Nothing beats the skin-nurturing effect of an herb-rich facial moisturizer or a natural, botanical-brand cleanser. Over the years, however, misunderstandings have cropped up regarding how to define a "natural" skin care product. Although there's no standard definition for "natural" skin care, a good rule of thumb is to look for products with familiar names such as chamomile, lavender, rose, and aloe vera at the top of the ingredient list. (Ingredients are listed on the label in descending order, starting from the largest quantity and getting smaller. Anything that makes up less than 1 percent of the product may be displayed toward the bottom of the list in any order.) Skin care products containing mostly botanical oils and herbs will help enhance the natural function of your skin.
However, if you want to dig deeper into cosmetic ingredients, you must be willing to decipher some chemical hieroglyphics. "Cosmetic manufacturing is a sophisticated art and labels are difficult to read. There's no way around it," says Tara Schweig, who's worked in the natural personal care industry for 25 years and is western sales manager for the Bˆrlind skin care line. "The law requires that manufacturers use certain terminology on labels, and it can be confusing." For instance, although the common term for one antioxidant ingredient is vitamin E, its chemical name, tocopherol, must appear on the label. Azulene and bisabolol are actually derived from skin-soothing chamomile, and allantoin, used for skin repair, can come from comfrey root.
Although botanicals are the staple of a natural beauty product, the formula only begins there. Science dictates that a safe, effective cosmetic—even a "natural" one—needs small amounts of stabilizers, agents such as surfactants or emollients, and preservatives. That's where the discussion about ingredients gets dicey. "A product's effectiveness comes from its natural ingredients, but you also need synthetic chemicals to enhance the power of the natural ones," explains Rebecca James Gadberry, president of Youthglow, a skin care company, and an instructor of cosmetic sciences at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles. "I think of them as a rocket launchpad for the natural ingredients." She maintains that most products contain a combination of synthetic and naturally derived ingredients.
Much of the fury surrounding natural cosmetics focuses on petroleum by-products, which most of us picture as black, tarlike goo. Not so, says Gadberry. The petrochemicals used in cosmetics are clear of contaminants and are essential for creating other ingredients. "Eighty percent of all cosmetic ingredients are derived at least in part from petroleum," Gadberry says. When you see prefixes or suffixes such as propyl-, methyl-, -eth, or -ene on a label, those are usually petroleum-derived compounds.
Preservatives—which keep hazardous bacteria, fungi, and molds from breeding in your beauty products—are essential. (A few natural ingredients, such as essential oils and citrus seed extract, have preservative qualities, although they're not recognized by the FDA for that use.) The safest, most effective preservatives are parabens, potassium sorbate, and phenoxyethanol, usually listed at the label's end if the percentage is relatively low. A product should include small amounts of several preservatives to broaden their microorganism-fighting spectrum and reduce the possibility of allergic reaction, Gadberry says.
And speaking of reactions, remember that just because a product is "natural" doesn't mean it's nonallergenic. Many herbs can cause reactions in sensitive skin. For instance, if you're allergic to ragweed, steer clear of products containing chamomile. And, if you have sensitive skin, always test a new product on a tiny patch of skin to ensure your safety.
If label reading makes your head spin, ask for help. Staff members in natural foods stores are usually well informed and can consult cosmetic ingredient dictionaries. The bottom line is: A natural cosmetic should give you satisfactory results. If it feels great and helps your skin glow, then it's the one for you.
Laurel Kallenbach is a freelance writer and editor in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in natural health, beauty, and travel.