Controversy: Why Natural Skin Care Isn't Always Better

Skin Care

Recently, I have been receiving a lot of e-mails from women who are dedicated to only using products that are all-natural or completely free of chemical preservatives. From my reading, while I acknowledge that some ingredients, like sodium lauryl sulfate, are known to cause skin irritation in many patients, other ingredients, like parabens, have only been found to raise health concerns in the majority of patients only when used in concentrations much higher than normally found in skin care products. Many chemicals that are reported in databases to have been found to raise health concerns were used in exceptionally high concentrations in scientific studies as “extreme dose” cases, not in testing actual skin care products. Some websites even report that chemical skin care ingredients, like parabens, build up in the skin over time, which has been found not to be the case.

My concern with the “natural not chemical” skin care movement is two-fold. One is that many consumers are believing that “natural = safe,” which is not always the case. Take, for example, the all-natural ingredient chamomile, which is known to be soothing for the skin. Repeated exposure to chamomile has been known to induce a very irritating rash resulting from a ragweed allergy, according to the nutritional guide The Prescription for Nutritional Healing (and yours truly, who experienced the said effect after using chamomile for two months). Many other “natural” ingredients, such as the arnica montana used to treat bruises, are also able to induce detrimental effects after repeated exposure. In fact, according to Dr. Leslie Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology, “Prolonged treatment of damaged skin [with arnica] often causes edematous dermatitis with the formation of pustules; long-term use can also give rise to eczema.”

My second problem with the “natural not chemical” movement is simply that consumers are often ignoring the numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center studies backing certain chemical ingredients in favor of clever marketing giving the impression that natural is always better. And that is a problem, because there is no research to date demonstrating that all-natural skin care products are always better, while there is substantiative research indicating that certain chemical ingredients – retinol, niacinamide, vitamins C & E, and chemical sunscreens, to name a few – have proven long-term benefits for the skin.

Of course, this is not to say that chemical always trumps natural either. Based on what I have learned thus far, there are good and bad chemical ingredients, just like there are good and bad natural ones. And while you may catch me pitching my beloved chemical Bath and Body Works bubble bath for its very high concentration of sodium lauryl sulfate and avoiding certain chemical ingredients when I am pregnant someday, you won’t see me trading in my awesome (chemical) Skinceuticals CE Ferulic (with vitamins C and E), Phloretin CF (with phloretin and vitamin C), Olay Regenerist (with niacinamide), Green Cream (with retinol), or Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch SPF 85 (with avobenzone/oxybenzone) any time soon. My point is, don’t be dragged into “natural” products like they’re matte makeup products and leg warmers in the 80’s. Although natural sounds healthier and more beneficial now, natural ingredients can hurt your skin too. Be careful – check with your dermatologist before starting a new skin regime, consult actual scientific research journals (not cautionary databases that make the FDA seem like a sitting duck) about your skin care ingredients, and be aware that natural skin care companies are no different than regular skin care companies, selling you products. Some are great, sure, but just like with the chemical products, some aren’t. Be aware. Balance chemical and natural, and go with what your dermatologist recommends and what makes your skin look and feel its best!

I am going to take extra care to address this particular issue more on this blog in the future. Until then, please let me know your thoughts! Just one more week until the FutureDerm giveaway! 🙂

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  • KK

    I’ve heard that there are over 1,000 additives used in skin care & makeup products that are banned in Europe & only a few of those additives are banned here, many “sneak” into the product under fragrance.
    Is Europe more discerning with their skin care products than we are in the USA & should we be more concerned?

  • maria mills

    Hey everyone,

    Another great ORGANIC skin care line that is certified is MADE FROM EARTH. I have been using their products for the last 6 months – and now stopped. . . Because my skin has naturally improved itself using its organic ingredients.

    I have seen a real decline in the amount of wrinkles on the side of my eyes. I would recommend the “VITAMIN ENHANCED FACE FIRMING SERUM”. This is the anti wrinkle serum I only used for 6 months and now stopped because it naturally has improved my owns skins ability to heal itsefl and become much firmer. This is because it uses the organic compound DMAE and is infused with REAL vitamins….not synthetic vitamins…

    As a body lotion, I use the HONEY HONEY lotion. It smells like honey and my husband likes it. I recommend you buy from their website….because at Whole Foods they are usually sold at full price….but the website now has a sale going on…

  • Vince Sloan


  • Sue

    Thanks Nicki for the very useful post. My aesthetician tells me to avoid products with silicone in it, especially dimethicone or cyclomethicone. She said that these products build a film on the skin over time and the young skin stops to protect itself but instead relies on this film. She said one has to do microderm from time to time to remove this. She would only recommend products with silicone in it to older skin which is not able to protect itself. Is this true? I found out that most products these days contain silicone in one form or another, and it’s hard to find something which doesn’t. Thanks!

  • naom

    There are some other tried and true all “natural” products that i’ve used. Rosehip Oil is great as a moisturizer.
    Is it true that less is more in the case for skin care? Can using too many products actually ruin your skin?

  • Christine

    Interesting articles and interesting comments. I’m glad there are natural products out there for people who want the option. While some people react to ingredients in natural products, others react to ingredients in non-natural products. Its nice for people to pick and choose what works for them. I, for one, would love to use a natural product if it worked as well as my current products, and so far I haven’t found any on the market (and believe me, the skin care wall at Whole Foods has been well scrutinized). However, the best lotion cleanser I’ve found for myself is an organic natural cleaners (Nature’s Way Organics); I’ve tried other cream cleansers and they either burn or feel oily. So, again, I’m grateful for the different options on the market.

  • Fan

    I’ve noticed this trend while reading magazines. I’m really drawn to the Physician’s Formula mineral powder foundation, which is talc-free. I’ve yet to find out if their products are as effective though.

