Health-conscious people tell you “you are what you eat.” The skin-conscious among us say “you are what you slather.” Just like feeding yourself plenty of fresh, organic vegetables will energize and strengthen your body, feeding your skin with natural, high-quality ingredients will restore and rejuvenate the largest organ in your body. It’s become second nature to check our food labels, but with more skincare options out there than ever, how do you decipher often intimidating ingredient lists and figure out which concoctions are truly natural —and effective—enough for your skin?
Unfortunately, deceptive labeling, greenwashing and even well-intentioned formulating can make it challenging to identify the genuinely natural, safe and high-performing products.
Here, we’ll help you navigate the world of natural beauty so you can learn how to spot the crème de la crème.
Learn your logos
The first step in identifying bona-fide natural products is to familiarize yourself with official certification logos. Check out the certification company’s website to see exactly what the logos look like and avoid imposters or icons designed by brands to look like certifications.
For starters, here are a few common icons you’ll see on labels and bottles:
EWG Verified - The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit organization that helps consumers make educated and safer choices. EWG performs a lot of behind-the-scenes research to unearth what harmful ingredients are lurking in our personal-care products. EWG puts their EWG Verified logo on products that it has verified to be free of EWG’s chemicals of concern.
USDA Certified Organic - For companies to display this logo on their products, they must meet all organic standards set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Leaping Bunny - This internationally recognized logo means the product is cruelty-free and that the manufacturer does not engage in animal testing in any phase of development of their products. Other logos you may recognize include PETA’s Cruelty Free certification.
ECOCERT - This organization was established in France in 1991 and was the first to develop standards for “natural and organic cosmetics.” Here’s how they define that: “For the natural and organic cosmetic label: A minimum of 95% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming.”
CosmEthically Active - A relatively new certification from Modern CosmEthics, the team who wrote the book on the world’s most comprehensive ingredients list of natural origin. This certification evaluates a cosmetic product according to the natural origin of ingredients, the concentration of cosmetically active ingredients and the cosmetic efficacy of the product itself.
Take the word “natural” with a grain of salt
Above everything, bear this in mind: The use of the word “natural” is not regulated at all for skincare products, at least in the U.S. The FDA even states on its website: “FDA has not defined the term ‘natural’ and has not established a regulatory definition for this term in cosmetic labeling. FDA also does not have regulations for the term ‘organic’ for cosmetics.”
Also remember that even if an ingredient is natural it’s not necessarily beneficial for your skin. Take the most glaringly obvious example: poison ivy. It’s earth-grown, but would you apply it on your skin? Seems like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to think a product labeled “natural” is automatically your safest choice.
Finally, be aware that natural ingredients commonly used for topical application aren’t necessarily high quality. Sure, sunflower oil is moisturizing for skin, but where was it grown? How was the oil extracted? Was it grown without the use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals?
Learn to read ingredients labels
The FDA requires that cosmetic ingredients are listed in descending order from the highest concentration to the smallest. Sounds simple enough, but there is one exception: if the ingredient makes up less than 1% of the product formulation, then it can be listed anywhere after the ingredients present in over 1% concentrations are declared.
Since labels do not explicitly feature percentages of each ingredient, it’s hard to tell how much of something you’re getting. Many people assume that the final item—say, a preservative—on the full ingredients list is present in negligible (and therefore, “safe”) amounts, but that’s not necessarily true. Even if it was, who’s to say trace amounts of a controversial ingredient couldn’t be harmful the long run? So if you’re looking for totally natural skin care, the best thing is to ensure every ingredient is natural or naturally derived.
Start by familiarizing yourself with INCI Labeling. The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients is a system used for naming ingredients used in soaps, lotions, cosmetics and toiletries. For example, water is listed under the INCI name, aqua, while Vitamin E is listed as tocopherol and coconut as cocos nucifera.
The purpose of INCI names are manyfold. According to the Personal Care Products Council, “Scientists are ensured that information from scientific and other technical publications will be referenced by a uniform name; and that multiple names for the same material will not lead to confusion, misidentification, or the loss of essential information. It also enables the cosmetic industry to track the safety and the regulatory status of ingredients efficiently on a global basis, enhancing its ability to market safe products in compliance with various national regulations. And finally, transparency is provided to consumers as ingredients are identified by a single labeling name regardless of the national origin of the product.” So what does this mean for you? INCI names make it easier for you to recognize an ingredient even if it’s called something different in a different country.
Remember not all man-made ingredients are bad
Ingredients not taken directly as found in nature—such as those naturally derived or synthesized in a lab—are not necessarily bad or unsafe for your skin. Plus, keep in mind there are some chemicals that may sound intimidating and mysterious, but they are not harmful. Ascorbyl palmitate, for instance, is a derivative of vitamin C—and it’s absolutely possible to produce it naturally. Ferulic acid, a plant-based antioxidant, is often created in a lab, but offers the same benefits and is equally as safe.
Check EWG ratings
You can search EWG’s Skin Deep database for over 70,000 products that have been verified. You’ll find each product’s EWG rating and its ingredients list. You can even search the database for an analysis of individual ingredients.
Products are given an overall rating from low to high concern according to categories such as overall hazard, cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity and use restrictions. Each ingredient is also given a hazard score from 1 to 10 based on safety data and studies.
Become an expert on the basics
It can all get a little mind-boggling, but don’t stress yourself out by thinking you need to memorize all the ingredients to avoid. But DO learn the basics.
While there is always ongoing research on the effectiveness and safety of topical skincare ingredients on human health, there are many ingredients that have already been absolutely confirmed as harmful. Start by getting to know these—and avoiding them altogether:
- Parabens (Propyl Paraben, Isobutyl Paraben) – Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetic products. They have been shown to affect estrogen production and have been detected in female breast tumours.
- Propylene Glycol – This additive used as a moisturising ingredient in cosmetics, as well as a carrier in fragrances has been linked to central nervous system toxicity and cardiac arrhythmia.
- Formaldehyde – This preservative commonly used in variety of cosmetics is a known human carcinogen. See a list of formaldehyde releasing chemical additives here.
- Phthalates (Diethyl Phthalate) – Phthalates are found in lotions and perfumes. They have been classified as being both reproductive toxicants and endocrine disruptors, affecting ovarian function.
- Glycol Ethers – A common chemical used in cosmetics for its absorbability, has been linked to low sperm mobility, allergies, and asthma as well as hematological (blood-related) effects.
- Metals (Cadmium, Chromium, Lead) – These metals are sometimes used in lip care products and are known human carcinogens.
After you’ve narrowed down the few products you think are worth your skin, dig deeper to see if the formula has actually been dermatologically tested to be safe for all skin types and hypoallergenic. This is yet another standard that isn’t required by law but is becoming a criteria among retailers which uphold the highest safety standards and is up to each company to go through testing. If it isn’t obvious by checking out the label or the website, call and ask!
Always do your own research, and don’t be afraid to ask a company directly about the ingredients they use in their products and how they are obtained. You have a right to know what you are putting ON, and therefore IN your body. A company worth your business and investment will tell you exactly what you’re slathering all over.
So, be picky!
Educate yourself on what to look for in your skincare products and what to watch out for. Being aware of what’s in the products you loyally put on everyday may seem like a small thing to concern yourself with, but small things do add up in the long run. The little changes you make today may just help you have a healthier life years from now.
The LUXE Botanics Team
Cover photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@auttgood