Why ‘Natural’ Matters in Skincare – and Beyond?
There is a continued shift toward natural in the beauty and skincare spaces but also in overall health and wellness and even in medicine. Poor diet is becoming more accepted as the root cause of many Western diseases and a focus on eating natural, plant based whole food for health is emerging. This shift is further fueling the desire for natural skincare products to improve skin health, minimize the signs of ageing and enhance beauty while avoiding the use of chemicals on our skin that may harm us.
There are many examples of ingredients derived from nature that can improve our skin health and are being incorporated into skincare products. For example, backuchiol, derived from the babchi plant, has been shown to be as effective for wrinkles and hyperpigmentation as retinoids but without the irritation. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to reduce damage to skin cells exposed to ultraviolet light. Algae can improve acne and minimize cell damage from ultraviolet light. These are just a few and we are likely just scratching the surface of powerful compounds in nature that may benefit our skin.
But just because a product is natural does not mean it is safe to use on the skin. Poison ivy is a plant so would certainly be considered natural, but contact with the skin causes an allergic reaction in many people. In my practice as a dermatologist, the worst cases of contact allergy I have seen have been due to essential oils which are generally referred to as natural and often used to scent products. Our skin is an active immunologic organ and any individual can be sensitive to any ingredient, natural or not.
The use of the word “natural” suffers from a lack of regulation in the skincare industry without an agreed upon definition. For example, an ingredient in a product may come from a natural source, such as a plant, but after being extracted and processed to be used in a product, is it still natural? Or does the use of the word at this point just evoke certain feelings or trust in the consumer to enhance sales?
Concerns about preservatives often come up during discussions about natural products. Unfortunately, natural products decay. This is why I find myself at the grocery three times per week purchasing fresh produce. Ingredients in skincare products will break down over time without appropriate preservation. Skincare products need to withstand certain conditions for certain periods of time to be safe for use and this will require a preservative system to ensure safety and ingredient integrity. Any anticipated benefit from an ingredient will be lost if the ingredient breaks down. There are preservatives that are entirely synthetic (made in a lab) as well as those that are derived from plants.
Fortunately, we are in an exciting time where there is desire between the beauty industry, cosmetic chemists and the medical community to work together at the intersection of product safety, efficacy and scientific proof as it applies to natural products.
Bottom line, I recommend using skincare products with a minimal number of ingredients to reduce the likelihood of allergy. Consider using products with plant derived preservatives such as benzyl alcohol. Shop from companies that acknowledge these complicated issues and work to answer these questions.