Many of us tend to link all things green with superior safety and effectiveness. But, is natural and organic skin care really harmless and better than the regular stuff we’ve been using for years? If you’re confused, you’re not alone! We delve into the differences between labels and the details on safety to make sense of it all.
Product labels can be misleading. Because the FDA doesn’t have strict regulations on cosmetic definitions (though it does regulate cosmetic safety), companies can use buzzwords like "organic" and "natural" fairly arbitrarily. To cut down on the confusion, here’s a closer look at the terms.
- Defining organic. Technically, "organic" means that a product has been made without synthetic pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, hormones, antibiotics, fertilizers or other synthetic or toxic substances for at least three years. No artificial flavors or colors have been added.
- Seal of approval. The National Organic Program, a division of the Department of Agriculture, is in charge of monitoring that proper conditions have been met and assigning the appropriate USDA Organic seal. While these labels are important for marketing, they provide no guidelines about product safety. Don’t assume that the ingredients are necessarily safer just because they’re indeed organic.
- Levels of organic. Products with organic ingredients can fall into three levels:
- 100 percent organic. Marked with the USDA Organic seal, these are the only products that you can safely assume don’t contain any non-organic ingredients.
- Organic. These products must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
- Made with organic ingredients. The majority of products will fall into this category, which means they contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and aren’t allowed to display the USDA organic seal.
- Defining natural. Organic has become a fairly well-regulated term, but what does "natural" or "derived from plants" mean? Unfortunately, a company can add two natural ingredients and market the product as "contains natural ingredients," while filling it with a host of synthetic fillers, dyes and fragrances.
Many ingredients may indeed be derived from natural sources, but synthetic chemicals are used in the processing. For example, Bismuth oxychloride is a common ingredient in mineral makeup, including those that claim to have "all-natural" ingredients. Companies aren’t lying — bismuth oxychloride is made from the minerals, lead and copper.
However, it’s synthetically processed, but companies don’t publicize this part. Mica is another ingredient in mineral makeup, and while it’s completely natural, it’s also extremely abrasive, irritating sensitive skin. Not exactly what comes to mind when we hear "pure."
- Cosmetic regulations. Generally, the FDA handles all safety concerns, but this differs when it comes to cosmetics. According to the FDA Web site, regulations regarding the sale of cosmetics are less strict than for other FDA-regulated products.
The FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetics until after the product is put on the market. Manufacturers aren’t even required to register with the FDA or submit any data regarding their products, although they’re encouraged to do so. The FDA can and does inspect products for safety, but it isn’t a requirement in the same way food and drugs are tested.
- The allure of familiar words. There’s something comforting about being able to pronounce most of the ingredients in your beauty products. Soy, rice and green tea all sound nice, especially in comparison to ingredients like "octyl dodecanol" or "dimethicone silicone," two common cosmetic ingredients found in moisturizers. But does familiar mean safer? Not necessarily.
- Are all plants safe? Along with pleasant-sounding ingredients like rose hip and lavender, you’ll also find plants like hemlock and poison ivy — two plants we certainly wouldn’t want in our facial lotion.
Whereas these are obvious no-no’s, there are many plants that fall somewhere in between. As the demand for natural cosmetics increases, companies have to keep up by creating new and exciting formulas — sometimes with more exotic ingredients like Amazonian Rainforest Herbs and Australasian Botanical Extracts. But, it’s uncertain whether these ingredients are even effective or safe.
In an article in the New York Times, government and beauty industry reps explain that there?s no conclusive evidence to prove that plant-based cosmetics are superior in safety or healthier. Strawberries, pollen and hay, for example, are all sources of annoying or even dangerous allergies for some.
The bottom line
So, rather than thinking in terms of natural vs. unnatural, it’s better to do your own research and investigate specific ingredients instead. Study up on the most common skin care ingredients, where they’re derived from and how they’re processed. Also, pay attention to whether you’ve been sensitive to these ingredients in the past.
Learn everything you need to know about a natural skincare and beauty routine in our Natural Beauty Handbook.