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.