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When young girls start to wear makeup, they’re usually concerned about the hottest, most popular products that will make them feel pretty. Their parents, however, generally care more about keeping their daughters’ skin healthy.

Slathering on foundations and dusting on layers of blush and mascara isn’t always good skin care. Plus, there’s often apprehension over troubling cosmetics ingredients that may include harmful chemicals.

But finding healthy solutions may not be as simple as just looking at the ingredient label for items marketed as "organic cosmetics" or natural skin products.

'Natural' Isn’t Always Better

“The words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are thrown around with often no standardization or rigor behind it,” says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “It doesn’t mean it contains fewer harmful or more natural ingredients.”

“Natural” doesn’t mean safe, agrees F. Alan Andersen, PhD, director of Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent group funded by the personal products industry that independently evaluates the safety of cosmetic ingredients and publishes the findings. Andersen says his group often has difficulty completing safety evaluations for chemicals derived from plants. Unlike man-made chemicals, where they know what is in the products, plant-derived material is not as clear-cut.  

In her practice, dermatologist Patricia Farris, MD, a clinical professor at Tulane University, says she sees many patients who have reactions to natural skin care products and cosmetics they bought at health food stores. She says she remembers a particular case where a woman had an infection from an all-natural skin care product. The product, which was custom-made for her in a small, organic shop, grew yeast and caused the patient to develop a bad infection.

“I don’t think you’re necessarily safer with a natural product,” says Farris. “In theory, it’s wonderful, but in reality it doesn’t pan out. We put preservatives in these products for a reason.”

Ferris has consulted for cosmetic companies Neutrogena, Beiersdorf, and Unilever.

Is Mineral Makeup Better?

Parents looking for “healthier” cosmetics for their kids may choose mineral makeup – foundation, blush, and other products made from finely ground minerals. Dermatologists often say that mineral makeup is healthier because it doesn’t have the preservatives and fragrances found in most other makeup products. People whose skin is irritated by those ingredients may have fewer problems with mineral formulations.

In addition, the non-comedogenic properties of mineral makeup mean it shouldn’t irritate acne or clog pores. And many mineral cosmetics contain ingredients such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide that give mineral makeup the benefits of a sunscreen.

But opinions are mixed. Some mineral makeup products may have ingredients like bismuth oxychloride, which is not a natural mineral but a byproduct of copper and lead processing. It can irritate skin and may cause rashes and aggravate acne. Minerals that are very finely ground may also be an inhalation hazard, says Lunder.

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