Natural Cosmetics 101

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Makeup Tips Image Gallery Cosmetics that tout "natural" ingredients can be found everywhere from luxury brands to drugstore lines. See more pictures of makeup tips.
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In March 2009, the advocacy group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics made an alarming announcement about baby bath-care products. The group tested the composition of 48 major-brand products looking for two specific chemicals believed to cause cancer: formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane. It found that the vast majority of them contained at least one of the two [source: Layton].

The implications of the discovery are unclear. While most experts believe that trace amounts of the chemicals don't harm humans, others argue that the cumulative effect of using several contaminated products hasn't been studied.


And then there's the burning question: If dozens of baby-care products contain harmful chemicals, how many other products do, too? Could your body wash actually give you cancer?

The controversy surrounding cosmetics safety is a big one. Lots of potentially dangerous chemicals have been found in products like soap, deodorant and shampoo. Some carry warnings, some have been banned, some have been abandoned and some still show up in lots of products on the shelves. As a result, demand for natural cosmetics has exploded. It's increasing five times faster than demand for conventional cosmetics, up 12.5 percent in 2008 and expected to rise even more in 2009 [source: Vereckey]. Marketing companies believe it has more to do with safety concerns than with environmental ones.

Clearly, people are taking cosmetics safety to heart. But what exactly are "natural cosmetics?" Are they really safer? Are they really even natural?

In this article, we'll learn what "natural cosmetics" are all about. We'll find out what they should be, what they are and whether natural is always better when it comes to cosmetics.

Let's begin with the basics: How is a "natural" deodorant different from any other kind?


Is natural makeup better?

While some ingredients have been noted as potential carcinogens, "synthetic" doesn't necessarily mean unhealthy.
Image courtesy of CA DTSC

With cosmetics, it's not just "natural" or "conventional." There are lots of different labels, such as:

  • Natural -- Some of the ingredients come from nature (nonsynthetic).
  • All Natural -- All of the ingredients come from nature.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients -- The majority of the ingredients meet an "organic" standard, typically meaning that no synthetic pesticides are used in growing ingredients and that farming methods stress conservation.
  • Organic -- Almost all of the ingredients meet an "organic" standard.
  • 100 Percent Organic -- All of the ingredients meet an "organic" standard.

Now, these labels are really only loosely defined. There's no single standard for "natural" or for "organic" cosmetics. So in some cases, such labels mean very little. But we'll get to that in the next section.


In theory at least, a natural or organic cosmetic contains nothing synthetic. For example, Earths Beauty's concealer contains zinc oxide, organic jojoba, beeswax, mica and iron oxides; Loreal's Air Wear Long Wearing Concealer contains water, cyclomethicone, trimethylsiloxysilicate, butylene glycol, boron nitride, retinyl palmitate, allantoin, cetyl dimethicone copolyol, bisabolol, sorbitan sesquioleate, methicone, tetrasodium EDTA, methylparaben, propylparaben, mica and iron oxides -- plus a whole host of other such ingredients [sources: ANC, ePinions].

The biggest difference between, say, a natural deodorant and a regular deodorant is the preservatives. Regular deodorants use chemical preservatives, some of which are possibly dangerous. Triclosan and parabens, for instance, are both loosely associated with cancer and endocrine-system disruptions. Other products, like nail polish and hairspray, contain phthalates, which can interfere with endocrine processes and potentially affect reproductive systems. Truly natural or organic cosmetics shouldn't contain any of these ingredients.

This usually means they have a shorter shelf life than conventional products, since they don't contain preservatives. And it may mean that natural cosmetics are healthier than their conventional counterparts, since they don't contain synthetic ingredients that may (or may not) interrupt our natural body processes. There's no definitive evidence either way on whether potentially harmful ingredients can do harm when they're "consumed" in cosmetic form.

There's also little real evidence showing that natural cosmetics are any better for your skin or hair than conventional ones. For people with sensitive skin, synthetic preservatives can be irritating, so that's one reason to go natural. But it's mostly a matter of preference: Some people believe that "synthetic" means "unhealthy." Others believe that "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "safe," and they trust the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (which reviews and assesses the safety of cosmetics) to keep unsafe products off the shelves.

One area in which natural cosmetics most likely excel is in eco-friendliness -- but only if they carry a reliable organic label. An USDA-labeled organic cosmetic is probably made in a more eco-friendly manner than a conventional cosmetic.

This brings us to a major sticking point with natural cosmetics: the labeling. In cosmetics, not all labels are created equal.


Cosmetic Labels: Is"Natural" Natural?

Cosmetics labeling isn't as tightly regulated as food labeling. It's perfectly legal for a company to label its shampoo "botanical" if it has synthetic aloe fragrance added. The smell of aloe, after all, is "botanical." Other labels like "nature-inspired" and "natural" don't actually mean anything concrete, either. Some "natural" products do contain natural ingredients; others don't. "Natural" isn't a legally binding designation.

The more reliable designation is "organic," and particularly "USDA Organic." There are several different organic certification organizations in the United States, but they apply different standards, and it's often unclear how reliable some of them are. For instance, the organization behind the Ecocert label will grant certification to some products containing petrochemicals; and several so-called "organic" products have been found to contain 1,4-dioxane, the controversial chemical discovered in those baby products [source: OCA].


But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a strict organic standard, and the "USDA Organic" label is well-enforced. If a cosmetic says "USDA Organic," you can be reasonably sure its ingredients were not grown with chemical pesticides, that it was made sustainably, and that it contains no chemical preservatives. The word "organic," however -- minus the "USDA" -- is not enforced as stringently in cosmetics as it is in food. A synthetically preserved deodorant can call itself "organic" and get nothing more than a slap on the wrist by the USDA. So be sure to look for the organic seal, not just the word.

There are plenty of cosmetics brands that are truly natural. You just have to do some research to find out who is reliable and who isn't. For instance, if you go to the LUSH Web site (a popular "natural cosmetics" brand) and look at the ingredients for Banana Moon Soap, you'll notice that more than half the ingredients are "Safe Synthetic." At Best Bath Store, on the other hand, the ingredients for the Cocoa Butter Body Bar are only natural oils and cocoa butter.

If you want all-natural and you don't want to do your research, though, there is another way: You could always make your own cosmetics at home. Here are a few simple recipes to get you started:

Oily skin facial scrub: Mix together plain yogurt and table salt to a slightly rough consistency. Apply to wet skin, massage gently, rinse well.
Skin cleanser: Combine 1 tsp. olive oil, 1 teaspoon honey, and 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar. Apply to face, leave on 15 minutes. Rinse well.
Body scrub: In a jar, combine 1 cup cane sugar, 1/2 cup olive oil, 10 drops essential oil. Use to scrub wet skin in the shower.

For more information on natural cosmetics and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • Layton, Lyndsey. "Probable Carcinogens Found in Baby Toiletries." The Washington Post. March 13, 2009.
  • Natterson, Cara. "Are Cosmetics Toxic?" Momlogic. March 11, 2009.
  • Noble, Julie. "Natural Cosmetics: Hype or Hope?" Discovery Health.
  • Rastogi, Nina Shen. "Green Lipstick?" Slate. Feb. 24, 2009.
  • Vereckey, Betsy. "Natural personal care items grow in popularity." USA Today. Sept. 3, 2008.