Today I wanted to chat about two things that I see a lot in the natural/DIY skin care community: the natural efficacy fallacy and natural shaming. These two things often come hand-in-hand, and I’d like to address them because they can drive people away from this amazing hobby and community. The Natural Efficacy Fallacy is the notion that all natural products can do everything and all of them will work for everyone, all of the time. Given that no ingredient or product works for everybody (natural or not!), I find this can create high expectations, disappointment, and sometimes shame when those expectations aren’t met. Natural shaming can happen when people have very rigid ideas about what ingredients are “good” and which ones are “bad”, regardless of application and concentration. This isn’t just limited to skin care—I also see it in discussions on everything from parenting to nutrition to dog training. I think a lot of the time remarks of this nature are meant to be educational and helpful, but they can easily come across as judgemental, leaving people who aren’t getting the results they were hoping for with natural products feeling like there’s no place for them in the natural skin care and beauty community—that if they can’t abide by the rigid good/bad standards, they are failures and unwelcome.
I want to kick this off by telling you a story; I think it’ll sound familiar.
In the beginning
Back in early 2011 I’d just started to dip my toes into DIY. It started with argan oil, and then shea butter, and then lip balm, which spiraled into lotion, soap, face masks, and more. I came to DIY skin care through a friend’s thesis; she researched and wrote about the migration of the toxins in our cosmetics into our bodies. This was something I’d never really heard about—I was super careful about what I ate, so why wasn’t I thinking about what I was putting on my body? My skin care philosophy at that point turned into something similar to my food philosophy; that is, if I didn’t know what it was or it sounded chemical-y, I wouldn’t use it.
My transition started slowly and then snowballed. I started with switching my moisturizer for argan oil, and then body wash for homemade soap, and store bought lotion for homemade lotion, and by the end of 2011 there weren’t many store bought skin care products left in my life. I was proudly making everything myself—with varying levels of quality and efficacy, but still! I felt self-sufficient and like I’d outsmarted “the man” and the beauty industry.
I found Pinterest in the fall of 2011. It was still in beta at that time, so I had to sign up and wait to be granted access, and when I got it—whoa momma! It was like an old-fashioned marketplace of inspiration. What a cornucopia of ideas! Hacks, tricks, tips, and so many uses for ingredients I already had! Coconut oil, baking soda, tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, and honey were clearly the holy grail of DIY beauty, and I devoured and re-pinned pictures of miraculous transformations and tips about spa-equivalent baking soda scrubs. I drew a ton of inspiration from Pinterest and spent hours there learning about new uses for everything from yoghurt to vinegar to safety pins.
One of my favourite things about Pinterest was how accessible the projects were, and how natural they were. For somebody avoiding ingredients she didn’t recognize, this was amazing! I collected infographics on toxic chemicals and scoffed at recipes calling for anything I deemed not “natural” enough for me, enthusiastically “educating” anyone who would listen about the incontestable benefits of all things natural. I gravitated to recipes using common, friendly-sounding ingredients—mostly oils, herbs, waxes, and essential oils at this point. I was drawn to these ingredients because they felt safe and familiar, unlike those ingredients with multi-syllabic names that sounded like something from a chemistry class. You can still see a lot of this mindset in my early blog posts, which feature mostly oil-based products infused with herbs and essential oils.
Over the next year I think I tried every natural sounding Pinterest “holy grail” product and hack—everything from baking soda scrubs to honey facials to gelatin masks—and many things inspired by these projects ended up here on Humblebee & Me. As I explored and learned my pantry of DIY ingredients continued to grow, as did my definition of an acceptable ingredient; you can definitely see this transition in my history of blog posts, too. Emulsifiers were one of the first things I added, followed by mineral cosmetic ingredients. I’d research them to see if they met my safety standards before adding them to the roster, and was always thrilled with how these new ingredients performed when compared with the more “natural” alternative I’d been using before (an emulsion made with emulsifying wax is much less greasy and easier to make than an old-fashioned borax/beeswax emulsified lotion, and mineral pigments kick the butt of botanical extracts and spices as pigments).
