Darren Moore is, by his own admission, allergic to everything. Nicknamed “the snake” at school for his continuously dry and peeling skin, the Canadian native’s problems only worsened when he moved to China 17 years ago.
His self-made solution sits on the desk before him – a brown, odorless bar of soap adorned with teeth marks. Moore took a bite of his own product during an appearance on CCTV 4 to prove that it was 100 percent natural.
“It’s all edible – these ingredients have been around for thousands of years,” he explains, though he rebuffs a challenge to repeat the act. “It didn’t taste that great. I wouldn’t do it again.”
Moore is bright, passionate, and – as one might expect of a man who eats soap on national television – unashamedly
eccentric. He speaks at a blistering pace between sharp
intakes of breath, sometimes inadvertently merging two words into a single new one, such is his urgency to share what he has learned making organic body products over the past 13 years.
After struggling to allay his ongoing skin problems, Moore began experimenting with his own homemade remedies. He soon vowed to make a complete lifestyle change, cutting out all synthetic ingredients – in food, body products, and wherever else he could.
From humble beginnings in the kitchen of his former apartment in downtown Beijing, the 49-year-old’s company, Organic Earth, now has retail stores in Xizhimen and Chaoyang’s Joy City mall. It also supplies hotels, spas, and private customers with its all-natural products. Soap makes up just 10 percent of output, with facial creams for wrinkles and a purported “pollution barrier” cream among the more popular offerings.
The company now inhabits a sizeable production plant in Tongzhou District, where a team of Chinese employees hand-make, cut, and package Organic Earth’s wares. A cold storage room packed with essential oils and waxes contains – amongst countless other organic ingredients – clays from France, Bulgarian rose, and Ghanaian cocoa butter. Moore claims that every component of his body products is “active” and carefully selected for its therapeutic functions.
He has seemingly tapped into a growing trend. Over the last decade, Chinese consumers have become increasingly swayed by the perceived benefits of organic produce. Increases in disposable income and rising concerns over food and product safety have contributed to a surging market for chemical-free goods of all types.
Between 2003 and 2008, the value of China’s organic production increased from just over RMB 2 billion to approximately RMB 16 billion, according to a report by the International Trade Centre. Although the vast majority of this manifests as food sales, the shift has been reflected in the cosmetics market, according to Moore.
“When we started, people didn’t know what these were,” he says, motioning to the tooth-dented soap. “They thought they were moon cakes. But in the last seven or eight years there’s been a movement. In the early days we were 90 percent export but now we’re about 80 percent domestic.”
Organic Earth’s customer base is almost entirely Chinese and sees surprisingly little interest from Beijing’s expat population. Many foreigners still rely on familiar western brands, but this may be no guarantee of quality. Moore’s charge sheet against the industry’s major players is long and damning.
He cites the use of animal fats, chemicals, and heating processes that (although lowering production costs) reduce the efficacy of natural ingredients. In addition to this corner-cutting, he also accuses larger producers of misrepresenting the products they sell. Supposed essential oils are often adulterated and extracted (making them not essential oils by definition) and, he alleges, well-known brands claim to be made from French products when they in fact share one of Organic Earth’s Bulgarian suppliers.
“These companies are playing games with your health. They’ve taken away the right of the consumer to know what they are putting in or on their bodies,” he says. “Customers are starting to question their claims.”
Such allegations could be dismissed as the agenda of a businessman with a vested interest in putting people off mainstream brands. Indeed, being all-natural is no guarantee of quality or effectiveness either. But there is a growing body of evidence showing the damaging, even carcinogenic, effects of the chemicals used in body products.
Analysis of almost 80,000 cosmetic ingredients by the non-profit research organization, Environmental Working Group, found that 80 percent of personal care products were made from ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities, and one in five contained a chemical linked to cancer. The organization is US-based, and the chances of dangerous contents may be even higher in a country like China due to comparatively low levels of product regulation and testing.
While the research group’s methodology has come under attack from industry representatives (who also claim that low dosages of these chemicals can cause no harm), a lack of conclusive information on the long-term effects makes consumers’ position difficult. Even the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, one of the leading voices on body product safety, falls short of explicitly saying cosmetics directly cause health damage.
The problem, it claims, is that even at low doses, “most people are being exposed to scores of hazardous chemicals every day, from personal care products and many other sources.” Synthetic ingredients used to add scent to soaps, creams, and shampoos are also some of the most common aggravators of skin and respiratory allergies, it suggests.
