I prefer to use natural skincare when I can. I like the transparency these beauty brands provide, their commitment to the environment, and being able to actually pronounce the ingredients I’m using on my body. Using these brands feels good. But I’ve started to wonder, if a skincare brand is natural, does that mean it’s safe? On the flipside, if it’s not “clean,” does that deem the ingredients toxic? Turns out this is a bit more complicated than we might think. I learned this the hard way when applying a green tea face mask from a beautiful new natural beauty brand that resulted in redness and irritation. I texted my dermatologist a picture – to which he responded a more deferential version of I told you so. He explained that green tea can irritate hypersensitive or ultra-dry skin and reiterated that just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone.
“The clean beauty movement started from a good place, as it’s brought some transparency and focus to what is actually in the skincare that we are using,” says Robert Finney, MD FAAD, board certified Dermatologist based in NYC, adding that many of these companies also have a focus on sustainability and ethics, an added bonus. But there is a reason that terms such as “clean,” “chemical-free,” or “natural” are not FDA regulated. Finney warns against the, at times, disparaging marketing messaging used in the clean beauty movement, adding “The movement says that if you don’t use ‘clean’ products, then whatever skincare you are using is toxic or bad, and this simply is not true.”
For example, one of the most common beauty myths is that parabens are bad for you. Parabens are chemicals added to products to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria to increase the shelf life of the product. Natural beauty brands like to advertise “paraben-free” as an assertion of safety. But are parabens really unsafe? “It’s true that parabens can mimic estrogen in the blood and at high levels, they are considered unsafe,” explains Finney. “But the FDA and stricter EU, both state that parabens below a certain concentration are safe to use in personal care products. At such low concentrations, there are no noticeable risks.”
“Chemical-free” is also a common marketing term used in clean beauty brands, yet all things are made up of chemicals, explains Finney. “Plants, for example, are made up of chemicals. Some of which are antioxidants, which can serve as good skincare ingredients, some are fragrances, pollen and other things that can cause allergy and irritation.” The advice Finney offers those hoping to take the plunge into natural skincare is to simply do your homework. Read the active ingredients first and start by adding one new product at a time; that way, if you get a reaction you are better able to identify the problematic product. But most importantly, pay a visit to your dermatologist to have a clear understanding of your skin type before trying anything at all. And remember: just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe for you.
Below board-certified dermatologist Robert Finney dissects 7 common ingredients found in natural skincare.*
Vitamins C, E, A
“Vitamin A is found in many fruits (papaya, mango, palm oil) and is synonymous with retinols or retinoids. It’s great for anti-aging through collagen stimulation and wrinkle reduction, but it also helps to brighten skin and even out tone, unclog pores, and reduce acne. This is an ingredient that all dermatologists have as a cornerstone in their anti-aging skincare regimen. Caution should be taken when starting a topical vitamin A derivative, as dryness and irritation can occur. Not everyone will tolerate them due to this. I tell patients to start slowly – maybe only two nights a week – use a very small amount and moisturize after (before as well if you have very sensitive skin). It’s also an ingredient that should be avoided if planning or are actively pregnant. Vitamin C can be found in many fruits and is one of the most powerful antioxidants that helps to fight off free radicals from the sun, pollutants and blue light. It also stimulates collagen to help with anti-aging and decreases hyperpigmentation. For these reasons, it is a cornerstone as part of a good skincare regimen and is best used in the morning beneath your sunscreen. It is not a very stable ingredient in skincare and different forms of vitamin C have different benefits. It is important to find one that is backed in science and has proven stability. Vitamin E is another good antioxidant that is generally found in plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. It’s often listed on product labels as tocopherol. It is also helpful in fighting off free radical damage and works best when combined with vitamin C.”
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“Green tea and matcha are plant polyphenols that are good antioxidants, but also have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. They also contain caffeine which helps reduce puffiness and are included in many under eye creams for this reason. They have been studied in acne and have been helpful because they are able to reduce oil production and also cut down on some of the acne contributing bacteria. One downside is that occasionally they can cause irritation. Most under eye creams will include hydrating ingredients to counteract this.”
“Rosehip, often used in face oils, contains essential fatty acids and is a good source of vitamins A, C and E. For this reason, it is helpful at soothing dry, flaky skin, relieving oxidative stress and restoring the skin barrier. It is also helpful at reducing acne, brightening and evening out skin tone and softening fine lines or wrinkles. Although it is an oil, it is unlikely to clog pores, so this ingredient tends to be well tolerated by most and can be a good addition given its multiple uses.”
“Coconut oil is really moisturizing. Virgin coconut oil has been shown to help repair the skins barrier, allow it to hold onto moisture and has an inherent anti-microbial due to lauric acid. This makes it a great moisturizing option for patients with eczema, because their skin barriers are impaired and they are frequently colonized by staph bacteria that can cause flares and infections. This combats both of these problems. The bad is that it’s fairly comedogenic (meaning it causes blackheads) so avoid applying to your face if you have breakout prone skin.”
“Bakuchiol is naturally found in the Indian plant psoralea gladulosa, amongst others. It mimics retinol to act on their receptors and thus it stimulates collagen, reduces wrinkles, brightens the skin, decreases dark marks and can help with acne. In a head-to-head trial against a prescription strength retinoid, it performed similarly in its anti-aging effect. Two important differences and what make this such an intriguing option is that unlike retinols, it does not cause irritation and is pregnancy safe. For this reason, this is ingredient is a great option for anyone looking to add a powerful anti-aging product to their regimen.”
“Aloe Vera has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties and accelerates the wound healing process, especially of burn wounds, which is why many apply it after a sunburn. It gets these properties from its polysaccharides which vary depending on how the plant was grown and how its processed – so its tough to ensure the bioavailability is consistent. Therefore, make sure your aloe product has other good ingredients that are more stable and reliable. People can react differently to pure aloe from a plant – in some, it can cause irritation or a small breakout, but they may not react this way if it is formulated into a cream or lotion with other ingredients.”
“Avocados are rich in fatty acids to help the skin barrier and phytochemicals vitamins A/D/E, thus has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties so it’s great for people with dry and sensitive skin. Although it is likely to clog pores, so avoid applying to the face if you’re prone to breakouts.”
*Allergic reactions are possible in each ingredient listed. If you have sensitive skin, consult a dermatologist before use.