At this point in time I was still doing something kind of silly, though: I was doing some seriously impressive mental gymnastics to convince myself that these new ingredients were still natural, or natural enough. Part of this is because when I’d write about them readers would protest their not-natural-enough-ness, and I would say I was ok with said ingredients because they were “derived from coconuts” or “nature identical”, but a big part of this is because I was so dedicated to the idea of everything being all natural that it was easier to decide something was natural than to admit that maybe, perhaps, “all natural” concoctions made from kitchen ingredients aren’t the holy grail of DIY beauty. Maybe the things I was making were improving because I wasn’t nailing myself to the floor of “all natural” anymore.
I was basically natural-shaming myself, and I didn’t even know it.
I want perfect skin, darnit
In my Let’s talk about “natural” blog post I wrote:
Many people who get into this hobby want to do things more naturally/safely, but ultimately don’t want to sacrifice performance or negatively impact their life. The number of women I’ve heard from who still use their old store bought shampoo because cold processed shampoo bars just do not work for their hair is not at all insignificant—and I can’t blame them! If my hair looked and felt awful when washed with CP shampoo bars, you better believe I’d be backing off that particular “natural” track pretty fast. Nobody dives into this hobby thinking “I don’t care if my acne flairs up and my hair frizzes like mad—I just want everything I use to be natural!” We seem to hope and assume the opposite will happen (“my skin will be so much happier with natural oils and soaps!”), but if it doesn’t, most people go back to what was working for them before, and I can’t blame them.
The problem I’ve always wanted to solve with my DIY endeavors has been acne. My skin has never been atrocious, but it was rare occasion when I didn’t have at least one or two poor, tortured pimples dying drawn-out, inflamed deaths somewhere on my face. I dreamed of being one of those people who is able casually reply they aren’t wearing any when asked about their foundation. In pursuit of this dream I have tried every quasi-natural, accessible Pinterest anti-acne hack in the book—every honey and clay mask, every baking soda scrub, every hot spoon spot treatment. I also ordered every natural/botanical DIY ingredient with “anti-acne” in the description, and made up all kinds of mega-concoctions with them in the attempt to create some sort of holy grail product that would give me the skin of an airbrushed supermodel.
Now, nothing I made was an outright disaster for my complexion, but nothing seemed to be making miraculous headway, either. Argan oil, evening primrose oil, facial lotions, and clay masks definitely helped, but not much else did—not for long, at least. I’d see small improvements for days, or sometimes months, but they’d usually backslide over time (black soap, you fickle mistress), or I’d tire of the mediocre results and move onto something else as part of my continual search for the holy grail of perfect skin.
Does any of this sound familiar? Through comments and emails I’ve chatted with hundreds of readers, and I know that many of you have a similar story, be it with your complexion, your eczema, your hair, or something else. So, here’s the question I’ve been asking myself—why do we assume that homemade products formulated with all-natural ingredients can and will fix all our problems?
The natural efficacy fallacy
This is something I’ve been self-examining for a while now. I’ve always been aware of the natural safety fallacy (the notion that natural ingredients are inherently safer than synthetic ingredients)—arsenic and mercury are, of course, natural, but definitely not the sort of thing I want in my creations. As I described above it took me a little while to apply this both ways in my DIYs, and accept that just like all things natural are not safe, all things synthetic are not unsafe, but I was at least aware of the fallacy.
However, up until recently I was completely ignorant of my natural efficacy fallacy. Now, if you’d asked me if natural ingredients could do everything I would’ve said “Of course not!”, thinking about things like chemotherapy and air travel and sunglasses—but not skin care, for some reason. I so deeply believed that natural ingredients were superior to man-made ones that I completely assumed that using natural products would solve all my problems, and if they hadn’t been solved yet, I simply wasn’t trying hard enough. If my skin was a natural thing, then natural things could fix whatever I deemed wrong with it, right? Over the last few years I’ve been re-examining this notion in bits and pieces, but I only recently realized just how deep-seated this belief was.
