What you should know about clean and natural cosmetics

Published: September, 2020

The $1.6 billion natural skin care market is hot today, propelled by cosmetic retailers, social influencers, bloggers, and celebrity endorsers like Gwyneth Paltrow on her Goop website. But are so-called clean beauty products — which are based on botanical ingredients, with no synthetic preservatives — as safe and effective as touted?

Extracts from plants, such as aloe, seaweed, fruits, or herbs, can have a variety of effects on the skin. Aloe vera gel, which is extracted from the fleshy leaves of the aloe vera plant, is commonly used for burns, sunburn, frostbite, psoriasis, and cold sores. Other plant-based ingredients, such as alpha hydroxy acids, soy, mushroom, and feverfew, might reduce or prevent wrinkles, but so far the evidence comes from small studies and animal research. Plant-based products are generally safe to use topically, but you should understand that there is little evidence regarding their effectiveness — and they cause skin reactions in certain people.

In a 2019 editorial published in JAMA Dermatology titled "Natural Does Not Mean Safe — The Dirt on Clean Beauty Products," dermatologists Courtney Blair Rubin and Bruce Brod of the University of Pennsylvania cautioned that misinformation from non-dermatologists is leading to high rates of contact dermatitis. The culprits are actually the very ingredients that consumers are being encouraged to favor — plant extracts. In a study of 241 men and women using natural products containing botanical ingredients like aloe, marigold, chamomile, propolis, and arnica, 6% reported one or more skin reactions.

What's more, unsubstantiated criticisms of well-established and safe ingredients — for example, petrolatum (a superior moisturizer that is unlikely to cause skin reactions) and parabens (preservatives that are nonallergenic and prevent infections of the cornea from mascara) — are making people fearful and anxious about using products that do not pose a danger.

So before you automatically reach for a natural product, research the claims on the label, and when possible look for scientific evidence to support the use of the individual ingredients it contains. If you decide to buy the product, be on the lookout for any unusual reactions, just as you would for products with synthetic ingredients. Since the FDA doesn't regulate skin care products, it's up to you to be your own best beauty adviser.

Also remember: information about personal care products should come from skin experts, not celebrities. Because everyone has different skin concerns, ask your dermatologist what types of products would be best for your skin specifically.

For more advice on treating skin conditions and keeping your skin healthy, check out Skin Care and Repair, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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