Their packaging is beautiful, their scents are soothing and their reputation is sterling… Or is it? When you opt for “natural” skin care products, you feel confident that you’re using ingredients that’ve been deemed safe for your skin. But as it turns out, that’s not always the case.
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Labels like “natural” and “clean” are unregulated, so you may not actually know what you’re getting — and even natural ingredients can (and do) cause severe allergic reactions. This can be problematic for people who have sensitive skin or who develop an allergy to these products while using them.
Think that doesn’t apply to you? It’s more common than you might expect.
Allergist Sandra Hong, MD, explains what to look for to be sure that the products you apply to your skin aren’t going to cause issues.
What makes a skin care product ‘natural’?
“Natural” refers to ingredients that aren’t made in a lab and instead come from sources like plants, but it’s actually a pretty vague term. After all, there are plenty of naturally occurring elements that you wouldn’t want to put on your face. (Poison ivy, for example, is natural, but it’s not exactly a dream skin care ingredient!)
And there’s another issue: “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not actually say what’s in natural or clean skin care products,” Dr. Hong notes. “There’s no set standard for these products, and no regulatory body requires the companies that make them to prove that they’re as clean or natural as they say they are.”
Many products that call themselves “natural” also use other terminology that may help you get to the bottom of things:
- Fragrance-free: These products don’t contain natural or synthetic fragrances. But “fragrance-free” isn’t the same as “unscented,” which often means that chemicals have been added to cover up the smell of other ingredients.
- Hypoallergenic: This term indicates that a product is made with ingredients that are unlikely to cause allergic reactions — but it isn’t necessarily reliable. The FDA’s website explains, “There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.” (Yikes.)
- Non-toxic: This catch-all word is essentially a marketing term meant to convey the idea that a product is safe.
- Organic: Organic products use ingredients that are grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals. (Hang tight, and we’ll delve deeper into this term in the next section.)
- Paraben-free: These hormone-disrupting chemicals, which mimic estrogen in your body, are used as preservatives in many skin care products and cosmetics. They’ve been associated with health concerns like infertility and cancer.
- PFAS-free: Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can affect your sleep, blood pressure, metabolism and more.
- Phthalate-free: Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that are sometimes used as dissolving agents in skin care products and cosmetics. They’re associated with decreased sperm quality, among other concerns.
- Sulfate-free: Also known as surfactants, sulfates are chemicals that make products lather or foam.
What’s the difference between natural and organic skin care products?
If you’re feeling panicky about the vagueness of the word “natural,” here’s some good news: It’s harder for companies to get away with using the word “organic” if they’re not, in fact, using organic ingredients.
Just as the FDA doesn’t regulate the word “natural,” neither does it regulate the word “organic.” But someone else does: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And it’s very specific about what terminology is allowed. Here’s a quick rundown:
- USDA Organic Seal: To display the USDA Organic Seal, a product must be made with at least 95% organic agricultural ingredients.
- “Organic” or “100% organic”: Products that say this may or may not bear the USDA Organic Seal. But they do have to display the name and address of the agency that certified their organic status.
- “Made with organic ingredients”: Any product labeled with this term must be made with at least 70% organic ingredients.
That means that companies can’t use the word “organic” willy-nilly. But just because a product is organic doesn’t mean it’s great for your skin. Remember that poison ivy example? Organic ingredients can and do cause problems for many people.
Are natural skin care products actually better for your skin?
“Natural” is basically just a marketing gimmick, not an actual standard that skin care products have to meet. So, when it comes to skin care products, ingredients that are natural aren’t necessarily better or safer for you.
“Even though a product is natural, you can still have difficulties with it,” Dr. Hong states. “Ingredients like oils and minerals are natural, which sounds great. But many people are surprised to find that they develop allergies to those types of products.”
In fact, a 2023 study showed that nearly all skin care products that are marketed as being “all-natural” actually contain ingredients that can trigger contact dermatitis. This allergic reaction causes itchiness, rash and the general unpleasantness you’d hoped to avoid by switching to natural products in the first place.
“This study looked at nearly 1,700 products that were considered natural, clean, healthy for the skin, or good for people with sensitive skin,” Dr. Hong explains. “It found that more than 94% of the time, these products contained agents known to cause contact dermatitis.”
Contact dermatitis brings an itchy, red rash that may also be:
“Sometimes, just one application of a product can result in weeks of misery,” she continues. “Even after you remove the product from your skin care routine, it can take up to three weeks for your contact dermatitis to clear up.”
What if you have sensitive skin or a skin condition?
If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Hong recommends sticking to hypoallergenic products and staying away from products made with fragrances, in particular. This includes ingredients like amyl cinnamal (jasmine), eugenol (clove oil) and others on the European Union Cosmetics Directive’s list of frequently reported allergens.
“Fragrances can make a product smell really great, but they’re very high on the list of ingredients that can cause huge problems for your skin,” D. Hong warns. “Some oils and dyes can cause issues, too.”
And although a “hypoallergenic” label can’t guarantee that you won’t have an allergic reaction, products that bear this claim are typically the safest bet for people with sensitive skin.
When to see a doctor
Contact dermatitis may go away on its own, but talk to a healthcare professional if your rash:
- Seems to be getting worse.
- Lasts for more than three weeks.
- Is affecting your eyes and/or mouth.
- Prevents you from being able to focus or sleep.
“It’s really important to see a physician or a licensed practitioner to determine what’s causing the issue and to treat your symptoms,” Dr. Hong says. “Sometimes, people need to go through patch testing to determine what’s causing their allergic reaction.”
So… Are natural skin care products worthwhile?
This isn’t to say that there’s no value in going natural. But before you immerse yourself in the world of natural skin care products, learn to read labels carefully and focus more on actual ingredients than on vague marketing terms.
And for the sake of your skin, skip the sweet-smelling stuff.
“Simple is best,” Dr. Hong advises. “You really want to focus on products that have very simple ingredients and very few ingredients.”