I am certainly not alone in this belief—the natural efficacy fallacy is everywhere, and not just in the realm of skin care. The green industry uses it as a core part of their marketing and pricing strategy. They can count on many consumers choosing (and paying more for) a product perceived as natural because consumers believe it’s healthier for them and the planet, and that it is equally or more effective than a more conventional product. This fallacy is everywhere on Pinterest and lifestyle blogs that promise to help you live a more natural life, with authors espousing that inviting more natural alternatives into their homes has improved every aspect of their lives immeasurably. The presentation of their natural alternatives is that the performance of natural products meet or exceeds that of all the “not natural” alternatives. I don’t think this is always disingenuous, but I do wonder if any less-effective alternatives will remain the permanent choice in anyone’s home (washing one’s greasy dishes with castile soap comes to mind as a particularly less-effective alternative). This can be a dangerous fallacy when applied to all areas of ones life (sometimes leading to heartbreaking stories like this one), but in the realm of skin care and cleaning bath tubs it’s usually fairly benign.
For clarity, let me state that natural ingredients have many strengths, and the complexities and benefits of them cannot be easily replaced or replicated with synthetic ingredients. I am not saying that natural ingredients have no merits, or that they are never effective—far from it! I am simply saying that they are not the be-all-and-end-all of skin care for everyone!
This belief of mine I got a big ol’ slap upside the head when I read this amazingly comprehensive post on fungal acne. Before reading this I didn’t even know fungal acne existed, and the article was insanely informative and eye-opening. Basically, fungal acne (or Pityrosporum Folliculitis) is an acne-like skin condition caused by fungus that lives on your skin. That fungus eats sebum and all kinds of things we put on our faces, and for some people when the fungus is fat and happy it reproduces like mad, causing horrific breakouts. So, step one—don’t feed it. This fungus, however, eats just about everything the natural beauty industry loves. Name a lovely oil, and chances are it’s fungus food: olive, sunflower, coconut, cocoa, hemp seed, evening primrose, argan—every single one of these oils will feed the fungus. You know what doesn’t? Mineral oil and isolated caprylic/capric triglycerides. If you suffer from fungal acne, trying to go all-crunchy will make your acne worse, and no amount of trying different plant-based oils will do anything except exacerbate the problem.
So, if natural solutions don’t work for everybody, and don’t work for every problem, why do people feel shame and disappointment for embracing safe solutions that do work? It seems silly to suffer with a solvable problem simply because one really, really wants a “natural” solution. Any why would anybody feel the need to express their disappointment or dismay in another person’s skin care routine if it’s safe and effective, but just not up to whatever their “natural” standard might be?
Despite evidence to the contrary, the belief that all natural products are superior in every way is quite fiercely defended in the green beauty/DIY community, and frankly, it isn’t nice. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a comment from somebody telling me that I ruined a formulation by including “nasty chemicals”, and I could’ve made it all natural and just as good if only I’d tried harder. I am frequently asked about replacing an ingredient deemed “not natural” with a more “natural” alternative. When I use a new ingredient with a chemically-sounding name, I get push-back and complaints. I’ve had people tell me they’re disappointed in me for using ingredients they don’t agree with. I’ve had people sneer at the suggestion of the use of shea butter as an alternative to coconut oil because coconut oil is “more natural” (what?!). I’m mildly afraid of the comments section on my YouTube channel because it seems like whenever I mention preservatives somebody flames me out for being a natural “fraud”.
