservatives as I want formulators to choose the ones that are best for their products. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all preservative for formulators to use because there are dozens of parameters a formulator needs to consider when choosing the right preservative – the ingredients, the shelf life, the pH, their view of natural, their budget, etc.
- Whether they’ve pumped their product full of water – particularly in the case of leave-on products such as creams or serums. I have no intention of spending $50 on a pot of water.
Q: Can you walk us through your step-by-step analysis of a formula? [If you want to choose a product, then feel free to do an actual analysis of one as an example.]
A: This is a fun exercise! I’ll take the example of Burt’s Bees Carrot Nutritive Day Cream – Burt’s Bees is a well-known brand that uses many great natural ingredients.
The ingredients for this product are:
Ingredients: aqua (water, eau), helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil, cera alba (beeswax, cire d’abeille), cocos nucifera (coconut) oil, glycerin, persea gratissima (avocado) oil, parfum (fragrance), stearic acid, tocopheryl acetate, triticum vulgare (wheat) germ oil, vitis vinifera (grape) seed oil, citrus aurantium dulcis (sweet orange) peel wax, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf oil, aloe barbadensis leaf, beta-carotene, xanthan gum, glycine soja (soybean) oil, canola oil (huile de colza), sodium chloride, sodium borate, lactoperoxidase, glucose, glucose oxidase, benzyl benzoate, benzyl cinnamate, coumarin, limonene, geraniol, linalool
So when I’m reviewing this list, the first two things I do is:
- I start to split the oil-based and water-based ingredients (which are combined together to create a cream or lotion), and
- I try to find the approximate 1% level in the ingredients listing. What I mean by this, is that ingredients (in the EU) need to be listed in terms of their percentages from large to small. So the first ingredient on the list will be the main one (in this case – water) and most of the ingredients on the last line (and probably the one before) will be present at less than 1% of the final formula.
In this case we find the following water-soluble ingredients:
- Glycerin (used as a humectant or carrier for a herbal extract)
- Aloe vera leaf gel
- Xanthan Gum (used as a thickener)
- Sodium chloride (used as a viscosity modifier)
- Sodium borate (used as an emulsifier)
- Lactoperoxidase, glucose, glucose oxidase (enzymes used as preservatives)
- Coconut oil
- Avocado oil
- Parfum (a proprietary blend of fragrances – possibly essential oils)
- Stearic acid (a stabiliser and a thickener)
- Tocopheryl acetate (a form of Vitamin E)
- Wheatgerm oil
- Grape seed oil
- Sweet orange peel wax
- Rosemary leaf oil
- Beta carotene
- Soybean oil
- Canola oil
- Benzyl benzoate, benzyl cinnamate, coumarin, limonene, geraniol, linalool (essential oil sensitisers / allergens that must be declared by law in the EU)
Without having used this product, I’d need to test it out to get a feel for what sort of ratios are used for the different ingredients. However, the moisturiser gets reviews that say it’s quite thick which suggests to me that it contains about 50-60% water (most moisturisers typically contain around 70%). You can also see that the ‘parfum’ is listed as the 7th ingredient on the list. This is going to be around about 1-2% of the finished product because it’s being sold here in the EU. Pretty much everything listed after the word ‘parfum’ will therefore be present in no more than 1% levels in the cream.
So all of a sudden you can see roughly how this product was put together and you get a feel for how they constructed it. You can also see that probably about half of the product is filled with water.
Q: What are some buzzwords that are instant red flags that a product may NOT be all that it claims?
A: I was at a beauty show a couple of weeks ago and I overhead someone say that the skincare product they were selling could actually modify your skin at the genetic level. This type of claim generally has no scientific backing whatsoever, so I would steer clear of any brand that told me that. I also don’t tend to look at the word ‘natural’ anymore, but simply read the ingredients to see if I agree or not. Half of the time I don’t. 🙂
However in my experience, you generally only hear the ‘red flag’ marketing claims coming from slightly larger brands. I find from my experience in working with hundreds of small skincare business owners around the world that they are genuine, truthful and very passionate about their products. I run a group with over 3000 skincare business owners on Facebook and none of the artisan skincare entrepreneurs I know would ever willingly deceive any of their customers. I believe strongly that we should all support artisan skincare businesses the world over. These skincare entrepreneurs love what they do and pour all of their love into the products they create. In my eyes, they are the future of the natural and organic skincare sector.
