Beyond First Blush: An Up-Close Look at Natural Skin Care Products

When it comes to natural skin care products, separating marketing claims from science is a challenge. Here’s a primer.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 17, 2009
4 min read

Pomegranates. Green tea. Mushrooms. They taste great, and scientific studies have shown that they may have powerful health benefits as foods. Now, many cosmetics companies are touting these same ingredients in their natural skin care products.

But drinking green tea is one thing, putting it on your skin another. Do these botanically based potions, often labeled "natural," "green," or "organic," live up to the hype?

“The marketing is still ahead of the science for the most part, but there is enough published work to convince me that the antioxidant botanicals will be the next big thing in skin care," says Richard Baxter, MD, faculty member at the University of Washington School of Medicine and chief medical officer of Calidora Skin Clinics.

Leslie S. Baumann, MD, an expert in the area of cosmetic ingredients, agrees that there is little proof behind most marketing claims for natural skin care products. She is the director of cosmetic dermatology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, the first university-run cosmetic research center in the United States. If you want to try natural skin care products, Baumann recommends zeroing in on a specific concern and match the ingredient to it. Here are some botanicals she suggests:

  • Argan oil, derived from the fruit of a tree that grows in Morocco, has been dubbed “liquid gold.” The vitamin E-rich oil can be found in a Kiehl's body lotion. Baumann says Argan oil may improve skin ailments such as eczema, psoriasis, wrinkles, and dry skin. She also recommends olive, safflower, walnut, avocado, and evening primrose oils for dry skin.
  • Soy can help prevent pigmentation, Baumann says. “Active soy” in Aveeno Positively Radiant and Neutrogena products has been altered in the laboratory for greater effectiveness. Licorice, mulberry, and burberry extracts, along with Vitamin C from citrus fruits -- grapefruit, lime, lemon, and orange -- can also fade brown spots, Baumann says. Look for products from L’Oreal, La Roche Posay, and Skinceuticals.
  • Maitake mushrooms, found in Origins’ Plantidote, may help people with sensitive skin who suffer from rosacea and redness, she says. Chamomile, oatmeal, aloe vera, licorice, and cucumber extracts all have soothing properties; check out Jurlique products. Feverfew, a member of the sunflower family, also has calming properties. It’s an ingredient in Aveeno’s Ultra-Calming line.
  • Rhodiola (or rhodeola), known as golden root, is native to the high Himalayas. In a recent study of people with sensitive skin, those treated with rhodiola extract reported improved skin sensation and less skin dryness. Origins' Youthtopia skin-firming lotion contains extracts.
  • CoffeeBerry is harvested from the coffee cherry, the outer, fleshy casing of the coffee bean. It is said to possess antioxidant activity greater than pomegranates, berries, and green teas. In studies sponsored by Stiefel Laboratories, which owns the proprietory name, CoffeeBerry treatment improved the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and pigmentation. Look for the Revaleskin brand.
  • Resveratrol, a polyphenol from wine and grape skins, serves as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Animal studies suggest that resveratrol applied to the skin may help protect against harmful UV damage. The Caudalie line contains resveratrol.
  • Green tea is rich in antioxidants, especially one that may curb UV skin damage, some studies have shown. Pomegranate products may also help protect against UV skin damage, according to other research.
  • White tea is unfermented and uncured; only the young tips are used.Origins has a line called A Perfect World featuring white tea. In an industry-sponsored study, white tea extract was also shown to limit sunlight-incurred damage in human skin.

Keep in mind as you try these natural skin care remedies that many of them may not contain enough of the ingredient to make a difference.

"A drop of an extract in a two-ounce product is most likely not enough. Unfortunately, products containing only such ‘trace amounts’ of active ingredients for marketing purposes are still the majority on the market,” says Thomas Bombeli, MD, a Seattle-based member of the International Society of Dermatology and founder of the Shenui, Inc., a line of cosmeceuticals.

Also remember that labels such as "green" and "natural" are marketing labels that are not regulated by the government. And just because something says it's natural doesn't mean it works better than synthetic products. Some natural skin care products can actually aggravate skin conditions, Baumann says.

“Many natural essential oils such as rosemary, bergamot, and peppermint can irritate or inflame sensitive skin,” Baumann says. “Coconut oil, a popular natural ingredient, can cause acne.”

Although many natural skin care products make anti-aging promises, experts say these products are probably better at preventing aging than improving existing signs of aging. If you want to treat the wrinkles you already have, you may have to turn to synthetic products.

“Antioxidants can prevent future wrinkles, but they can’t treat existing wrinkles,” Bauman says. “If you want to restore youthfulness, retinoids and vitamin A products derived from red and orange fruits made in the lab are what you need. They work better than if you just put carrots on your skin.”