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

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lean 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.

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. 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 ivyis 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.

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.

Other Questions About Ingredients in Skin-Care Products

While there may be legitimate concern, there are many unknowns about chemicals used in skin-care ingredients.

“The question becomes at what concentration or exposure level do these chemicals become an issue?” says Chwalek.

Many of these studies have been conducted on rodents that are exposed to a far greater concentration than normal, so more research is needed, adds Garshick. There’s also the issue that these ingredients are used in various other products (including food), so there’s the question about how these fit into the larger picture of total exposure — and exactly what that means.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the answers yet. But what that does mean for you is that you can choose the skin-care products that align with your values, your skincare goals, and your budget. Naturally derived ingredients can be efficacious, our dermatologists said.

At the same time, natural or organic products can be expensive. If they don’t fit in your budget, you can work with your dermatologist to find alternatives that will work for your skin.

How to Make the Switch Toward ‘Clean Beauty’

If you’re interested in the natural-beauty movement, it’s going to take some research on your part. “The challenge is reading between the lines on labels and knowing exactly what you’re putting on your skin,” says Garshick. Here’s how to begin.

Talk to your dermatologist. Throw all the products you’re using in a bag and bring them in to your next appointment with your dermatologist. He or she will do a read of the ingredients and let you know if something may be causing a reaction in your skin, or if there’s a way to streamline your routine. It’s a good idea to do this no matter what types of products you’re using.

Start slowly. If you switch everything at once and have a reaction, you won’t know what caused it. Introduce one new product per week, max, recommends Garshick.

Be patient with the results. If you previously used conventional skin-care products and are now making the switch to natural, it may take longer to see a change in your skin, says Garshick. That doesn’t mean the product isn’t effective, but this waiting period is something to be mindful of, she says.

Look for targeted ingredients. Willow bark extract is a derivative of salicylic acid, and it can help with breakouts, says Garshick. Likewise, if you’re looking to reverse or slow signs of skin aging, antioxidants (like those found in vitamin C or vitamin E, or extracted from various plants) can help prevent the DNA damage that degrades collagen (which ultimately leads to wrinkles and discoloration). Newer on the scene is bakuchiol: “This is the best thing we’ve found as an alternative to retinol/retinoid,” she says. Retinoids have long been considered the gold-standard in anti-aging, as they stimulate collagen production to smooth fine lines.

Do your research. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database is a good resource for understanding what’s in your products, says Chwalek. In April 2019, the EWG also authored a report on the “toxic 20 chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics.” The good news is that many of these chemicals are rarely used in cosmetics today, or are being banned or restricted from popular retailers, they note. But their chart can come in handy when you’re researching ingredients and deciding if there are chemicals you’d like to avoid.

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