  • michele

    Thanks for the background info on “natural products”, I’ll be sure to send my friends to this site when then they go on on and on about how I should jump on their bandwagon!

  • Denise

    Thank you for bringing up a very important topic! With the rising interest in homeopathic approach to treating ailments, there’s a trend to only use natural/organic ingredients as well in skincare products. I tried a few “all natural” products in the last few months and I have to say that they are hit or miss just like “chemical” products. It’s really nice to see such a balanced and informative post. Thanks again!

  • Fiona

    Thanks for the detailed info. I recently looked into an organic line and am happy with it so far (Kimberly Sayer from London). Her sunscreen only requires that you use 3-4 drops for your face which seems crazy little but I like it because it seems to not make me break out like a lot of other sunscreens do. Do you know anything about her line?

  • Danielle

    Thanks for this, Nicki. “Natural” is a deceptive term. It leads people to believe that they are doing good for their skin, but this is not always the case.

  • As always a good analysis of something that’s very much on alot of consumers minds these days. And you’ve been tagged! 😀

  • sofi76

    interesting post and something that has been on my mind. Kez- good point about the regulations. Products are as ‘natural’ as we may think when anyone can use the term loosely.

  • Kim

    My point is, don’t be dragged into “natural” products like they’re matte makeup products and leg warmers in the 80’s.
    Hee! It’s so true. It really is about trends and marketing. I have wondered why we feel often feel better about products that are labeled “natural.” What is it that we are really looking for, that makes this type of marketing so appealing? I agree that there is a false sense that natural products are by definition non-irritating and safe, but I think there is something else that we want to buy into here, too – it feels so right to buy “natural.”
    I was drawn to leg-warmers in the 80s because I wanted to look like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. Perhaps now I find myself drawn to “natural” products because I want to look like Wilford Brimley in the Quaker Oats commercials.

  • Kez

    Thanks for the balanced, thought-provoking post. I like skincare that works, but I also care deeply about what I put into my body and into the environment. However, to dismiss the potential hazards of parabens based on your (Kevin’s) interpretation of a EWG study is misleading and unfair. Also, the level of chemical preservatives, petrochemicals, fragrances (phalates)in one product may not be cause of for alarm. But who among us uses one product at one time? We need better regulations on the cosmetics industry, including naming standards and conventions. Otherwise, the word “natural” is pretty meaningless. For the record, I’m not a huge fan of essential oils and botanically-based products either.

  • Pam

    Thank you for this post! I think that people usually think that just because something says “all natural” that is must be safe, which is not true. I have sensitive skin and some “organic” moisturizers irriate my skin. Good point about chamoile. I used to think that lavender oil was very safe and found out it could be an irritant.

  • It isn’t so much about the skin care products I am worried about (I have a fabulous set of skin care products that I use and totally trust – My concern is with the makeup I wear. Some products have such vile-sounding ingredients that I am ALWAYS hesitant to buy them. But organic makeup is so hard to find plus I don’t know how good the products actually are.

  • lisa

    good post. i think natural products are the same mine field as products from the drugstore, department store, or even from a doctor. there is good and bad and you have to be proactive to read the labels.

  • naom

    I use fresh aloe vera as a mask and moisturizer. aloe vera is perfectly safe.

  • Hey IchigoBunnie,

    I actually don’t think aloe vera can cause an allergic reaction with repeated exposure, as I have never heard of anything like this (nor can I find a case online!) At the same time, however, any time you switch skin care products, be cautious of contact dermatitis or any negative changes in your skin, and be sure to talk to your dermatologist if you have any concerns.

    Hope this helped!

  • Cara

    I agree with you – although I’m a big fan of certain natural things like shea butter, coconut oil, and aloe vera, a well-formulated chemical product with proven good ingredients in it is often much more efficient and effective than something natural. Personally I use a mix, my own home-made shea butter cream(for intense moisturizing and healing, especially if I’ve had any irritations from treatment products)and drugstore(Cetaphil cleanser, Aquaglycolic cleanser, Neutrogena’s Sheer Dry Touch SPF 70 sunblock, and Cetaphil Cream. I’m considering going for the Obagi Blender and Retin-A combo for my hyper-pigmentation, recommended by my last medical esthetician. I’ve looked at lot of the packages at the health food store, and IMO most are hardly any different than the stuff at the drugstore because they also have chemical preservatives and other things in them that they have to have. I would say that many of the health food store products are very clunky in formulations and just don’t work that well, especially if one has any real skin issues, like hyperpigmentation/sun damage, acne, etc. A derm or a medical esthetician to the rescue for these, with a good arsenal of products! What drives me crazy is someone whose skin was responding well to certain treatment products and moisturizers who decides to go “all-natural” even if the products are less effective, but hey, it’s “all-natural”! If some all-natural things really worked for my skin problems, I’d be all over them in a heartbeat, but they don’t. Thanks much for your post, and hope to see more along these lines.

  • hey, I was wondering, since you put up a picture of natural Aloe Vera, whether that is “dangerous” or not in long term use. I was considering using it ask a quick mask more often but after reading your words, I wasn’t sure if that is safe to do….? Thank you 🙂

  • naom

    Thank you for clearing up some misnomers… I think that everyone seems to be jumping on the all natural, no chemical bandwagon these days and it is hellpful to know that we shouldn’t rush to natural remedies just because of that.

  • Most excellent post! I truly feel that this trend will last a few more years and then the world will come back to reality. People want skin care that works. The parabens study that the EWG references in their scare tactics was done on less than 20 people. Whereas, we have hundreds of studies done by third party clinicians on hundreds of patients that say parabens are completely safe.

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