Updated: Sept. 2021
With more niche green, clean skin care brands becoming household names you might wonder why it’s even necessary to question the benefits of natural skincare. Who, with even the most fleeting interest in skincare products isn’t aware that Gwyneth Paltrow is the celebrity backer of natural skincare brand Juice Beauty’s Goop line? Nor not heard of Tata Harper, the ‘Queen of Green Beauty’, who was probably the first skin care entrepreneur to enter the luxe end of the natural skincare market?
Yet, there is a blurring of lines when we try to define natural skincare. The difference lies in perception and reality. Because something claims to be natural doesn’t make it natural. And what is natural anyway? There are no legal definitions of it when applied to skincare?
As there are entire books* on the subject of toxic cosmetics, this post is aimed at sensitising us – green beauty advocates included – to some of the issues behind the debate on the benefits of natural skincare. Greenwashing is rife in the natural skincare industry and we need to be as critical of naturals’ credentials as of any others.
What’s the score on natural skincare?
Niche natural skincare brands are turning mainstream and making a dent in the profits of some big household names of the mainstream personal care industry, like Johnson & Johnson; that giant of American personal care has taken several blows in the past decade as litigation over the links between its Baby Powder and ovarian cancer hit the courts. It now faces a $2.1bn payout to a claimant.
Also, millennials are ditching the regular toiletries they were brought up on to seek out greener, cleaner, natural options for themselves and their children. This trend is born out by the figures. The global market for natural and organic cosmetics was estimated at US$18.5 Billion in the year 2020, and is projected to reach a revised size of US$32.3 Billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 8.3% over the analysis period 2020-2027.
The implication is that more and more of us are reading the small print on personal care labels to figure out what toxin-laden mix of chemicals is being served up in the stuff we wash in or slather on each day. Ethical, local, green, sustainable, natural, organic, biodegradable and more adjectives are the watchwords on labels we’re looking out for.
High profile cases like that of Johnson & Johnson make the headlines and influence us to seek out brands that claim to eschew toxin-laden chemicals. Natural skincare lines offer the promise of safer alternatives with the notion of active ingredients plucked from nature, unadulterated and releasing pure botanical power.
Of course, the issues are far more nuanced and even definitions of ‘toxin’ and ‘natural’ are impossible to pin down as they are thrown around like confetti these days. But that doesn’t mean that natural is a fictitious attribute of skincare. However, there are some basics we need to know in this debate over natural good, chemical bad.
Natural Skincare is Chemical too
First, we need to know that plants and other natural sources such as those from minerals are made from chemicals. Humans are a chemical soup too! So, terms like chemical-free are null and void. Free from toxic chemicals is also completely vague as most substances can be toxic – even the benign – if we consume, are exposed to, inhale, smear on or in other ways come into contact with too much of them. Too much of a good thing can do you harm too, the old saying goes.
As a chemist would say it’s the dose of a substance that makes it toxic, not the substance itself. Let’s give the analogy of drinking pure water; drinking enough to keep hydrated is good for health, but drinking too much water can be lethal.
The problem is that we don’t know just how many potentially toxic chemicals we are exposed to in a day, let alone a lifetime. Nor do we know what the long-term effect is of the cocktail of toxins we come into contact with. A small single dose when we apply a body lotion or mascara is not going to do harm. But over many years? How can we know the cumulative effect of the barrage of toxins?
Before we babble on about toxins, let’s talk about what they are too since natural skincare often claims to be removing them from our beauty routines.
What is a toxin?
A toxin is any molecule that’s in your body but shouldn’t be, and which can potentially cause harm. As I argued above, even the most benign substances in the wrong dose or amount can be toxic. There’s a great feature in the NYMag entitled ‘Should I be trying to rid my body of toxins‘ that goes into the background of our liberal use of the word ‘detox’ these days. Drinks, skincare, diets and fitness regimes are often labelled ‘detoxing’ but few of us know what that means.
If we think about it, we should be dead already given the hype about toxins doing us harm! Our bodies, and our skin, are pretty good at expelling toxins as it happens. But what we don’t know enough about, as personal care products have been big business for under a century, are the effects of our bodies coming into contact with those toxins over time. Leaving that query hanging, let’s now try to define natural…
What is Natural Skin Care – the definition?
Let’s start with the Merriam-Webster definition: “natural, adjective 1. existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind. [It gives the example: “carrots contain a natural antiseptic”]. Clearly, no natural skincare product is actually present in nature in the form it’s packaged and sold in. Even its raw ingredients won’t be as they appear in nature.