I’ve also heard from other people in the community who’ve had similar experiences. I know people in this community who have been bullied for (successfully) treating their fungal acne in a scientifically-backed, non-crunchy way. I have heard from so many of you that you’re embarrassed that your homemade shampoo isn’t working for you (as if you’re the problem, and not the shampoo!). I’ve heard frustration from people who have been told the reason they don’t love coconut oil is because they just aren’t using enough. Suffice it to say, it sounds like many people got into this world expecting all-natural DIYs to fix everything, and when they don’t, they are left frustrated and disappointed.
I hear from so many people that using cold processed soap as shampoo doesn’t work for their hair, or that oil serums make their acne worse, or that coconut oil just isn’t wowing them like Pinterest says it should. They often keep trying those products in dozens of different ways for months on end before giving up, dejected and ashamed. This community can make people feel like if natural doesn’t work for them, they’re the problem. They’re not trying hard enough. Sometimes it’s in the form of outright shaming, and sometimes it’s a general unwillingness to admit that said crunchy product just might not work for somebody, vinegar rinses don’t fix everything, and not everybody wants to make a new face lotion every single day so they can skip the preservative. I have probably contributed to this in the past, and I am both sorry and embarrassed for that. An all-or-nothing attitude drives people away—from anything! Be it a diet, an exercise plan, a job, whatever—anything that requires a 100% level of dedication to be considered a success will not work for most people. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for using a shampoo that makes you happy with your hair, or a serum that makes your skin glow, regardless of how crunchy it is. If you’ve done your research and you’re ok with it, that should be enough.
Of course most people in this community are lovely, and oftentimes what leads to the feelings of shame isn’t even shaming, and it definitely isn’t supposed to be mean. It comes in the form of incredibly determined optimism and encouragement. It’s an amorphous external voice telling you that if that serum breaks you out, or that shampoo leaves your hair greasy, then just try something else! Use a different oil, shampoo a different way, follow up with that rinse. It worked for X person on the internet, so it will definitely work eventually! You might be doing something wrong now, but that’s ok, you can fix it! I’m sure I’ve done this, and I’m sorry if I’ve ever made you feel like you were the problem—you weren’t! You aren’t!
And sometimes, you don’t even need to hear from somebody else. We’re excellent at shaming ourselves; feeling guilty for having that piece of cake, for indulging in an extra glass of wine, for using that shop-bought serum that makes your skin glow. We shouldn’t feel bad for doing what works for us—tormenting yourself takes energy that could be better spent in so many other ways!
Encouragement and sharing can be a tricky thing to navigate because it always comes from a place of enthusiasm and well-meaning sharing. When something works for you, you want to share it with the world, and you want to believe it can help everyone, even though it’s unlikely to be truly universally useful. On the flip side, when you’re that person the thing isn’t working for, you can start to wonder if it’s just you—if you’re the issue—when everyone else is singing its praises. Even expertly formulated store bought products don’t work for everybody, be it due to preference, sensitivities, or the phase of the moon. When there are so many people on Instagram who seem to be living the wonderful all-natural life that you aspire to, it can be really disappointing to feel like it’s possible, but you just can’t get it right. Whenever you are tempted to compare yourself to these people, remember that almost nobody shares their failures on their Instagram, and that as natural as their shampoo may be, you know their iPhone isn’t 😂
So—why the backlash against safe, useful ingredients? When I use ingredients like Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (a safe, gentle surfactant), emulsifying wax NF (a wonderful ingredient for creating foolproof emulsions), and BTMS-50 (an effective conditioning emulsifying wax that leaves your hair feeling unbelievably silky), I’m doing it because these ingredients are safe and create amazing products that do things that beeswax, coconut oil, and baking soda can’t do. All ingredients have strengths and weaknesses, and insisting that a small portfolio of all-natural ingredients can do everything is downright silly. You wouldn’t try to make a birthday cake with tofu, soy sauce, and pickled herring, so why are you trying to make hair conditioner out of beeswax and baking soda?
