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What is Natural?

By New You Editorial
Posted On Jul 19, 2016
What is Natural?

What makes your cosmetics safe and sustainable? Here’s our planet-friendly beauty primer.


Once upon a time, you had to hit a health food store to find beauty products with safe, natural ingredients. Your options were usually limited to a few sketchy-looking (and even sketchier-smelling) concoctions that didn’t always deliver the results you were after.

The times are changing, and cosmetics companies of all sizes are embracing botanicals, kicking harsh chemicals to the curb and going planet-friendly in the process. Neutrogena’s Naturals line is free from a long list of questionable chemicals, rich in beauty-boosting vitamins and minerals, and packaged in predominantly recycled materials.

Other beauty giants, including Proctor & Gamble brands like CoverGirl and Pantene, have reformulated their offerings to employ more sustainable practices. Meanwhile, companies like Aubrey Organics, Derma E, and Nature’s Gate have been offering cleaner, greener, eco-conscious options for decades. But do these products work? In a word: Yes.

“As the world of natural and organic beauty becomes more mainstream, the products are increasingly beneficial and effective,” says Gary Goldfaden, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Hollywood, Florida, and founder of the Goldfaden MD line of natural products.

According to Dr. Goldfaden, many natural beauty buys may even be more effective than their chemical-based counterparts. “If irritating or harmful chemicals can be absorbed by your skin, so, too, can wellness-promoting natural ingredients,” says Stephanie Tourles, a holistic esthetician, and herbalist in Maine and Massachusetts. “These plant-derived and organic reparations work in harmony with the skin, deeply nourishing and feeding it, giving it what it needs to thrive and exhibit radiance.”

Of course, because claims such as “natural” and “organic” on personal care products are largely unregulated by governing bodies— including the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—it can be tough to know what you’re really getting when you pick up a package. What’s a concerned, eco-conscious consumer to do? Our guide to natural beauty will break it down for you.


Chemicals are used in beauty products for a variety of reasons—to make them smell better, last longer, or work more effectively. Despite what chain emails and consumer safety groups would have you believe, these ingredients aren’t always the specter of doom, gloom, and terminal disease. As debates about their various risks rage on, it’s perfectly natural to want to avoid ingredients that have raised red flags. You don’t need to take a crash course in chemistry.

However, you should be familiar with some of the more concerning compounds. Formaldehyde—widely used in hair-straightening products—is a human carcinogen known to cause skin irritation and sensitization, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Concerns about formaldehyde, along with dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and toluene, have led many companies—including Essie, OPI, and Sally Hansen—to remove the toxic trio from nail polishes. Phthalates (dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, dimethyl phthalate found in hairspray)—which often masquerade as “fragrance”—have also been linked to cancer and hormonal and reproductive problems.

“‘Fragrance’ is one of the top contact allergens we see, and many of them contain phthalates,” says Valori Treloar, MD, an integrative dermatologist in Newton, Massachusetts. “Exposure to fragrance should be minimized.”

While you are shopping, look for the previously mentioned ingredients, and only choose products that advertise themselves as being “phthalate-free.” Other ingredients to watch for are parabens, preservatives in products such as lotions and concealers. These have been linked to breast cancer and hormonal problems.

“Some people are allergic and get contact dermatitis rashes from parabens,” Treloar notes. To spot these offending preservatives, look for ingredients beginning with “methyl-,” “propyl-,” “butyl-,” and “benzyl-.” Seek out products that declare themselves “paraben-free.” To learn more about these ingredients and others, check out our beauty blacklist.


Natural ingredients are beautiful because they’re easy to recognize on labels and generally safe and gentle. Additionally, natural makeup enhances your appearance in more flattering ways than artificial options. “Synthetic color is often too intense or saturated and can look flat or contrived,” says Krysia Boinis, co-founder of Vapour Organic Beauty.

Ingredients that will work best for you depend on your specific needs and the options are many. Beeswax and natural butters—such as shea, mango seed, and kokum—replace petroleum-derived waxes and oils in various moisturizers.

“Beeswax helps lock in skin’s natural moisture, and creates a protective, long-lasting, breathable barrier against the elements,” notes Boinis. “Unlike petroleum waxes, which strip the skin of natural moisture by blocking respiration and creating a CO2 buildup.” Many natural ingredients go beyond protecting skin to contain the preservatives that preclude the need for artificial, potentially toxic ones.