Olive oil, for example, doesn’t exist in nature as the green liquid we use in our cooking and skincare. The fruit has to undergo a pressing process to be extracted. Essential oils are another good example of a nature-derived, ‘natural’ product, if they are unadulterated and organic.
Unless you happen to grab a handful of kitchen garden herbs and rub them on your skin, bugs, dirt and all, you can’t really use anything in nature in its exact natural form in skincare for market consumption. So, natural skincare is more about ‘nature-derived’ products.
Does Natural Skincare have Additives?
Things really start getting woolly once we need those nature-derived ingredients in a form we can use. We like our moisturisers and lotions to apply silky smooth at the right consistency, and our natural oils to last longer and not oxidize and go rancid. Certainly, once water is in a product, we need to start adding things to the natural ingredients to preserve them. Even if water isn’t in a product, it might enter it from our wet fingers as we use the product. You can see that our natural skincare starts to need more additives, particularly antioxidants and preservatives, but are these all available naturally?
Truly natural skincare brands strive to create safe consumer products using nature-derived ingredients, including, for example, natural alternatives for various synthetic chemicals used as preservatives, product enhancers and for fragrance.
For example, a raft of toxic chemicals are used as plasticizers to make nail polishes spread better and look glossy. Natural skincare brands have to find out how to replicate the attributes consumers have come to love and know. Or, they need to educate their niche consumers by explaining the limitations of using natural skincare products. These might include shorter shelf lives or the need to store them in the fridge once open as natural preservatives might not have same power as synthetic ones to kill or deter the growth of microbes.
Tata Harper has its own labs which continuously research new naturally active ingredients and non-toxic alternatives to preservatives and performance enhancers. Artisan and niche skincare brands with less might behind them need to research hard and be professional and relentless in their pursuit of safe, appropriate natural ingredients.
This can mean of course that natural skincare is more expensive. As the Financial Times’ article on millennials seeking clean, organic options said, it’s often the more affluent consumers who can afford the less toxin-laden products.
Why is Natural Skincare more Expensive?
A lot of these nature-derived ingredients are expensive to source, extract and produce into stable skincare products. Big name brands with large market share don’t want to a) spend that much as profits are foremost and b) can’t risk having supplies of natural ingredients that vary from harvest to harvest or even plant to plant, or according to any other variable like climate or terrain.
They therefore opt for stable supplies of man-made chemicals for a whole gamut of ingredients, not just obvious ones like preservatives. Fragrance is one area that skincare companies use synthetics. The fact is that petro-chemical by-product ingredients are easy to obtain regularly and are cheaper. Not all synths are from petrochemicals though, so let’s be clear about that.
What kind of so-called toxic ingredients are in regular skincare products?
Consumer safety is the stuff of laws and both the US body the FDA and the EU’s regulatory powers in the form of its Cosmetics Directive ensure that manufacturers place consumer personal care and cosmetics products on the market that are safe for the use they are intended. One clause Johnson & Johnson’s defence used in the talc case was that their product had not been used as intended.
The EU bans a large list of ingredients and regulates the percentage usage of hundreds more. The FDA places the onus on the manufacturers for ensuring the safety of their products for the end user. For more on the difference between the FDA and the EU cosmetics regulations, see this article. The EU is often said to have stricter regulations on cosmetics safety but a good number of banned chemicals would never be used as ingredients in cosmetics anyway.
But regulation looks at chemicals in isolation in a product, not as part of a cocktail. Who knows what our bodies’ tipping point is over time?
The so-called dirty dozen chemicals**, often derived from petrochemicals, are the most widely cited ingredients to avoid if you don’t want toxic chemicals in your skin care. Natural skincare has to avoid these and replace them. But some natural skincare producers may substitute chemicals like the dirty dozen with other non-nature-derived chemicals. That’s why we need to be vigilant in reading product labels even on skincare that claims to be natural.
I’ve listed the dirty dozen here, but there are plenty more toxin-laden chemicals in regular personal care products.
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) which are synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives.
- Coal Tar Dyes such as P-phenylenediamine used in hair dyes, for instance.
- DEA (diethanolamine) and DEA compounds which are help products lather up or are added to adjust their pH level (skin is slightly acid at 5.5-6 pH.)
- Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) which is most often found in nail polish as a platicizer to stop the polish becoming flaky or splitting.
- DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate: these are broad spectrum preservatives.
