Pure. Natural. Organic. Green. Clean. Chemical-free. These words make us feel comfort. Chemicals. Non-natural. Synthetic. Man-made. These words make us squirm. But when it comes to choosing a skincare product, is it that easy to differentiate what’s truly safe and effective for you—by looking for these words claimed on a label?
The short answer is: not always. These days, too many consumers are “greenwashed,” believing a company is environmentally responsible or that its products are truly “all-natural,” which often happens when the company demonizes ingredients that were made in a lab or using scary terms like “chemicals.”
But don’t be fooled! In today’s post, we’ll share the key points to bear in mind in order to shop smart for skin care and bypass all the greenwashing we face today.
Performance Is As Important As Safety… And Sometimes That Requires Supporting Ingredients
For centuries, cultures around the world have harnessed natural resources from their part of the world to create effective beauty solutions. For example, local women in Africa rely on the oil of Marula to keep their skin youthful despite spending hours under the sun. There are no labs, no additives, no preservatives. Just the oil. Many people insist this is the only way to go… that mixtures are bound to contain harmful toxins.
But if you were to have the wherewithal to enhance your one miracle ingredient so your skincare is that much more effective, wouldn’t you? Many botanicals in nature are able to work in harmony to provide glow-boosting benefits, making them all the more powerful. This is why we complement our Marula oil with other botanicals like Jojoba, Carrot and Rosehip (three well-known, tried-and-true ingredients known to transform skin). The key here is synergy—and when a skincare product is synergistically formulated, it can make a world of difference for your complexion.
Using the Word “Natural” in Marketing Is NOT Regulated in the U.S.
That’s right—a company can add a few drops of low-quality botanical oil to an otherwise toxin-filled formula and call it natural. On top of that, personal-care products are not tested to see if the manufacturer has in fact included the ingredients they claim it contains. The FDA hardly regulates anything (as of now), so “natural” doesn’t mean anything. The good news is that if you lack confidence about where the ingredients are sourced or how safe they are, you can always switch to a brand that offers total, 100% transparency, and is willing to answer questions about how they craft their formulas.
“Natural” Doesn’t Always Mean It’s Good for You
Although there are many benefits to going the natural route, it should also be noted that natural is not invariably better for everyone. There are natural ingredients out there that can be abrasive and harsh on sensitive skin. For example, some plant oils, like coriander, can cause allergic reactions in some people. Although the word natural undoubtedly comes with a positive connotation, it’s important to realize and remember that not all natural ingredients are created equal.
Also—though we’re stating the obvious here—keep in mind that nature is sometimes harmful. Poison oak, poison ivy and certain poisonous mushrooms are no doubt natural, but we wouldn't want to go anywhere near them!
Ingredients Created by Humans Can Actually Be Good
There’s no evidence to suggest that certain manmade ingredients are harmful. Take certain forms of squalane, for example. Although it’s a moisturizing substance found in olives and sharks, it’s totally possible to recreate it—safely and sustainably—in a lab. And the results are just the same.
Sometimes, Natural and Synthetic Need to Work Together
Oftentimes, it’s necessary to combine both natural and synthetic ingredients in a skincare product to ensure the highest level of efficacy. Take sunblock as an example. Many sunblocks contain titanium dioxide, which is natural, but this ingredient is further helped along by sodium hyaluronate, which is synthetic. Sodium hyaluronate improves the texture of sunscreen, making it easier to apply and spread on the skin. Together, these two ingredients make for the most effective sunblock to keep you protected.
The Term "Chemical" Is Misleading
Many people have an immediate visceral reaction when confronted with the term, as "chemicals" are almost always considered toxic or poisonous. However, everything in nature is made of chemicals, even something as beneficial and crucial to humans as water. We just rarely think of water in terms of its chemical name, dihydrogen monoxide. Plus, plenty of natural ingredients have scientific names that are long, hard to spell, hard to pronounce and, therefore, quite intimidating. Yet they are no more harmful because of it.
To illustrate this point, James Kennedy, who teaches chemistry in Melbourne, Australia, made this in a post on Aeon.co:
“In reality, ‘natural’ products are usually more chemically complicated than anything we can create in the lab. To demonstrate, I broke down the components in an ordinary banana. (For brevity’s sake, I omitted the thousands of minority ingredients, including DNA.) Here is the result:
INGREDIENTS: WATER (75%), SUGARS (12%) (GLUCOSE (48%), FRUCTOSE (40%), SUCROSE (2%), MALTOSE (<1%)), STARCH (5%), FIBRE E460 (3%), AMINO ACIDS (<1%) (GLUTAMIC ACID (19%), ASPARTIC ACID (16%), HISTIDINE (11%), LEUCINE (7%), LYSINE (5%), PHENYLALANINE (4%), ARGININE (4%), VALINE (4%), ALANINE (4%), SERINE (4%), GLYCINE (3%), THREONINE (3%), ISOLEUCINE (3%), PROLINE (3%), TRYPTOPHAN (1%), CYSTINE (1%), TYROSINE (1%), METHIONINE (1%)), FATTY ACIDS (1%) (PALMITIC ACID (30%), OMEGA-6 FATTY ACID: LINOLEIC ACID (14%), OMEGA-3 FATTY ACID: LINOLENIC ACID (8%), OLEIC ACID (7%), PALMITOLEIC ACID (3%), STEARIC ACID (2%), LAURIC ACID (1%), MYRISTIC ACID (1%), CAPRIC ACID (<1%)), ASH (<1%), PHYTOSTEROLS, E515, OXALIC ACID, E300, E306 (TOCOPHEROL), PHYLLOQUINONE, THIAMIN, COLOURS (YELLOW-ORANGE E101 (RIBOFLAVIN), YELLOW-BROWN E160a), FLAVOURS (3-METHYLBUT-1-YL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLBUTYL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLPROPAN-1-OL, 3-METHYLBUTYL-1-OL, 2-HYDROXY-3-METHYLETHYL BUTANOATE, 3-METHYLBUTANAL, ETHYL HEXANOATE, ETHYL BUTANOATE, PENTYL ACETATE), 1510, NATURAL RIPENING AGENT (ETHENE GAS).”
So if you’re the type of person who shuns a product just because you “can’t pronounce” an ingredient, remember this!
There are unfortunately a bevy of products out there that tell you they are “chemical-free” and completely “natural” and “pure,” but many times it means something far different than what you imagine. And in terms of wording and marketing, we have a long ways to go. As Kennedy says, “‘Pure’ should refer to single-ingredient products only. ‘Natural’ products should be sold exactly as they occur in nature, and ‘natural’ should be forbidden as a marketing term for cosmetics and other products. Finally, the use of ‘chemical-free’ – a logical impossibility – on product labels needs to be stopped.”
The brighter side of all this? There are some amazing skincare companies out there (we think we’re one of them ;)) that not only mean what we say, but exist on the pillars of honesty and transparency in order to provide the most high-performing skincare with safe, nature-inspired and nature-derived gems.
So if you ever have a question, just ask!