- The term “natural” on cosmetics is not universally or legally defined.
- Unlike the pharmaceutical or food industries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the personal care industry. As a result, what consumers see on labels isn’t always what they get.
- Some natural products can be more harmful than synthetic ones.
- Rather than looking for “natural” products, focus on avoiding harsh or irritating ingredients like fragrances, dyes, parabens, and preservatives.
- View INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Stroll down any aisle with skin care and makeup items and you’re bound to see the word “natural” more than once. Natural beauty products are all over social media as well, with loyalists claiming they’re full of good-for-you ingredients and devoid of harsh, irritating substances.
In theory, natural cosmetics sound great — the word suggests they’re free from icky chemicals. But just because something has that word doesn’t mean it’s good for your skin, experts say.
For one, there’s no legal or universal definition for the term “natural,” so what it means to you might not be what it means to the manufacturer.
Plus, unlike the pharmaceutical and food industries, the beauty industry isn’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Caren Campbell, a dermatologist in San Francisco, told INSIDER. That means companies can get away with labels that don’t necessarily match their contents.
“Believe it or not,” added Dr. Jessica Krant, a dermatologist in New York City, “it’s legal for companies to use the phrase ‘natural flavors’ or ‘natural fragrances’ when referring to chemical preservatives in their products.”
Indeed, a 2008 study by the Organic Consumers Association found a “carcinogenic petrochemical ingredient in more than 40% of products tested that claimed to be natural,” according to the Environmental Working Group. Plus, the Federal Trade Commission filed complaints against four companies that marketed “all natural” or “100% natural” personal care products when, in reality, they contained synthetic ingredients, the EWG reported.
In some cases, natural may harmful
“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean superior, either. “Natural does not by any stretch of the imagination mean a product is safer or better,” Campbell said.
Sometimes natural products can even end up causing health issues, Dr. George Skandamis, a dermatologist based in Ohio, told INSIDER. “I like to tell my patients that poison ivy is ‘all natural,’ but you sure don’t want to find it as an ingredient in your skin care product,” he said. “Natural products are often more likely to cause irritation and allergic reactions to the skin; thus, they are not always safer.”
In fact, many natural, plant-based ingredients, like balsam of peru, eucalyptus, and rosemary, are skin allergy triggers, the Mayo Clinic reports. And even if you don’t have allergies, some natural ingredients — like tea tree oil and citrus-derived ingredients— are common causes of skin irritation, INSIDER previously reported.
Look at a products’ ingredients and try to buy from reputable companies
Rather than instinctively reaching for something labeled “natural,” Skandamis recommended looking for products that are free of fragrances, dyes, parabens, and preservatives — especially if you have sensitive skin.
Parabens and phthalates are known to be endocrine disruptors, which can negatively affect people with endocrine diseases and may even increase the risk of some cancers in others, according to U.S. News & World Report. CVS Health began removing those chemicals from nearly 600 beauty and personal care products in 2017 due to such concerns.
When beauty product shopping, it can also help to seek out products from reputable companies like Cetaphil, Cerave, or Neutrogena to avoid any harsh or irritating ingredients, Campbell said. You can also use the EWG’s “ Skin Deep” database, which rates more than 70,000 products based on the risks associated with their ingredients. The organization also has a seal that “helps consumers easily find products that meet EWG’s most stringent health standards at the point of sale,” its website says.
When in doubt, ask a trusted dermatologist for a recommendation. “Purchasing products from board-certified physician offices also affords some increased oversight, as medical-grade skin care tends to have been studied with double-blinded, placebo-controlled trials or some form of rigorous medical research that proves its more effective than a drugstore brand,” Campbell said.