A Guide To Decoding The Labels On "Natural" Skin Care Products
I would love to imagine that the ingredients in all of my products come from wild botanicals grown in the Swiss Alps rather from a lab in an industrial park. It makes sense to me that ingredients that are as "natural" as possible are going to be way better for my health and my skin. However, it's a bit more complicated than it seems at first blush.
The term natural doesn't mean much because in the food, skin care, and cosmetics industries, the term is not adequately regulated or quantifiable. Anyone can slap the label "natural" on a box or jar and hope we won't bother to read the actual ingredient list, which may be chock full of synthetic additives, preservatives, and other lab-made ingredients that our skin won't love.
To assist you in getting ready for some product selection, I want to lay out some definitions here that can help guide you. The terms natural, raw, and synthetic all imply certain things — but these implications aren't necessarily true. Many of our perceptions are sculpted by myth and hearsay, so I wanted to clear up what each of these terms can mean.
The first definition of natural in the dictionary is "existing in, or formed by nature." So, when I think about the ingredients in my beauty products, it seems to make sense that something that sprouted straight from the earth will be healthier than a laboratory concoction. This is why my heart sings when I see that a product contains aloe vera and/or organic, cold-pressed plant oils.
Keep in mind, though, that no matter how natural the ingredient, it's highly unlikely to have jumped straight from the farm or forest into its recyclable container. There's always a degree of physical processing, which may include heating and the addition of other not-so-natural ingredients. So, unless you're pulling the plants up from your yard and mashing them with a pestle and mortar to smear on your face, the meaning of the word natural can get a bit muddy!
Organic is another term that has become a bit problematic because it's really hard to qualify. The first thing is not to confuse "organic chemistry" with "organic plants and foods" (as in those that are grown without synthetic herbicides or pesticides). Organic chemistry is the science of substances that contain both carbon and hydrogen, and many are made in the lab as molecularly exact matches for original ingredients that were pulled up from the earth.
Why does a skin care ingredient need to be "organic"? In fact, truth be told, you are not necessarily smearing pesticides on your skin if your ingredients aren't organic — the processing involved in getting your ingredient into a formulation has likely removed every last trace of pesticide. However, I will say that if a company takes the trouble to source organic ingredients, then you can be pretty sure that it is concerned with quality. Another reason that I love to buy formulations from companies that use at least some organic ingredients is that I like to support organic farming.
If a food or agricultural product is certified to be organic, it should be:
- Produced without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides
- Not fertilized with sewage sludge
If it's important to you to purchase skin care products made with organic ingredients, you need to make sure that a bona fide organic certificate is involved. In the U.S., the FDA does not define or regulate the term organic as it applies to beauty or personal-care products; however, it does regulate the term organic when it comes to agricultural products with a USDA-certified organic seal. The facility that produces the agricultural ingredient(s) needs to be certified by a USDA-accredited organic certifying agent.
Once certified, a product might be eligible for one of the four following categories:
- 100% Organic: Every ingredient (except water and salt) is organically produced.
- Organic: Contains at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
- Made with Organic Ingredients: Contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. The product label may list up to three of these ingredients on the principal display panel (for example: "Made with organic lavender, camomile, and rosemary").
- Less than 70 percent organic ingredients: This product cannot use the term organic anywhere on the principal display panel, but it can identify specific ingredients that are organically produced on the information panel.
Because the terms organic and natural can be rather misleading in the beauty space, the term raw skin care has mercifully appeared, and it much better describes what many of us are after. A raw product's ingredients haven't been treated with any kind of heat. This is very important when assessing the efficacy of many ingredients, especially pure plant oils, which lose many of their nutrients when they are exposed to heat.
Just as a raw food diet provides valuable enzymes that would have been destroyed during cooking, a raw skin care product retains its basic nutrients. Almost all raw beauty products are vegan — and preservative free, so unless they're in dry powder form, you need to keep them in the fridge.
What about synthetic ingredients? Surely an ingredient that's made in lab is worse than one that comes straight from nature? Not necessarily.
Some synthetic ingredients can be safer and way more effective than their natural counterparts. This is where I take off my natural-ingredient-zealot hat. An example of a good synthetic is L-ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C). You know that white, powdery vitamin C that you can buy in a jar at the health-food store? It's a form that's made in a lab and therefore far from natural — bit of a shocker, right?
As far as skin care is concerned, L-ascorbic acid is a potent anti-aging ingredient, but it must be in a stable form when added to formulations, or it will oxidize and lose its efficacy. The stable forms that are used in skin care (and I'm talking natural skin care) are almost always synthetic. So when it comes to the term synthetic, all I want to make you aware of is that it isn't inherently bad. Don't count something out entirely because it contains these ingredients — it simply means that there's more to learn.
Excerpted from Gorgeous for Good: A Simple 30-Day Program for Lasting Beauty — Inside and Out by Sophie Uliano. It is published by Hay House (April 7th, 2015) and is available for pre-order now with all major bookstores.