“Elderberry is a super antioxidant,” Boinis insists. “It’s anti-aging and anti-microbial, so it helps to increase a product’s shelf life. Stevia is hydrating and rich in minerals and vitamins that nourish skin, and it is also antimicrobial.” As for makeup, the latest and greatest natural products often get their color from ancient mineral pigments, such as iron oxide and titanium dioxide (TiO2).

“These pigments come doing so is no longer necessary and hardly as effective as using human test subjects. Companies that analyze their products humanely typically have labels such as “Cruelty-free,” “Against Animal Testing,” or “Vegan.” The vegan label also indicates that their products don’t contain any animal-derived ingredients— honey or milk—which may be problematic to some individuals for reasons of health or ethics. If you don’t see these labels on your products, look them up through the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) site. Tarte, Lush, and Urban Decay are just a few of the group’s favorite brands.


As much as we love products in fabulous boxes, it kills us to see manufacturers overdo their packaging, especially when we’re so focused on their products’ ingredients. It’s yet another reason to go with more natural products, many of which have been produced and packaged in more planet-friendly ways (such as recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable containers).

This information tends to be spelled out and easily found on containers, including the all-important How2Recycle label, a voluntary recycling label developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. This label has been enthusiastically adopted by Estée Lauder and several more major brands.

When you do what’s best for the environment, everything truly comes full circle. It not only benefits the planet; it benefits your health as well. l from the earth and have been used as colorants since prehistoric times,” says Boinis. The best way to ensure you’re getting the safest and most effective ingredients is to buy them from trusted companies such as Vapour.

Other favorites include Josie Maran, Tarte, and Suki.


The words “natural” and “organic” go hand-in-hand, but what’s the real benefit of going for the “big O” in personal care products? “Organics have less pesticide residue, and pesticides can be harmful to our cells and tissues,” says Dr. Treloar. Organics also tend to be higher in naturally derived, skin-compatible antioxidants, offering more protective and effective age-fighting properties.

Look for a “USDA 100% Organic” label to ensure that every single ingredient is organically grown, therefore free from prohibited pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, irradiated ingredients, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, and growth hormones. If a product simply says “USDA Certified Organic,” that means it contains at least 95 percent organically grown ingredients. This also applies to the European “EcoCert” label and the international NaTrue “Organic Cosmetics” label.

Anything that says it’s “natural” or “organic” but lacks a certification may or may not be what it claims, so do investigate a company’s website before paying the higher price that organics often command.


We’ve all seen images of adorable bunnies being abused under the pretext of ensuring safer products for people.

While such practices have largely been phased out, some companies still test on animals—despite the fact that The Beauty Blacklist Products labeled as “natural” may contain questionable ingredients. Learn which ones are potentially toxic.

Based on info from the EWG’s Skin Deep and the Suzuki Foundation’s list of “Dirty Dozen” cosmetic chemicals, here are some of the biggies on the beauty blacklist.


Don’t: Fragrance or parfum; parabens; PEGs (polyethylene glycols); petrolatum (especially in lipsticks and balms); retinyl palmitate or retinol (in lip products)

Do: Jane Iredale Eye Steppes in GoGreen ($56; janeiredale.com)


Don’t: Fragrance or parfum; PEGs (polyethylene glycols); petrolatum in moisturizers; retinyl palmitate or retinol in lotions; sodium laureth sulfate (shampoos, cleansers, and bubble bath); triclocarban (bar soap) and triclosan (liquid soap and toothpaste)

Do: Paula’s Choice Earth Sourced Antioxidant-Enriched Natural Moisturizer ($20; paulaschoice.com)


Don’t: DMDM hydantoin; fragrance or parfum; parabens; PEGs, ceteareths and polyethylene; p-phenylenediamine, colors listed as “CI” followed by five digits or FD&C followed by a color and number

Do: Aubrey Organics Nu Style Organic Hair Spray ($10; aubreyorganics.com)


Don’t: Dibutyl phthalate (DBP); formaldehyde or formalin; toluene We Approve: Spa Ritual Nail Lacquer ($10; sephora.com) SUNSCREEN skip: Aerosol spray or powder sunscreen; fragrance or parfum; insect repellent; oxybenzone; retinyl palmitate

Do: Alba Botanica Natural Very Emollient Sunscreen SPF 30 ($11; albabotanica.com)