June 14, 2015

Pretty Misleading: Are your “Natural” Beauty Products full of Sh*t?

Maria Morri/Flickr

A recent Byrdie article about celebrity-approved “natural” skincare products got me thinking: beyond the packaging claims, do we really know what we’re buying? And are natural products always better for you?

Well, it’s complicated.

Let’s start with the word “natural”—I’ve put it in quotes because the skincare and cosmetics industry doesn’t really regulate how people use it. To further confuse things, there’s no single entity, in the U.S. or elsewhere, making sure product developers are walking the walk.

So the short answer is yes: many so-called “natural” products do contain plant-based ingredients and other organic material, which is cool if you’re into that kind of thing.

What they’re not telling you, though, is that these same products may also be loaded with synthetic fragrances and other potentially harmful stuff. If you’re the type who cares about what you put on your skin, it can be pretty confusing.


EGW Safety Rankings: Hype, or Helpful Tool?

To prove my point, I decided to vet a bunch of products—including the creams and cosmetics I use every day, as well as the celeb-approved “natural” products mentioned in the Byrdie article—using the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database.

If you’ve not heard of this resource, check it out: it’s a comprehensive, non-partisan data dump offering “safety ratings” of nearly 70,000 makeup and skincare products. Products are given an overall safety rating (0–10, with 10 being considered the most hazardous) based on their ingredients.

What works for me: The overall ratings aggregate the scores of each product’s individual ingredients, calling out the specific nature of any potential hazards. For example, is the ingredient in question a known carcinogen? A wicked-bad allergen? According to whose research, in what county? Is it bad for the environment, and how?

What doesn’t work: Though the site provides deep-dive information about most ingredients, the data on which the ingredients’ scores are based isn’t always deep or robust. More importantly, though, it can be difficult to tell exactly which negative ratings are truly relevant.

Here’s a perfect example: say an ingredient is labeled “restricted for cosmetic use in the EU.” This doesn’t tell us whether the product contains enough of this ingredient to have an impact on your health, or whether a product that contains this ingredient simply requires a prescription.

Another issue for ladies of a certain age: one of the most common ingredients in anti-aging skincare products, retinol, is ranked a 9 out of 10 for risk (click the link to see the various alarming risk factors). And don’t even get me started on fragrance, which consistently receives a high-risk score for being a potential allergen.


Information Overload: Who Actually Benefits?

It’s lot of information, without a lot of context.

Yes, this kind of data can be extremely helpful to certain slices of the population: women hoping to get pregnant, for example, or anyone with recurrent skin allergies or a compromised immune system. I can also imagine it’s a useful at-home diagnostic tool if you’ve had a skincare-related allergic reaction, but you’re not sure what might have caused it.

But if you’re a regular girl like me, this database can also be a good starting point, to be taken with a grain of (organic Himalayan sea) salt.

None of my products scored above a five, so I’m not too worried about my long-term health—particularly because I tend to switch up my regimen every few months. But if a product you’ve used twice a day for years scores a big fat 10, you might want to do a little more research.

That said, if the offending ingredient is a “known allergen” and you’re not allergic to it, you can probably keep calm and slather on. But if the ingredient causes cancer in lab rats, you might want to consider an alternative; and with nearly 70,000 products already vetted for you, these should be pretty easy to find. Likewise, if you’re all #teamcoconutoil, the database can be a good resource for finding products that are unequivocally natural and safe.

What I thought was most interesting, though, was the glaring disconnect between the “natural skincare” marketing claims and actual contents. Having been a writer in this industry for more than 15 years, I can’t say I’m surprised, exactly. But this process has given me a bit more motivation to stay informed about the products I use—especially when it’s so easy to call out the poseurs.

Speaking of which…


Regular-Girl Products Versus Stuff Famous Peeps Use

According to Skin Deep, the so-called “natural” products I vetted actually had more questionable ingredients than the regular-girl stuff I use—including two of my under-10 dollar drugstore products that smell great and make my skin look amazing.

Check out the products and their ratings below.



Low Hazard (2): Stila Eye Shadow (all shades)

Low Hazard (2): Maybelline Dream Pure BB 8-in-1 Skin-Clearing Perfector 

Moderate Hazard (3): Maybelline Dream Fresh BB 8-in-1 Skin Perfector with SPF

Moderate Hazard (5): NARS Blush in Orgasm 

Moderate Hazard (5): Perricone MD High Potency Amine Face Lift

Moderate Hazard (5): Perricone MD Cold Plasma Cream

Moderate Hazard (5): Maybelline Full ‘N Soft Mascara


Supermodel/Celebrity Picks: 

Low Hazard (1): Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence (Michelle Monaghan)

Moderate Hazard (3): True Nature Botanicals Pacific Night Serum (Lindsay Ellington)

Moderate Hazard (4): Neutrogena Naturals Multi-Vitamin Moisturizer (Kristen Bell)

Moderate Hazard (5): Weleda Citrus Deodorant (Amanda Seyfried)

Moderate Hazard (5): Dr. Hauschka Quince Day Cream (Kristen Stewart)

Moderate Hazard (6): Dr. Hauschka Skincare Rose Day Cream (Anja Rubik)

High Hazard (7): Jurlique Rosewater Balancing Mist (Behati Prinsloo)


Relephant Read:

These Cosmetics are Toxic to our Skin & Health.


Author: Staci Amend

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Maria Morri/Flickr


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