Is Natural Skincare Better? The Truth May Surprise You

Illustrated by Olivia Santner
What's the deal with natural skincare? I keep seeing it everywhere but is it better than other skincare? And what natural products would you recommend for my skin? I think I'd feel more comfortable using natural skincare...
Sometimes the shortest letters say the most. In a few lines, you've managed to express so much – about industry jargon, greenwashing, marketing fluff and essentially, fearmongering. 'Natural' and 'clean' are possibly the two biggest buzzwords in beauty, which I've seen applied to everything from candles and dry shampoo to haircare and nail polish. They're uniquely challenging for journalists because the terms – surprise, surprise – are totally unregulated and have no official meaning. Brands love to tout their products as being green, clean, natural and sustainable but these are, for the most part, utterly meaningless terms. The natural and organic market is worth billions and while it was perhaps popularised by small indie brands, even huge mass-market brands now have at least one 'natural' diffusion line. When I worked as a shop girl in a beauty retailer, I would ask any customer who said they wanted something natural one question, which I'll put to you now: what does natural mean to you?
That's not in any way a trap or intended to catch anyone out. It's just that sometimes, people say that and mean "I would like something that features botanical/plant-derived ingredients" but sometimes it means "I would like something that's vegan" and sometimes it means "I would like something without chemicals." Well, natural and vegan are not synonymous, lots of 'natural' products are not vegan or even cruelty-free, lots of them have tiny, trace amounts of botanical actives and, quite simply, everything – including water – has a chemical name. So let's step back a little bit. 
"As a product formulator, whenever I hear the word 'natural' I wonder if natural also infers 'naturally derived'," said cosmetic chemist Nausheen Qureshi. "For example, glycolic acid is something that a natural skincare fanatic wouldn't use because of the chemical name, but it's derived from sugar cane," she explained. Some of the ingredients which are most often in the crosshairs are mineral oils, PEGs, parabens or, as Nausheen put it, "any long chemical name or any 'hormone-disrupting ingredient' heard about from a non-peer-reviewed and non-scientifically credible source." Now, as a journalist and a good citizen, I think it is my responsibility to interrogate conglomerates and corporations when they tell consumers that something is safe, and many big scientific breakthroughs have started as tiny movements which snowball. What's important to remember is that lots of the blogs and influencers who try and claim that ingredients are unsafe have an agenda of their own to push: perhaps they're a business that offers 'clean' accreditation which they want brands to pay for, or perhaps they're trying to build their own personal brand or generate a fanbase for when they launch their own line. 
Ultimately, the only way to navigate this is to look for peer-reviewed trials and studies, and see who paid for the trial. Clinical trials are expensive and so if a study proving that X ingredient is bad was paid for by a brand which is trying to push Y ingredient, while it doesn't falsify the results, it certainly calls for close attention. Peer reviewing means that other groups of researchers have looked at the results in detail, identified any mistakes or generalisations and vetted the validity of the study.
A good example of how the panic and the reality often don't match up would be the preservatives known as parabens. Often decried as hormone disruptors (a claim that's yet to be proven robustly), they're actually found abundantly in nature, in fruits and vegetables like cherries, blueberries and carrots. "Natural doesn’t mean safe," cautioned Nausheen. "Some natural brands have products without certain preservatives because they don't feel 'natural enough' but the colossal side effect of that is that their product may be sitting on the shelf with a huge bacterial growth, which could be harmful to your health." What's more, essential oils can be incredibly irritating, argan oil can cause breakouts and some acids from fruit can cause burns, to give just a few examples.
Something else to consider is that natural ingredients, i.e. things snipped straight from the plant, don't really have very long lives. How long does a bag of lettuce last in your fridge? What kind of mulch have you peeled from your vegetable crisper in your life? If you're going to use a 100% natural formula, are you okay with needing to repurchase every week? Paula Begoun, founder of Paula's Choice, once said to me: "It [natural skincare] all sounds so romantic, you know, I made this small-batch product using my grandmother's recipe and she looks so young. But we know that the best option is a mix of natural and bioengineered ingredients. The research is clear. For example, antioxidants. Grapes are great, there's good research behind them, they're not irritating. The active antioxidant in the grape is resveratrol. When you bioengineer it, you get a more stable and potent version that can get into skin and interrupt inflammation and oxidative damage," such as pigmentation and fine lines, which are caused by the environment. Paula added: "Given pollution and sun damage, wholly natural can't deliver." 
Adaption is the key here: using the brilliant botanical bits and tweaking them slightly to make them suitable for long-lasting, efficacious use. Nausheen said: "Many of these 'nasty ingredients' are being used in small amounts to make your products safer and better. Sometimes high amounts of a natural ingredient will do more harm to you than a 'nasty' ingredient." Your skin barrier is quite the barrier. The physical composition of it, the naturally acidic state of it and the microbiome (friendly bacteria living on your skin) is quite a lot for a product to penetrate, which is just another reason why formulas need to be tinkered with to make sure they're truly potent. 
So, if you want me to tell you some brands which make skincare that's largely non-irritating, has some botanical ingredients and offers great results? Caudalie, Allies of Skin, OSKIA, Indie Lee, Pfeffer Sal and Paula's Choice will probably all have some products you like. You need to work out what's most important for you when it comes to natural. For me, I avoid fragrance, mineral oils, the drying alcohols and phthalates, and attempt to shop sustainably. Maybe it'll look different for you.

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