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When it comes to buzzy skincare trends, perhaps nothing has been more on the rise in recent years than products boasting “all-natural” or “naturally-derived” ingredients. Take a walk through any drugstore beauty aisle and you’ll see everything from moisturizers to face washes touting natural properties—probably with a plant on the packaging to really drive the point home. And statistics are showing that this marketing is catching on. A recent survey done by Statista discovered that more than 50% of both female and male consumers in the United States prefer skincare products that are either natural or organic. However, another study conducted by the Kantar Woldpanel found that just 23% of women believe natural products are more effective than synthetic ones. This got us wondering: Is natural skincare really better?
As consumers like us become more and more conscious of the things we put on our bodies, it makes sense that we would be drawn to products with shorter ingredient lists made from plants we’re familiar with and substances we can actually pronounce. But it’s clear that the world of so-called “natural” beauty is complicated. To find out whether or not we should add more natural products to our beauty cabinets, we talked to experts.
What does it mean when a product says it’s “all-natural”?
“When a beauty product says ‘all-natural’ it typically means that its ingredients are derived from nature (ie, plants, fruits, or minerals) and not created synthetically” explains Gabriella Baki, Ph.D., a cosmetic scientist and assistant professor of pharmaceutics at The University of Toledo College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
However, Dr. Baki tells us that the terms “natural” and “all-natural” do not have a formal, standard definition for skincare products and other cosmetics in the U.S., and that these terms are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to her, “Any company can create its own definition of natural, which means that two ‘natural’ products may not be the same.”
“All-natural” is also not the same as “naturally-derived.” According to Dr. Baki, naturally derived typically means that the source of the ingredient is natural, but that that the ingredient is chemically processed in some way—which is not always a bad thing. “A naturally sounding ingredient, such as aloe vera extract, can come from nature but can often also be synthesized in a lab,” she explains. This can help stabilize the ingredients and improve their effectiveness. Baki says that in these cases, the ingredient will have the same name on the product label, but the source is not the same.
There are certifying bodies in the U.S. and around the world (such as the Natural Products Association, Ecocert, COSMOS, and NaTrue) that do have a definition of natural, and there are select products that are dubbed “certified natural” that meet their criteria. But there are plenty of beauty products that use leafy labels and an “all-natural” tout as a bit of a marketing ploy.
Tatyana Nektalova, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York City says that, “Due to the lack of regulation, any beauty brand can essentially deem their natural product safe without the research or evidence to fully support their claim.” As such, all-natural may not always mean better.
What are some of the benefits of natural skincare?
The potential benefits of natural skincare are lacking substantial scientific evidence. However, Debra Jaliman, M.D., dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist, says that some natural products might be gentler and safer for your skin. This is because a truly natural product should be devoid of chemicals like parabens (a common preservative) and phthalates (a common solvent) which can sometimes irritate sensitive or acne-prone skin. Additionally, some (but not all) natural skincare products won’t contain artificial fragrances, which can also be irritating.
What are some of the drawbacks of natural skincare?
It’s important not to conflate “natural” with “good for you.” In fact, all-natural skincare can be very irritating.
Dr. Nektalova tells us, “Many clean products contain botanical ingredients that often cause either irritation or contact dermatitis, an allergic rash caused by coming in contact with a specific substance. For example, I frequently see patients with a red, itchy rash in their underarm area that is due to a botanical-derived fragrance (e.g., lavender or jasmine) in their all-natural deodorant.” If you’re concerned about potentially irritating ingredients, be sure to read the label carefully, as it’s not always enough to rely on the language on the packaging to trust whether or not a natural product will be non-irritating. And if you’re unsure, it might be best to talk to your dermatologist or stick to products you know.
Additionally, if a product is truly all-natural, one major drawback is that it will have a much shorter shelf life. Our experts explain that ingredients like parabens (which get a bad rap) are necessary for keeping our products clean, contaminate-free, and usable for up to two years, but natural products crafted without parabens could have a shelf life as short as three or four months.
Is natural skincare better than synthetic products?
“Just because a product says it’s natural does not automatically mean that it’s safe and better for you,” says Dr. Baki. She explains that while there are many safe ingredients in nature, there are also ingredients that come from nature but are poisonous or even lethal in high doses. In short: The source of an ingredient does not determine its safety or efficacy.
Plus, “synthetic ingredients are safe and often more cost-effective to manufacture than their natural counterpart,” says Dr. Baki. While synthetic ingredients are often labeled as “bad,” there are natural ingredients that raise sustainability issues. For example, mica and palm oil are ingredients that raise several issues due to their sourcing and effect on the environment.
Ultimately, when it comes to all-natural skincare, it’s okay to try it, (you may even find a product you love!) but just be careful and aware that scientific evidence behind these products is still lacking.