When I left my practice as an ER doctor to start a natural skin-care line, it didn’t occur to me that I would be entering the "beauty" industry. If I had thought of it that way, I might not have chosen to make the leap. I don’t think of skin care as a beauty issue: Skin care is a health issue, no different from the food I put on my dinner plate or the time I take to exercise every day. So many of us have become numb to the synthetic fragrances and potentially harmful ingredients we’re using on our skin, and I—like many of my fellow green-brand founders—am on a mission to educate and create change. It’s time to wake up and smell the body oil.
Why would you choose an organic skin-care brand over a conventional one?
For the same reasons you’d choose organic food over conventional food: to limit your exposure to chemicals that are potentially hazardous to your health and the planet. Let me disclose from the outset that I am a believer in the organic movement. But I’m not a believer because it’s on trend or because I’ve succumbed to fear-mongering or because I grow and harvest my own lavender. I believe in organic skin care because I’m a physician who has cared for thousands of sick people and have seen illness in all its forms. I believe we have the power to harm ourselves or heal ourselves with our daily choices, and choosing organic is one way to support our health and the health of the planet we share. Many people make this choice when it comes to food, but the products we use on our skin should be next in line.
Your skin absorbs much of what you put on it, and there’s mounting evidence that ingredients like parabens, phthalates, and synthetic fragrance are causing myriad problems, from endocrine disruption to allergic reactions to chemical sensitivity. By choosing an organic skin-care brand or a brand that uses mostly organic ingredients, you are filtering out potential toxins and irritants in products you’re using on your skin.
Sorting through the brands is not easy, though—there are so many of them, and it’s hard to tell the genuinely healthy brands from the greenwashers. One way to create a filter is to look for the green USDA organic seal on a product, which tells you a few things: First, the product contains more than 95 percent certified-organic ingredients; second, the product complies with the USDA National Organic Program’s list of what can and can’t be in a certified-organic product; third, the company using the seal meets the USDA organic-handling requirements. This is a great place to start, but it’s not the whole story.
NOP guidelines are designed for crops and livestock, not for cosmetics. My brand (Osmia), for example, uses mostly food-grade, certified-organic ingredients, but if you ATE 70 bars of our Black Clay Facial Soap, you’d have not only a bellyache but possibly iron toxicity from the natural clay in the bar. So, does a food-grade certification make sense for all skin-care products? Probably not. While the skin absorbs much of what we put on it, the absorptive surface area of the skin is about 1/15th of the GI tract and absorbs slightly different things, so the concerns are similar but not identical. Some newer, cosmetic-specific certifications have potential to become industry leaders for healthy standards: The National Safety Foundation has one, as well as the Environmental Working Group. Keep an eye on this arena as it develops over the next couple of years.
In the meantime, how do you choose your organic skin-care products? Based on reliable data from medical journals, here’s a quick list of what to avoid and why:
- Parabens, triclosan, and phthalates may cause endocrine disruption.
- Sulfates (especially sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, or “SLS”) due to skin irritation. (Many studies like this one use SLS as a baseline skin irritant.)
- Petrochemicals are known for pore clogging.
- Ethoxylated ingredients (anything that ends in "eth," phenoxyethanol, polysorbates) can contain 1,4-dioxane contamination and may be a carcinogen.
- Synthetic color is often derived from petroleum or coal tar, which has a possible link to behavioral issues.
- Synthetic fragrance is highly allergenic and often contains petrochemicals and phthalates.
Just as important, look for a brand that seems authentic in its mission, transparent and educated in its communication, and willing to answer questions about sourcing and ingredients.
If I'm switching to organic skin care, where should I start?
It’s all about the math. The skin of your body from the neck down constitutes 91 percent of the roughly 2 square meters that get exposed to skin-care products. So, if you’re considering the best organic skin-care products in order to decrease your chemical exposure, you should start with your body skin!
One easy change is moving from a body wash to an organic bar soap. Body wash A) comes in a plastic bottle and B) contains water, which means it must also contain a preservative. Plus, many of the foaming agents used to make bubbles can be irritating (like SLS) or dehydrating. Instead, consider a cold-process organic soap made with skin-nourishing oils, and keep it dry on a soap tray between uses.
Best organic body soap:
- Check out the adorably packaged bars from Meow Meow Tweet.
- Big and beautiful Osmia bars, where long-lasting bar soap is an art form.
- If you’re weaning yourself from liquid to bar soap, Soapwalla makes both.
Once you’re clean, how do you keep your skin moisturized throughout the day? Here’s a radical suggestion: Ditch the lotion; switch to oil. Lotion is oil and water held together by an emulsifier and also needs to be preserved because it contains water. By using a high-quality body oil on sopping-wet skin, you’re providing the water and sealing it in with only gorgeous, natural oils! If you find the right blend, you’ll feel velvety—not greasy—after about five minutes.
Best natural body oils:
- SW Basics in unscented or lemongrass
- Argan-based body serums from Kahina Giving Beauty
- Night Body Oil by Osmia as part of your bedtime routine
#PROTIP: Raw coconut oil on the skin will be drying and comedogenic to some skin types, due to the high concentrations of certain long-chain fatty acids. If you’ve tried raw coconut oil and sworn off oil as a result, try one of the above oils and see if you get a better result!
