100% Natural Does Not Mean 100% Safe: A Cautionary Tale

I love natural, green beauty products. I have dabbled in crafting lotions and potions, and have explored products from hundreds of natural beauty brands for decades. Needless to say, seeing words like, “100% natural,” “organic,” and “no artificial ingredients” on products excites me. On occasion, I need to remind myself that while such terms suggest that a product might be gentler and more natural than a conventional counterpart, they are not guarantees that the product is beneficial, effective, healthy, or even safe.

Yesterday I was lamenting my sore back due to some new exercises that I’ve been doing at the gym. I decided that a nice hot bath would be a great way to soothe my aching muscles. I ran the water into the tub and went exploring my shelves for the perfect bath product to enhance my soak. Initially I was thinking that a bath salt might be nice, but then I spied an unopened bottle of a liquid bath soak. I had received it before we had moved into the house (i.e., before we had a bath tub) and thus it had languished in a box of bath goodies, neglected until now.

The bottle had the words “100% natural” and “vegan” splashed across the label, and the ingredients were simple; a naturally fermented liquid base, high grade essential oil, and some natural preservative. The label explained that it was normal for the product to separate in the bottle since it contained no emulsifiers, and the essential oil and the “water” base do not mix. I followed the instructions to shake the bottle to mix well, and to add a tablespoon to the bath. The label also indicated that the product ingredients would relax my muscles and ease tension in addition to uplifting my spirit (perfect!). I was struck by the beautiful vibrant color of the liquid as I poured the directed amount into the bath.

After I finished running the water, I eased myself into the tub, preparing to be uplifted and soothed. The bath smelled beautiful; fresh and citrusy. The water felt warm though, too warm, hot really. I turned on the cool water to adjust the temperature. Something was really hurting on my side. I looked at my left side along my ribcage. I didn’t see anything, just the faint lines from the workout top that I had been wearing moments earlier. It really hurt though. It was distracting. I was not relaxing, I was in pain. I looked again. There appeared to be two very faint scratches on my side, probably made by the tag from my top when I took it off. As I watched, the lines grew redder and angrier. Now the underside of my legs were burning. Really burning. Something was wrong. I looked around the tub and there was a vibrant colorful ring all along the edges at the water line.

My brain clicked, and I immediately stood up and started draining the tub. I grabbed a bath pouffy and some soap and began washing off my skin. This did little to stop the burning sensation that had now consumed my side, back, and legs. I spied a sponge and some tub cleanser, grateful that I use chemical-free cleaning products as I stood cold, wet, and naked in the tub spraying and scrubbing the colorful stripe off the bathtub all around me. The tub had drained now and I used the handheld sprayer to rinse off every inch. I began to refill the tub with fresh water, but my skin was still burning. I knew that I needed oil, but I didn’t have any within arm’s reach. I went for the next best thing; a jar of body scrub made with a host of nut and plant oils. Fortunately, it too separates into layers, so I poured some of the top layer of oil off into my palm, taking care to avoid any of the scrubbing grains which would have likely decimated my tender, burning skin. I started rubbing the oils onto my skin. The burning began to subside. I sat back down into the fresh water, digesting what had just happened.

I wondered if this was a fluke. As is probably natural, I assumed that with a mass-marketed product made by a well-respected company the problem must have been due to user error on my part. They couldn’t possibly be selling a product that was unsafe, right? Especially not one labeled as 100% natural. It was not an inexpensive product either; costing over $25.00 for the small bottle. I must not have shaken it up enough. Maybe I used more than a tablespoon (although I do not think that I did). It had to be me. The problem had to be with me.

When I got out of the tub and dried off, I decided to do a little sleuthing. Some quick online searches led me to the answers. I was able to find product ratings and reviews on two sites; the brand’s own website and Amazon. In total there were over a dozen reviews. Approximately 95% of these reviews were one star and contained words like, “warning,” “worst experience,” “burns like crazy,” “horrible burning sensation,” “hurt for hours,” and “severe prickly burning.” I felt reassured that this was not user error. More importantly, I was pleased to see that the product has recently been discontinued.

In hindsight, I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t know better. The product was attractive due to its simple ingredients, but they were too simple. Something very important was missing. There was no carrier oil in the product to dilute the high percentage of essential oil. Even though the bottle instructed me to shake the product to combine the essential oil with the fluid, this does not dilute the essential oil because the essential oil and “water” never really mix; the essential oil just breaks down into smaller, undiluted droplets. These droplets then drift back together over time, where they can settle onto the skin in these concentrated amounts (and make really vibrant rings around the tub). This is why carrier oils are always needed to dilute the strength and intensity of essential oils before they come in contact with your skin. You can read more about the phenomenon in this article.

When I looked at the bottle (which had once again separated out into two distinct layers,) I could see that the formulation contained a ratio of about one part essential oil to six parts of fluid. I did some quick math to determine that the tablespoon of product had added about a half teaspoon, or approximately 50 drops of undiluted essential oil to my bath. It is no wonder that my skin felt like it was on fire and the superficial abrasion on my skin had quickly become inflamed. In truth, this product really was unsafe as formulated, despite being all-natural, vegan, cruelty-free and from a reputable company.

I have chosen not to name the specific product or company because the product has been discontinued and is no longer on shelves. I have used many other wonderful products from this brand without incident. This was clearly a misstep and a shining example of why natural does not always mean gentle, healthy, or safe. It is still the responsibility of the consumer to determine what is natural, healthy, and safe for them. It is always best to educate one’s self about product ingredients and to read labels. When in doubt, a quick Google search before jumping in the tub might help to prevent a very unpleasant experience.

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