Q: What are some key ingredients to look for in:
- youth-enhancing products (I prefer that term over anti-aging)
Look for high performance ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, lecithin, peptides, Vitamins C, E and A. But personally I prefer really good quality plant-derived oils such as olive squalane, rosehip oil, kiwi seed oil, argan oil and prickly pear seed oil.
- a blemish healing formula
Look for anti-inflammatory botanical extracts such as calendula, chamomile, chickweed and lavender.
- a brightening formula
Look for liquorice, or ingredients that will help exfoliate your skin by using Alpha- or Beta-Hydroxy Acids.
Q: Often “fillers” are vilified. Does a product really need fillers? Does that cheapen a formula or are they essential components?
A: A product doesn’t need fillers in the sense of them being ingredients that take up space and serve no purpose in the formulation. Water can provide hydration but I prefer it when a product uses hydrosols or aloe vera gel for its water phase instead. This will of course make manufacturing the product more expensive (and those artisan skincare entrepreneurs I talked about earlier have already got significantly higher costs than the big cosmetics companies), but it offers more therapeutic properties. This is one of the aspects I look for when choosing a skincare product—although I mainly just use facial oils myself.
On the other hand, if you think of a thickener, acidity regulator or a stabilizer as a filler, than yes they are essential components. Your product does need those ‘functional’ ingredients that either bind it together, keep it stable, make it thicker or lower / raise the pH, for instance. Then once a skincare manufacturer has got their formulation together they need to have it stability tested in order to make sure that the product behaves in hot or cold weather, in direct sunlight, etc. They also need to make sure that their products are challenge tested and that their preservative system works because the last thing you want to do is give your customer an infection. All of these stages can have a knock-on effect on how the finished skincare product holds together and you might have to go back and add in various functional ingredients to get it right. Creating a complex skincare product can take years to perfect and often requires lots of little tweaks.
Q: The terms “active” and “inactive” ingredients are often seen on labels. What do we need to know about what that means?
A: This is a term from the pharmaceutical industry, where the active ingredient is the one that’s ‘biologically active’. The FDA even has a definition for what an active ingredient is: “An active ingredient is any component that provides pharmacological activity or other direct effect in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or animals.”
Using this definition, we know that many ingredients in skincare products are metabolised by the skin, have therapeutic properties, can help with wound healing, or inflamed / irritated skin, to give just a few examples. So the cosmetics industry typically takes an ‘active’ ingredient to mean one that has an effect on the skin – an ingredient that is added to a product to carry out an action. An Alpha-Hydroxy Acid may be added to a skincare product to speed up cell regeneration for instance.
On the flip side, inactive ingredients are then included to help deliver those active ingredients, provide functional benefits to the product, or make it look pretty – think of emulsifiers, fragrances, preservatives, thickeners, etc. If you look at the example of the Burt’s Bees moisturizer above, I can see over a dozen ingredients whose chemical compounds would be metabolized by parts of the body in some way so you could argue that many if not most natural ingredients can play a role as an active ingredient.
Personally I prefer the term ‘high performance ingredients,’ because ultimately many of the ingredients in a cosmetic will play a role of some form when they come into contact with the skin. Simply separating out active vs inactive ingredients is simplifying it all a bit too much for my liking. 🙂
Q: Are there any other tips that you can give us as consumers?
A: Yes, support your local artisan skincare manufacturers! These wonderful people are trying to change the world by challenging the mainstream industry and creating products that often stand head and shoulders above the rubbish you can buy in the local shops. These artisans have a huge amount of knowledge, expertise and passion to offer and they are changing the way society views their skincare, often one moisturizer at a time.
* All photos courtesy of Lorraine Dallmeier.