Imagine, if you will, a world where no one could agree upon what constitutes the color red. You’d point at something — a firetruck, maybe — and ask passersby if that was red, and they’d say it was probably was. But really, no one would know for sure.
That’s basically what’s happening when it comes to the word “natural” in skin care. It’s been a buzzword for years now, but with no universally agreed upon definition, it remains unclear what qualities (or lack thereof) allow a product to bill itself as “natural,” “clean,” or “green.” (And yes, the quotes around all of those terms are very-much intentional.)
That said, third-party organizations like the Natural Products Council and COSMOS have released standards that include lists of ingredients that meet their definition of “natural.” Retailers like Credo and Sephora, too, have created their own standards with a focus on what types of ingredients “natural” products should not contain. And after consulting a small army of toxicologists, dermatologists, and chemists, we at Allure created one, too.
There are commonalities among many of these sets of guidelines (formaldehyde is a universal no-no), but there are also differences that make these standards, uh, not-so standard. And with no one criteria for what constitutes “natural” enforced across the industry, “a brand can come up with its own definition,” says cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline.
So where do we go from here? “A government agency needs to pass a bill in order to ensure there are proper definitions and they are being followed,” offers Koestline. She points to The California Organic Foods Act of 1990 — which established standards for organic food production and sales within the state — as an example.
Maybe you’re starting to get a little angry with us. You clicked on this story to learn more about “natural” products, and what we’re telling you is: Who even knows what “natural” means? In times like these, Allure turns to science — so we asked trusted dermatologists what “natural” skin-care means to them.
Spoiler alert: They’re less concerned about bureaucracy and more concerned about how your pursuit of a “natural” routine could mean you’re missing out on well-researched (and proven-safe) ingredients that could benefit your skin.
“I think it’s great that we are much more mindful and thoughtful about the ingredients we use and want in our products,” says California-based board-certified dermatologist David Kim. “However, it’s inaccurate to assume that everything chemical is bad, and everything natural is good. I often tell my patients that poison ivy is natural, but that’s not something you want to put on your skin. Ever.”
New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Melissa Levin shares the same sentiment. “I explain [to my patients] that ingredients are not intrinsically bad, it’s about how they’re used and in what quantity. Think of a puddle of water — not a big deal, right? — but a tsunami can be catastrophic.”
“A product being [labeled as] ‘natural’ tells us nothing about ingredient safety or sustainability, about the formulation or the clinical evidence, but it does, interestingly, make patients and consumers feel better,” she continues.
Let’s unpack that one with the help of New York City-based board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist Evan Rieder: “‘Natural’ is more of a cultural concept — it extends the belief in the superiority of the natural world and that human modification [and] inference inevitably causes harm,” he says. “‘Natural’ products also allow people to connect themselves with a perceived healthy lifestyle and worldview, as well as certain values that they find favorable. For example, harmony with the environment, a spiritual connection with nature, and altruism in their interactions with others.”
So, basically, when you buy a ‘natural’ product, you’re buying more than just a cleanser or eye cream — whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re buying everything that ‘natural’ products represent.
And that’s not to say you shouldn’t. “I’m not against ‘natural,’” says Orit Markowitz, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Just understand the product, make sure you’ve done a little bit of research, and don’t automatically assume that because something’s ‘natural,’ it’s safe.”
Public regulation of “natural” products — including a universally agreed-upon definition for the word — would take the guesswork out of that process, and empower us all to make more informed decisions.
For now, when in doubt about if a product is right for you — “natural” or not — you should visit a dermatologist to assess the ingredients. Because it’s what’s inside that counts.