Natural Beauty Products Aren’t Always As Natural As You’d Think

The definition of "natural" can be a little murky in the beauty world. We had experts break it down.
“You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist or a chemist to know which product to carry home,” says Nneka Leiba, director of Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) healthy living science program.
“You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist or a chemist to know which product to carry home,” says Nneka Leiba, director of Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) healthy living science program.

Natural beauty products have had quite the lasting moment. Everywhere you look, whether it’s on drugstore shelves or at fancy department store beauty counters, words like “natural,” “all-natural” and “organic” are everywhere. We see the words printed on moisturizers, serums, face masks and scrubs, seemingly there to convince us that natural and organic equals better.

And we’re buying it. A 2016 survey of over 1,000 women by Statista found that 73 percent of women between ages 18 and 34 said the term “all-natural” was important to them when purchasing beauty products. And the majority of women in all age groups surveyed agreed. The organic personal care market is also expected to be worth more than $25 billion by 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc.

But here’s the thing: When it comes to beauty and personal care products, the term “natural” doesn’t really hold much weight. In other words, your favorite bottle of coconut milk shampoo didn’t grow on a coconut tree, and it most definitely contains more than coconut milk. So if you’ve been spending your money ― sometimes premium dollars ― on products claiming to be “natural” or “made with all-natural ingredients,” just know that you might not be getting what you paid for.

What does “natural” mean, then?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a concrete answer, perhaps because the United States Food and Drug Administration has no regulations in place for the terms “natural” or “all-natural.”

The FDA website states that the “FDA has not defined the term ‘natural’ and has not established a regulatory definition for this term in cosmetic labeling.”

As a result, “Really, the term ‘natural’ could refer to almost any product,” Perry Romanowski, president of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and co-founder of The Beauty Brains website, told HuffPost.

“However,” he added, “the [Federal Trade Commission] has said that if companies are going to make the claims ‘all natural’ or ‘100 percent natural,’ they can’t use synthetic ingredients. Of course, there is still a lot of wiggle room because they don’t define what qualifies as a ‘synthetic’ ingredient.”

“Really, the term ‘natural’ could refer to almost any product.”

- Perry Romanowski, president of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists

The Oxford Dictionary defines natural as “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind.” In that sense, natural ingredients would be ingredients that come from nature and/or living (or once-living) organisms. Water and coconut oil, for example, are common natural ingredients found in products like moisturizers and shampoos. But ingredients derived from nature can also be mixed with synthetic chemicals, or even processed into new things. You can see why the term is so hard to define.

Nneka Leiba, director of Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) healthy living science program, proposed some thought-provoking questions on the subject in an interview with HuffPost.

“If something is naturally derived, but then synthesized with chemicals of concern, does that still make it natural? Or, at that point, has it been synthesized so much it’s no longer natural, and you’ve added chemicals of concern?” she asked.

Finding truly natural products isn’t as easy as reading a label.

According to Romanowski, “cosmetics are not actually natural.”

“Unlike food, there does not exist a shampoo shrub, a body wash bush, or a lipstick plant,” he said via email. “For food, plants produce the finished product. Cosmetics are not like this. ALL cosmetics must be processed in some way.”

If you’re ever worried whether the products you’re buying are natural, you should look at the ingredients and research the ones you don’t recognize. As Leiba pointed out, it can be difficult to understand what’s in a product, especially when you see extremely long and hard-to-pronounce chemical names.

Even natural or naturally derived ingredients can be hard to identify. For example, maranta arundinacea root is more commonly known as arrowroot powder, and montmorillonite is a type of clay.

“You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist or a chemist to know which product to carry home,” she said.

Natural products don't always mean better. “I like to say that poison ivy is natural, but I definitely don’t want it in my daily face cream," Leiba says.
Natural products don't always mean better. “I like to say that poison ivy is natural, but I definitely don’t want it in my daily face cream," Leiba says.

“Natural” doesn’t always mean better for you.

According to Leiba, there’s a misconception among many consumers that natural means safe or better for you. That isn’t always the case.

“I like to say that poison ivy is natural, but I definitely don’t want it in my daily face cream. I would not be able to leave my house,” Leiba said. “There are other ingredients that are natural ― lead, arsenic, are all-natural ― so just because a product says it’s natural does not indicate that it’s safe.”

She also explained that many beauty and personal care products need to contain some preservatives and that it’s hard ― though not impossible ― to find natural options that will work well enough. However, parabens and methylisothiazolinone are two preservatives to avoid in general, Leiba said, as they have been linked to endocrine disruption and contact dermatitis, respectively.

“I would just urge that whoever is looking for an all-natural product to make sure that their product is adequately preserved,” Leiba said. “A great public health risk would be if all of our product lost preservatives and the bacteria grew and you could get an eye infection, or worse, lose sight, or worse.”

What about “organic”? Does that mean anything?

While the FDA does not have a definition or regulations for “organic” beauty products, the USDA does.

There are four labeling categories the USDA uses to define organic products. The first is “100 percent organic,” which means the product must contain only organically sourced ingredients, that is, ingredients gown in soil that hasn’t been treated with “prohibited” fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years prior to harvest. The second is “organic,” which means a product must contain 95 percent organically sourced ingredients. The third is “made with organic ingredients,” which means products must be made with 70 percent organically sourced ingredients. Finally, products containing less than 70 percent of organic ingredients, but still containing some organic ingredients, can identify the ingredients that are organic on the labels.

Organic products do come with benefits, Leiba said: “Those ingredients wouldn’t have pesticide residue on them, and also, being organic definitely has positive impact on the environment and workers’ health.”

“Looking for an organic product is not a bad thing,” she said, “but it’s not the only thing that you should be looking for.”

What should you be looking for, then?

For those who prefer to buy natural products, Romanowski suggested looking for products that are certified organic by the USDA or even the Natural Products Association. Whole Foods, he noted, also has a fairly strict code when it comes to selling natural products on its shelves, which may be helpful to consumers.

There are also databases to help consumers make more informed decisions about their beauty product purchases. Leiba pointed to EWG’s Skin Deep Database, which provides scores for over 74,000 products based on their ingredients and potential health risks. EWG also has its own mark of verification for products that are free from chemicals the organization identifies as harmful.

Beautypedia, which features skin care and beauty product reviews based on medical and scientific research, is another great resource for consumers, as is The Good Guide, an online database with ratings for over 75,000 products. There are also apps like Think Dirty, which helps consumers find information about any potentially harmful ingredients in their favorite beauty products.

Romanowski suggested that if people want to buy natural products, they may have to lower their expectations for how well those products will work. In his opinion, natural cosmetic products “do not work as well as standard cosmetics.”

At the end of the day, do what’s right for you.

Whether to use natural skin care and beauty products is up to you. But whenever you’re introducing new products into your routine, you should always do your research. Look up the ingredients, figure out if they are natural or organic (if that’s important to you) and, most importantly, consult a dermatologist if you’re at all concerned about what’s in your products.