- Parabens: these are preservatives and are very hard to avoid even in natural skin care. Parabens can mimic natural skin and be absorbed easily.
- Formaldehyde-releasing chemicals such as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine and quarternium-15. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen.
- Parfum (EU) and Fragrance (US) are general catch-all terms that cover all sorts of synthetic fragrance chemicals, sometimes up to 100 in a single product. These are not listed individually on products. They can aggravate eczema, asthma and cause contact dermatitis.
- PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based and are used for various effects in cosmetics from thickening to solvents and to create moisturizing properties. They have carcinogenic properties and also act as absorption enhancers aiding the penetration of other chemicals into the skin.
- Triclosan: this is most commonly found in toothpastes and anti-perspirents as an anti-bacterial. It is a suspected endocrine (hormone) disrupter.
- Siloxanes: products ending with “-siloxane” or “-methicone” are used to soften, smooth and moisten cosmetics. They are thought to be endocrine disrupters and cause reproductive harm.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate: and other ingredients ending with ‘eth’ are used as surfactants in common products like shampoo, liquid soaps and bubble bath. They ensure the product foams up. However, they can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer.
What are the Benefits of Natural Skincare?
The premise of natural skincare is that is it less toxic by having fewer of those ‘nasty’ synthetic and man-made chemical molecules that are alleged to damage our cells. As it’s uncertain what damage we face through a lifetime of use of various chemicals in our personal care products and through exposure to chemicals elsewhere in clothing, carpets, paints, pollution and so on, the assumption is that natural skincare is safer.
Some in the natural skincare business argue that as man has been exposed for thousands of years to the plants from which natural skincare products extract their botanical ingredients, we are less susceptible to suffering harm from them. While any natural ingredient can be toxic, we know for certain that some commonplace synthetic ingredients do have toxic effects as the research on that dirty dozen, for example, shows.
Of course, we can have allergic reactions to naturally-derived skin care too. Essentials oil come with strict information on how to use them and in what percentage to dilute them in carrier oils. Photo-toxicity is an issue with most citrus oils for example and there are many other natural ingredients that could prove toxic is misused.
The reason we choose natural skincare, if it’s from a reputable brand with pukka green, clean beauty ethos and credentials, is that it does not contain a toxic cocktail with unknown long-term effects on our health. The fact that natural skincare uses properties from botanical sources researched since the days of early chemistry to today’s pioneering labs does put our minds at rest that we are not exposing our health to carcinogens and worse.
True, nature gives us some of the most deadly poisons like hemlock and deadly nightshade (belladonna) but man has known of these for centuries and misuses them fully aware of the risks. I don’t feel I can say that about the chemical cocktails in some skincare.
As consumers, I feel we can decipher natural skincare ingredients in a more transparent way than those of most regular brands. If we choose products with fewer ingredients then we can identify easier which ingredient may be causing any reaction we might suffer. It is vitally important to read the labels of natural products with a hawk eye too; some brands sporting terms like natural, organic, pure, fragrance free and the like will still contain synthetic ingredients. I’ve a post on reading cosmetics labels.
There is one last question to answer in this long discussion…
Does natural skincare work?
Most likely, yes! But don’t expect lightening results! Carefully formulated natural skincare will work on issues like broken veins, hyperpigmentation, acne, rosacea and dry skin, but as your skin renews around every 28 days, it will take at least a month to see signs of change.
As natural skincare’s ingredients vary and aren’t consistent as in chemically-made skincare, the outcome of using them to address a skin complaint is less predictable. The constituents of olive oil, for example, vary enormously from region and type of olive and according to the pressing. The active botanical elements within the oil will vary too.
Also, if your skin has been used to non-natural skincare for years, it will take time for it to adjust. Sometimes, you’ll find your skin gets worse before it gets better as it adjusts to a new all natural beauty routine. And, the final word goes to diet: if you’re not eating a healthy skin food diet, then no skincare in the world will work overnight, if at all!
*I found this book very informative, if a little dated: Cosmetics Unmasked: Your Family Guide to Safe Cosmetics and Allergy-free Toiletries. Authors:Dr Stephen Antczak and Gina Antczak.
**For more background on the Dirty Dozen toxic chemicals in regular personal care products, see davidsuzuki.org.
Paul’s Choice Beautypedia reviews products and assesses their ingredients vav claims.
Enviromental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Directory is a comprehensive list of branded products and ingredients. EWG evaluates them on a ‘harm’ scale. Plus it has numerous papers and articles on all manner of skin care, personal care and fragrance-related chemicals and issues.