Natural Cosmetics: Are They Healthier for Your Skin?

When it comes to skin allergies and avoiding harmful ingredients, natural beauty products aren't always best.

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 28, 2008

Natural beauty products: They're all the rage with supermodels, Hollywoodstars, and the girl next door. But can these often pricey products really makea difference for your skin, and if so, do you get whatyou pay for? Maybe not. If it's prettier, gentler, problem-free skin care youthink you're getting, you could be in for a surprise.

"The perception is that natural ingredients are more pure and kinder toskin than something made in the lab, but nothing could be farther from thetruth," says dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD, past president of theAmerican Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery. In fact, hesays, if you're buying natural products to avoid breakouts or allergicreactions, you might be disappointed; they won't necessarily be a betteroption.

Chemicals in Cosmetics

But many women are going natural to avoid certain ingredients that researchshows may be harmful. These include preservatives, such as parabens, and otheringredients including petrochemicals and phthalates, which some studies showcan mimic the effects of hormones in the body or, at high levels, possiblyincrease the risk of cancer. While the Personal Care Products Council andother industry groups maintain these ingredients are safe, others, such as theEnvironmental Working Group, point to mounting evidence that consumers shouldavoid them.

Unfortunately, shopping for naturals doesn't guarantee you won't find thoseingredients in your products. Because the government hasn't defined the term"natural," no regulations exist about what products can and cannotcontain. But that may soon change. This summer, the Natural ProductsAssociation launches a new seal of approval aimed at identifying those productsthat meet a strict industry-driven standard to be considered natural. Productswill start bearing the new seal by early 2009.

'Natural' Products: Read the Labels

In the meantime, learn to read the labels of your beauty products -- eventhose labeled "natural." Environmental groups caution againstingredients such as parabens (which are used as preservatives); petrochemicalsand their by-products (often found in skin creams, foundations, and lip balms);mercury (in mascara and eyedrops); lead (in lipsticks); dioxane (in shampoosand body washes); and phthalates in nail polishes and hair sprays.

Natural Beauty Products and Allergies

Be aware that all-natural ingredients can cause allergic reactions. Onestudy in the British Journal of Dermatology shows that popular naturalingredients such as tea tree oil, feverfew, lavender, and jasmine brought onallergic or sensitivity responses in some people. Use the "sniff" test."If a product says it contains natural strawberries but smells likeimitation strawberry-flavored candy, then it may not be as natural as youthink," says Schlessinger.

Show Sources


Joel Schlessinger, MD, former president, American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery.

Daniel Fabricant, PhD, vice president scientific affairs and research, Natural Products Association.

Stacy Malkan, co-founder, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics; author, Not Just A Pretty Face.

James Bailey, executive vice president of science, Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association.

Stephanie Kwisnek, spokeswoman, FDA.

Janet Gray, PhD, professor and chairman, department of psychology, Vassar College, New York.

Julia Smith, MD, director, Lynne Cohen Breast and Ovarian Cancer Prevention Program, NYU Cancer Institute, New York City.

World Health Organization.

Breast Cancer Fund.

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