Despite several articles being written on the topic (The Cut's guide to natural skin care being one of the most thorough), the question I still get asked more than anything else as a beauty editor is, "What natural beauty brands do you recommend?" It's clear that loads of people — my friends included — are becoming more conscious about what they're putting on their bodies. In late 2017, global information company The NPD Group released the Women’s Facial Skincare Consumer Report, which showed that 40 to 50 percent of women buying skin care products actively seek ones that contain natural or organic ingredients. There seems to be a widespread perception that natural beauty products are somehow inherently better than the synthetically made products of our past. And, in some cases, that's the truth.
However, the world of so-called natural beauty products is weird and complicated. One major thing: The word "natural" means literally nothing as far as the FDA is concerned. Though there has been some legislative movement toward creating more regulations regarding the ingredients cosmetic brands are using — The Personal Care Products Safety Act is probably the buzziest — there's currently not a solid rule that can stop any brand from slapping some leafy-looking design and the word natural on their label, as long as they can claim it's not "misleading." Plus, as Alexandra Kowcz, Chief Scientist for the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), pointed out at a recent panel in Palm Beach, Florida, truly organic ingredients can be volatile as heck. Sometimes, a brand needs to create synthetic ingredients in order to ensure their product will work well every single time. Just because something's made in a lab, doesn't mean it's toxic — and just because something's completely natural, doesn't mean it's not (arsenic, anyone?).
Before you give up and dump all your beauty products — natural and non — down the toilet in a frenzied confusion, board-certified dermatologists Dr. Meghan Feely, MD, FAAD (@drmeghanfeely) and Dr. Diane Madfes, MD want to help clear things up as much as possible. They spoke with Bustle about who an all-natural routine might actually not work so well for, which ingredients have scientific evidence to back up their touted efficacy, and everything else you should consider before your next product-buying spree.
Fewer Ingredients Doesn't Always Equal Better
Many people looking for natural products are hoping for a shorter ingredient list. And while it's true that long lists full of things you can't pronounce aren't always great, a lot of organic ingredients require additional additives to provide any skin care benefits.
"If you just put something on the skin, many times it's not going to get absorbed," Madfes says. That's the point of our skin, after all: to stop foreign objects from reaching our insides. "If you're going to put something on the skin, you want an oil base so it can mix with the top layer of our epidermis," she continues. For example: "If you have something, say rose hip water, and you just put that on the skin, that's not going to penetrate. But rose hip is a good antioxidant and anti-inflammatory so why not take that and encapsulate it [by wrapping] a little bit of an oil molecule around it, and then apply it to the skin."
Your Truly Organic Products Won't Last Long
"Most of the shelf-life of organic ingredients is about three months," Madfes explains. That's not an inherently negative thing, but it does mean you'll need to be mindful about restocking. Madfes says you can keep your organic products in the refrigerator to help preserve them, but that it's extra important to dump them once they pass the expiration date.
And Sometimes, We Need Parabens
Parabens get a bad rap, and many natural brands brag that their products don't contain any. However, "parabens are a very large molecule and they sit on top of the skin and they don't get absorbed throughout," Madfes explains. "And it's one of the best preservatives we that we have." Although a 2004 study found parabens in breast cancer tissue, Feely says that causality was not established in that study. In addition, Feely says, further research is still needed to prove that any of the paraben alternatives on the market are any safer for our health.
Besides, Madfes says, "ketchup has more parabens than a topical cream we're putting on... and we're ingesting it." The two most commonly used parabens in ketchup, methylparaben and propylparaben, are on the FDA's Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list as long as they make up less than 0.1% of the product ingredients. Since there is no regulation on parabens in cosmetics, these types of stats for your makeup are difficult to confirm.
Misinformation Can Be Deadly
Since there isn't a ton of scientific evidence available about natural products, a lot of misinformation about them gets spread across the internet. Before you take anything you read online to heart, it's always good to consult your dermatologist.
"One of the the most common questions I get as a dermatologist is whether sunscreens are safe," Feely says, referring to the popular theory that chemical sunscreens could be poisoning you. "One in five Americans develops skin cancer. Sunscreens are regulated by the FDA. There are no studies published in the literature that demonstrate credible safety issues. Sunscreen is a critical tool to prevent skin cancer and saves lives."
You don't have to use traditional chemical sunscreens to fulfill your SPF need, however. "Patients with sensitive skin or dermatologic conditions such as rosacea may opt to use a 'natural sunscreen' with physical blockers such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide," Feely explains, saying that a product with SPF 15 will protect you from 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 will protect you from 97 percent. Since neither of those are 100 percent, Feely also recommends staying in the shade and wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, no matter what type of sunscreen you choose.
People With Allergies Should Be Especially Cautious
Trying new products can have unexpected negative results for just about anyone, but if you have a history of allergies, you have a higher chance of reacting to natural products. Madfes says that many things that are natural — think tree pollen, nuts, stone fruits, etc — cause allergic reactions, and the same goes for organic ingredients in beauty products. Ingredients created in a lab can be more carefully formulated for sensitive skin, but if you're determined to go natural, just make sure you do a patch test on the inside of your arm before smearing a new organic cream all over your face.
Don't Worry: Some Natural Ingredients Actually Do Work
"I love natural ingredients. I think they're great," Madfes clarifies. Oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids — acids that our bodies need for cell health, but can't produce on its own — are especially great in the winter, when the skin's barrier starts to break down from the cold.
Apple cider vinegar is another natural ingredient Madfes recommends — in fact, using it to replace your shampoo once a week really can get rid of buildup caused by products.
Feely has found that many natural ingredients that block melanin production or lighten melanin that has been produced work well for her patients with hyperpigmentation, specifically kojic acid, lignin peroxidase, ellagic acid, niacinamide, and soy "Unfortunately, [prolonged usage] can cause photosensitivity," she says, so just be sure to wear sunscreen, too.
Plus, You Can Find Them At The Grocery Store
If Madfes has a patient who wants to experiment with natural products, she sends them straight to Whole Foods. "I love it. Oh my gosh," she says. "They screen everything for you." Since there is currently no federal regulation over organic beauty products, Whole Foods has created their own system, and claims to only stock products with "a proven track record" of success.
Ultimately, it's all about experimentation. If rubbing pure olive oil on your face makes your skin glow, great. But if you'd rather stick with the drugstore brand your mom's been using since you were little, you're probably safe with that, too.