But beyond the harm these products may cause our bodies, damage to the environment is a factor that few consumers take into account. Some of the most common chemicals found in cosmetics have been shown to be detrimental to fish, algae, and other wildlife in the streams and rivers where our washing water ends up. Contaminants in body products can also affect soil, not to mention the well-documented problems of our over-reliance on plastic bottles and packaging.
The environmental impact of production is something that Organic Earth takes as seriously as the contents of its products. As well as remaining chemical-free, the production plant “recycles everything” and only uses glass or aluminum packaging (save for a single product containing alcohol, which must be distributed in plastic for safety reasons).
Moore pulls out a lip balm that took over five years to perfect, though it sells poorly due to the fact it comes in an aluminum tub. To package the balm in the more popular stick form would require the use of plastic, a matter on which he refuses to compromise.
“I’m not a great businessman,” he muses. “I could be, but I choose not to be. Whether people buy from me or someone else – it doesn’t matter. I just want people to think about what they’re putting on their bodies. This is not a marketing thing; we do it because we believe in it.”
Given that Moore tests all of his products on his family, has a private organic farm, and seems contented with a self-professed “cabin lifestyle” in his quiet corner of Tongzhou, it would take a hardy cynic to doubt his sincerity.
Only Skin Deep?
Here are five of the so-called “dirty dozen” – potentially harmful chemicals regularly used in cosmetic products. For a more complete list of chemicals to watch out for, see the links in the resources box. The evidence surrounding their correlation to health problems may not always be conclusive but there are real concerns about their use. Many are also linked to the contamination of wildlife and the environment.
While being aware of them is a good start, looking at the ingredient list is not always enough. Legal loopholes often mean that manufacturers do not need to list these chemicals. If you are worried about what may be in products that you and your family use, consult one of the cosmetics databases also featured in the resources box.
This carcinogen may be found in over 20 percent of cosmetics featured in the Skin Deep database. Commonly used in products with lathery suds, the chemical is linked to cancer and organ toxicity, and is now banned in cosmetics in European Union and other countries.
What may appear on the label: Sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, chemicals that include the clauses xynol, ceteareth and oleth.
Experimental studies of these petroleum derivatives, found in dyes and other hair products, link them to skin cancer. The chemical mixture may also cause neurological damage, as well as being harmful to aquatic life.
What may appear on the label: Tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin [3,4].
DEA (diethanolamine) and its related compounds are used to create suds and give cosmetics a creamy texture. As well as being shown to be hepatocarcinogenic (causing liver cancer) in female mice, men should also be particularly concerned. Studies have shown DEA to affect the structure of sperm cells, as well as their ability to swim and fertilize eggs.
What may appear on the label: Triethanolamine, DEA, TEA, diethanolamine, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, oleamide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.
(and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives)
Often used in baby shampoo and a variety of other cosmetics, this potential skin irritant may not feature on the label as it is often released by other ingredients after packaging. Although studies into the links between formaldehyde and cancer have focused on inhalation rather than skin contact, it is a known carcinogen.
What may appear on the label: Quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol).
Commonly used in shampoos, scrubs, and other more watery cleansing products, parabens are responsible for hormone disruption and have been linked with breast cancer in a variety of studies. They do appear naturally in some foods such as barley, though there are fears that by entering through the skin, parabens will bypass the metabolic system and cause harm.
What may appear on the label: Ethylparaben, butylparaben,
methylparaben, propylparaben, ingredients ending in –paraben.
Source: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics/David Suzuki Foundation
Organic Earth sells a range of organic and 100 percent natural cosmetics and body products from its two Beijing stores. www.organicearth.cn (Chinese-only)
1)Daily 10am-10pm, 2/F, CapitaRetail Mall, Xizhimen (5830 2859) 西直门嘉茂购物中心2层; 2) Daily 10am-10pm, B1-30 Joy City, 101, Chaoyang North Road (8551 1388) 朝阳北路101号朝阳大悦城B1-30
Many of the stores’ products do not come with English labels, so for more information in English, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Skin Deep Database (www.ewg.org/skindeep)
The world’s largest searchable database of cosmetic contents, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database allows consumers to see which products contain harmful chemicals. Although it is US-based, many of the brands appearing in the database are global and have products available in China.
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org)
Home of the global campaign to draw awareness to the use of chemicals in cosmetics and body products, the group’s website features a wealth of research papers and regulatory information.
Photos by Mitchell Pe Masilun
This article originally appeared on p62-65 of the beijingkids March 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com