If you’re a dedicated lotion person, picking an organic body lotion requires some label reading to avoid the following things:
- Emulsifying wax NF (ethoxylated)
- Parfum (usually synthetic fragrance plus preservative)
- Fragrance (other than essential oils)
- Phenoxyethanol (petroleum-derived and ethoxylated)
- FD&C colors or any color that says "lake" (allergic reaction potential)
- Parabens (which really shouldn’t be in any organic lotion)
Whether you choose a body oil or an organic lotion, you’ll have better results if you exfoliate your skin once a week (more is too much!), either with dry brushing or using a natural salt or sugar scrub. By gently removing the outermost layer of skin cells, your skin will be more receptive to the nourishing oils and absorb nutrients more readily.
Best organic skin care for the face.
Now that my body routine is clean, what’s the best organic face-care routine?
Your face may be only 4.5 percent of your skin’s surface area, but it’s the 4.5 percent with which you greet the world every day, so it deserves special attention. Finding the best face-care products for your skin type requires patience and persistence. Just because the first organic product you try doesn’t work does not indicate that organic face products are not for you—it just means you haven’t found the right one. Taking a skin-type approach can help you figure out where to begin.
Best organic skin care for normal skin.
You lucky duck. If you have normal skin, you don’t struggle with redness, reactions, breakouts, dryness, or dullness—and the rest of the world envies you! A basic routine for normal skin involves cleansing every night (always!) and providing adequate moisture and sun protection. Exfoliation once a week will keep cell turnover healthy and allow products to penetrate more effectively.
Suggested natural ingredients for normal skin:
Best natural products for normal skin:
- Odacite Rejuvenating Cleanser
- Indie Lee Squalane Oil
- S.W. Basics Hibiscus Mask
- Josh Rosebrook Nutrient Day Cream
Best organic skin care for oily or breakout-prone skin.
If your skin is too oily or you have a lot of acne, it means your sebaceous glands are overactive, and sebum is getting trapped in the pores, where it becomes infected and inflamed. As with any health condition, you must start at the root of the problem, addressing diet, stress levels, and hormones with your health care provider—then you can move on to selecting products to support it from the outside.
When you strip the skin of too much oil (think mainstream acne management), it provides feedback to the sebaceous glands that the skin does not have enough oil and kicks them into overdrive, exacerbating the problem. Instead, provide the skin with gentle exfoliation and nourish it with the right balance of oils, training the sebaceous glands to settle down and make less sebum.
Suggested natural ingredients for oily or breakout-prone skin:
- Dead sea mud
- Activated charcoal
- Black cumin seed oil
- Rosehip seed oil
- Essential oils of lavender, cajeput, thyme
Best natural products for oily or breakout-prone skin:
- Osmia Black Clay Facial Soap
- Dr. Alkaitis Soothing Gel
- May Lindstrom Problem Solver
- Tata Harper Clarifying Mask
- Odacite Black Cumin and Cajeput Concentrate
- Osmia Spot Treatment
Best organic skin care for sensitive or reactive skin.
Whether your skin reacts to everything or just a few common skin-care ingredients, it's not all bad: It can make you into an educated label reader!
Less is absolutely more when you’re dealing with sensitive skin. If you react to something, it’s harder to do the detective work when you’re using lots of ingredients. Sometimes, your skin just needs simplicity and time to heal itself.
Suggested natural ingredients for sensitive or reactive skin:
- Aloe vera
- Vegetable glycerin
- Sunflower oil
- Sweet almond oil
Best natural products for sensitive or reactive skin:
- S.W. Basics Cleanser
- Acure Sensitive Facial Cleanser
- CV Skinlabs Calming Moisture
- Osmia Purely Simple Face Cream
Best organic skin care for dry and dehydrated skin.
Skin can get dry or dehydrated for various reasons, from diet to sun damage to age-related changes. Stay hydrated, keep your electrolytes balanced, and eat plenty of healthy fats like avocados, hemp seeds, or healthy fish. Be sure to apply product while your skin is still damp, to lock in moisture.
Suggested natural ingredients for dry or dehydrated skin:
- Aloe vera
- Hyaluronic acid
- Mango butter
- Sea buckthorn
- Borage seed oil
- Essential oils of frankincense, sandalwood, and carrot seed
Best natural products for dry or dehydrated skin:
Best organic skin care for skin prone to redness.
Redness is a result of increased capillary size or blood flow, so ingredients that soothe the skin or cause gentle vasoconstriction are helpful. Things to avoid? Heating spices like cinnamon or cayenne (in diet or skin products), red wine, and niacinamide (vitamin B3), which can cause flushing.
Suggested natural ingredients for redness-prone skin:
- Aloe vera
- Rose hydrosol
- Argan oil
- Essential oils of rose, sandalwood, and helichrysum
Best natural products for redness-prone skin:
Best organic skin care for dull skin and large pores.
Dullness is often a sign that your skin’s cell turnover rate is on the low side. Fortunately, there are loads of natural ways to speed it up, and you can often see great results within a month. Be sure to use a combination of exfoliation methods, from enzymatic to mechanical.
Suggested natural ingredients for dull skin:
- Adzuki beans
- Gotu kola
- Algae extract
- Essential oils of cedarwood, carrot seed, and lavender
Best natural products for dull skin:
- Osmia Pumpkin Facial Soap
- May Lindstrom The Honey Mud
- Tata Harper Concentrated Brightening Serum
- Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum
As a physician and the founder of a healthy skin-care brand, my hope is to inspire people to make tiny daily choices that add up to strong physical and mental health over the years. Choosing to invest in organic food and skin-care products is one of many ways to nourish your body and spirit in the long term. You are what you eat—and what you slather on your skin!