As somebody who struggled with disordered eating as a teenager, a lot of the attitudes I hear about “natural” remind me of the way I thought when I was in the thick of my eating disorder. I had a hard, short list of foods that were “good”, and everything else was “bad”. I couldn’t believe people ate the “bad” foods, and I definitely judged them for it. Didn’t they know white flour was the devil?! That cheese had so many calories in it?! That they could’ve steamed those vegetables instead of roasting them so they’d have fewer calories? The person I shamed the most viciously was myself, of course. That level of rigidity and never-ending self-policing made me miserable. I didn’t care that these ingredients could be used in moderation as part of a healthy diet—it was all or nothing. Good or evil.
I want to share recipes that work, that impress you. Products that you’re proud of, excited to use, and plan to make again for reasons other than the pride that you made it yourself. Remember when you were a kid just learning to make your own food? A lot of it was kind of awful, but you ate it anyways because you made it, right? DIY skin care shouldn’t be like that cheez-whiz, pickle, and mayonnaise sandwich you made when you were seven. You shouldn’t be using it out of obligation because you made it, you should be using it because it’s amazing and it works. That’s what I strive for with my recipes and that’s why I use awesome (and sometimes not entirely natural) ingredients. And yet, the notion that if I’d only try harder I could do everything naturally prevails.
I get it; I once thought that way, too. I was wrong.
(As a side note, why am I the one not trying hard enough? If you want to avoid something that doesn’t matter to me, but don’t simultaneously shame me for using it and task me with creating recipes that you find acceptable.)
It’s ok to do what works
If you’ve found going 100% crunchy works for you, cool! That’s awesome! When you’ve found some awesome stuff that works for you, that’s the holy grail. You’re golden, and keep on keepin’ on. And, if you really want a natural solution because you aren’t happy with what’s in what’s currently working for you, you’re obviously more than welcome to keep searching for one.
Might I just say, though, that if 100% crunchy solutions work for you in every area of your life, you are very fortunate—a crunchy unicorn. You’re that person that survives the Oregon Trail because you never caught dysentery, or that person in London who never drank from the well that gave everybody else cholera. You’re lucky to have a body that responds extremely well to simple, crunchy ingredients, and I hope you can appreciate that for what it is—a privilege that not everybody has (remember that dastardly fungal acne!). I also hope that if, one day, you find the crunchy approach isn’t working in some realm of your life, be it your hair going on strike or a massive breakout, you’ll be kind to yourself.
So—if you are feeling frustrated with DIY and natural skin care or hair care because you aren’t seeing the results you thought you’d see, that ok. Strictly crunchy products aren’t going to do it for everyone, and I want everybody to know that and be ok with it. Maybe crunchy works for your hair, but not your face, or vice versa. That’s ok. Stop beating yourself up because something that worked for someone else isn’t working for you. You don’t have to feel like a failure if your hair needs silicone to thrive, or if the products that make your face the happiest didn’t come from your own kitchen. That’s fine. You do you.
- Nothing works for everybody, all of the time—natural or not, and regardless of whether or not it works for you
- A strict definition of what is “good” and “bad” is extremely limiting and over-simplifies a complex issue
- All ingredients have strengths and weaknesses, and trying to make everything with very “crunchy” ingredients like coconut oil and baking soda is simply not going to deliver good results
- It’s ok to use products that make your skin and hair happy; there’s no need to feel embarrassed or like there’s no place for you in the DIY community because you like to make lip balm, but prefer to purchase your shampoo. As always I recommend researching what’s in your shop-bought products, and if you’re ok with what’s in them, that’s great.
- Let’s have a discussion about this! I’d love to know what your experiences have been with crunchy approaches and if you’ve ever encountered natural shaming.
- Meet the chef who’s debunking detox, diets and wellness from The Guardian
- Question: What does it all mean? Labels and misinformation from Scrub Me Down- Happy Skin
- Question: What do I need to know before I begin on a DIY journey? from Scrub Me Down- Happy Skin
- The sickening business of wellness from The Outline
- It Ain’t Easy (Not) Being Green from Pur Opulence