What Are ‘Natural’ Skin-Care Products, and Are They Better for You?

Clean beauty is on the rise. You can see it on social media, where influencers tout that going all-natural has helped their skin look better than ever. You can see it on store shelves, where countless products market themselves alongside pictures of beautiful plants and use lingo like “nontoxic.” And many of us are taking interest: Up to 50 percent of women seek out all-natural or organic ingredients in facial skin-care products and buy those that are free of chemicals like phthalates and sulfates, according to a 2017 survey from the NPD Group.

Problem is, the term “natural” is not an official term. “There’s no formal system that regulates ‘natural’ or a legal definition of what this term means,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York City. “This gets complicated for consumers, as companies can make a claim that a product is natural while still containing ingredients that don’t constitute as natural,” she says.

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What You’re Really Getting When You Opt for ‘Natural’ Skin Care

Often, the nontoxic or natural term suggests that the product is free from synthetic chemicals that may be linked to health problems or that many people get irritated by (or both), including fragrance, dyes, and certain preservatives such as parabens, says Jennifer Chwalek, MD, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. Again, that’s more of a consumer perception — not a promise.

Natural or organic doesn’t ensure healthier, safer, or better for your skin. “These terms don’t mean hypoallergenic,” says the dermatologist Rebecca Kazin, MD, an associate director at the Washington Institute of Dermatological Laser Surgery in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (“Hypoallergenic” suggests that it’s less likely than non-hypoallergenic products to cause an allergic reaction, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA].) What’s more, if you have a sensitive complexion, using natural products won’t automatically fix your issues. “If a patient is having a problem with their skin, I may suggest they try a product where I know exactly what the ingredients are, that they should not have a reaction to,” she says.

After all, plant-based ingredients cause irritation all the time, says Dr. Garshick. Poison ivy is the classic example. While no one is making a cream with poison ivy in it, natural products often contain essential oils, which can trigger a similar skin reaction. One common culprit: limonene and bitter orange, says Dr. Chwalek. Bergamot is another oil that can make skin more sun-sensitive, she adds.

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But Do Skin-Care Ingredients Actually Get Under Your Skin?

Another important question is whether ingredients in skin-care products, “natural” or not, are getting into your body. “Many of these molecules [in skin-care ingredients] are too large to penetrate skin. But science has gotten smarter and is figuring out ways to trick skin to allow more in to improve efficacy,” says Kazin. One upside is that this may ultimately allow for a lesser concentration of an active ingredient.

On the flip side, proponents of clean beauty say that particles entering the skin can cause some systemic harm. While the FDA says that some of these ingredients of concern, including phthalates and parabens, are safe as used, some research points to these as potential endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that affect your hormones and may increase risk for cancer or fertility problems, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It’s common to hear people talk about how these ingredients are illegal to use in Europe. In fact, the European Union has banned the use of five parabens, though it does allow small amounts of certain parabens. Regulators in the United States currently allow for 20 parabens or paraben-like chemicals.

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