These Natural Ingredients Are Doing You More Harm Than Good

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
If you've ever bought a skin-care item solely because the word "natural" was stamped on the label, you are not alone. The uptick in natural skin care in the past few years has been incredible, and we love seeing brands pushing to source ingredients that are not only healthier alternatives for consumers but also better for the Earth as well. But though it's understandable to to think that "natural" products are better than their synthetic counterparts, this is not always the case, sadly.

The problem is that the word "natural" isn't a regulated term, meaning nearly any brand can slap it on a product if it wants to. "There's no legal definition for 'natural,' and the FDA has little oversight on [its use]," says dermatologist Julia Tzu, M.D. "[Although natural products] do eliminate many potential synthetic irritants, being 'natural' isn't a foolproof way to get the gentlest and best skin care."

Turns out, a lot of the natural ingredients that brands use in their formulations aren't actually all that good for your skin. "I've seen patients develop a severe allergic reaction to natural ingredients such as peppermint oil [and] lavender oil, or photo-allergic reactions to lemon or lime juice," says Dr. Tzu. And ingredients like lanolin (a common ingredient in many lip balms), which is naturally derived from sheep's wool, can cause breakouts by clogging pores, Dr. Tzu warns.

Being 'natural' isn't a foolproof way to get the gentlest and best skin care.

Dermatologist Julia Tzu, M.D.
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On top of that, many of the natural ingredients that brands use are merely there for their scent and do little to improve the actual health of your skin. Oils such as lavender, eucalyptus, and geranium, along with lemon balm, are often the culprits. "These are partly used for their fragrant properties and partly for their touted therapeutic properties," says Dr. Tzu. Not only are these ingredients potential irritants or allergens, but their therapeutic properties have not been supported by peer-reviewed, large-scale scientific studies, she adds.

But body care is a different story. "All these oils are better used on the hair or body, not the face," says aesthetician and founder of M.S. Apothecary, Mary Schook. Since the skin on the face is much more sensitive than elsewhere on your body, the ingredients that can potentially irritate your visage have a significantly lower risk of irritating your corps.

We're not saying you should throw out all of your favorite natural beauty buys; if something is working for you, by all means keep using it. But if you have sensitive, irritated skin, it might be time to take a closer look at your products' ingredients labels and make sure that what you're buying isn't working against you.

A good place to start when it comes to sourcing is the Natural Products Association. The organization's Natural Seal Certification ensures that formulations meet the organization's ingredient, safety, responsibility, and sustainability standards. But the bottom line is: If a product isn't formulated well, natural or not, it's not going to do your skin any favors. So do your beauty research before committing to a new item, and even better: Always patch-test!
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