FACE TIME

FLORAL SCENTS AND A RICH LATHER are certainly nice, but shoppers at Thrifty Foods in Victoria, British Columbia, are looking for more than just boutique touches when buying skin care products. According to category manager Vanessa Lloyd, they're looking for natural and organic alternatives that are free of artificial, scientific-sounding ingredients like phthalates and parabens that appear in many

FLORAL SCENTS AND A RICH LATHER are certainly nice, but shoppers at Thrifty Foods in Victoria, British Columbia, are looking for more than just boutique touches when buying skin care products. According to category manager Vanessa Lloyd, they're looking for natural and organic alternatives that are free of artificial, scientific-sounding ingredients like phthalates and parabens that appear in many conventional brands.

“So many people are turning toward gentler formulations, whether that's fragrance-free, organic, or without parabens or sodium lauryl sulfate and such,” said Lloyd.

Thrifty's customers aren't alone in their sentiments. Inspired by a growing awareness of potentially harmful chemicals and additives — not just within the category but across the food retail industry — consumers all over are turning to skin care products that hew close to nature and are perceived as a safer choice. This doesn't mean that just a “natural” or “all natural” label claim will cut it, however. People are reading labels closely, taking care to avoid the ingredients that studies and news stories have told them to avoid.

This is new territory indeed for a category that for years has prided itself on adding soothing aromas and textures to its products.

“Now I'm seeing labels talking about what a product doesn't have in it,” said Kat Fay, a senior research analyst with Mintel, Chicago. “One of the hot phrases right now is ‘paraben free’ — and that's happening across the category.”

Growth in several key channels has been fitful. Females, the primary consumers of skin care products, are still on a learning curve when it comes to parabens, sodium lauryl/laureth sulfates and other ingredients. The category in general is also seen by many as one of the worst violators of the word “natural.” As a result, natural and organic skin care grew by only 2% in natural food stores last year, to claim $137 million in sales, according to Mintel.

Fueling this demand for safe ingredients is an abundance of stories and studies that cite the dangers of using conventional skin care products. In 2002, for example, the Environmental Working Group conducted a study of 72 name-brand beauty products and found that 52 of them contained phthalates, a family of chemicals that studies have linked to birth defects. Other studies have found lipstick brands containing lead and body care products containing parabens, a compound that has been shown to mimic estrogen in the body.

Helping raise awareness about these issues are organizations like the Environmental Working Group's Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Started in 2002 after the EWG issued its report on phthalates, the effort provides education and standards for the safe use of personal care products and cosmetics. One of the resources it provides is a ranking system that scores many popular products on a zero to 10 scale depending on how safe they are judged to be.

“That database gets about 5 million hits per month on our website,” said Stacy Malkin, spokeswoman for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of a recently published book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

“That has a huge impact in terms of purchasing decisions and consumer awareness,” Malkin said.

Manufacturers like Tom's of Maine and Grateful Body of Berkeley, Calif., produce skin care products with natural ingredients that adhere to a set of standards. Tom's, for example, just released a line of deodorants that is aluminum-free and is not tested on animals.

Then there are companies that hold to the concept that people shouldn't put anything on their bodies that they wouldn't put in them. For some, this means using ingredients and compounds that are essentially edible. For others, like Be Fine Food Skin Care and Juice Beauty, it means focusing formulations and marketing on actual food. Citrusy limes can serve as an astringent, while sweet oranges and avocados have been shown to have moisturizing properties. Be Fine, for example, makes a cooling face peel using apple, lemon and green tea.

“People are becoming more aware of the idea that what you put on your skin, you're essentially eating,” said Lloyd of Thrifty Foods.

This concept is certainly evident at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle, a nine-store chain, where customers can find close to 3,000 body care products, all of which follow quality standards for cruelty-free, non-toxic ingredients and sustainable packaging. Wendy McLain, health and beauty aids merchandiser for PCC, said PCC's newest units feature beauty and body care items up front near the entrance, “a reflection of our belief that what you put on your body is as important as what you put in it.”

PCC's top-selling skin care brand is Dr. Hauschka Skin Care, which focuses on plant-based ingredients such as jojoba, lavender and sage.

“In recent years, we've seen interest in the company grow exponentially due to consumers becoming more informed about natural ingredients,” said Jill Price Marshall, spokeswoman for Dr. Hauschka.

Like PCC, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market requires that products follow a set of standards — in this case, the Whole Body Quality Standards. Specifically, Whole Foods looks for “plant-based and naturally derived ingredients, pure essential oil fragrances, gentle preservatives and non-petroleum ingredients,” according to the company's website.

Manufacturers and industry organizations, meanwhile, are developing their own benchmarks for quality. Back in March, 30 companies in the personal care industry, including L'Oréal, Aveda, and Estée Lauder, came together to form the Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards, or OASIS, which certify products as “made with organic” and “organic” based on organic content of 70% or 85%, respectively. Then in May, at a press conference at New York's Mandarin Oriental hotel, Burt's Bees and the Natural Products Association unveiled their own “natural” certification: Manufacturers that bear this seal must meet several requirements, including utilizing ingredients that are renewable, pose no human health risks and are at least 95% natural.

Being perceived by customers as the safest, freshest choice is important for companies in a skin care industry that is not only crowded, but doesn't enjoy much consumer loyalty.

“It's a very crowded category, and it almost falls under the domain of a grudge purchase. For many people, it's maintenance,” said Mintel's Fay.

Chris DePetris, wellness director with the Global Market Development Center in Colorado Springs, and former holistic health category manager at Wild Oats, recommends building a spa-like atmosphere within stores.

“I think body care products need space that is somewhat private, that is well lit, that has nice mirrors around it so that the individual can sit there and evaluate the products, and have the privacy and the comfort to make a good decision.”

GOOD ADVICE

  • Capitalize on consumer demand for gentle skin care formulations that include food and botanical ingredients.
  • Give skin care sections as much of an intimate, spa-like atmosphere as possible.
  • Enhance the “fresh” factor by cross-merchandising natural lotions, creams and balms near produce and floral sections.

Lotions to Potions

Several companies have taken the concept of skin care a step further, and they hope to prove that beauty can also work from the inside out. Last year, France's Group Danone introduced Essensis, a yogurt fortified with vitamin E and antioxidants and aimed at improving skin health.

Then, just this month, Nestlé, the world's largest food and beverage company, rolled out Glowelle, a beverage that claims to nourish skin using a mix of vitamins, antioxidants, and fruit and botanical extracts. Beauty care store Sephora currently sells antioxidant-rich gummi bears made by Borba, and Coca-Cola and L'Oréal are currently working on a tea-based skin care beverage called Lumae.

As interesting as these new products are, most supermarkets will probably want to stick to functional foods and beverages for now. A bag of Borba's “skin-enhancing” gummi bears goes for around $25.