Truth About Organic Skin Care

When to Go Natural

The idea of natural beauty seems like a good one, but changing your trusted moisturizer to a "green" option isn't as simple as switching to CFL lightbulbs.

We asked top doctors and experts to debunk all those natural claims and explain when it's best to buy organic products.

Organic vs. Natural vs. Vegan

While the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate the terms "organic," "natural," or "vegan," you may spot the official organic seal from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on beauty-product packaging (the same one you might see on your favorite organic peanut butter). You may also come across other countries' labels, such as ECOCERT (a French certification) and BDIH (a German certification for natural cosmetics), explains Daily Glow's green-beauty expert Paige Padgett.

A cosmetic or skin care product can be certified organic by the USDA if the applicable ingredients (honey, berries, and other foods) are free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and other nonorganic substances.

What the Organic Label Means

There are four levels of certification from the USDA.

100% Organic: The product contains only organically produced ingredients and is permitted to display the seal.

Organic: The product contains at least 95% organically produced ingredients and is permitted to display the seal.

Made With Organic Ingredients: The product contains at least 70% organic ingredients but is not permitted to display the seal.

Less than 70% Organic Ingredients: Products are not permitted to use the term "organic" anywhere on the packaging (and cannot display the seal) but are allowed to identify organically produced items in the ingredient list.

Understanding Natural and Vegan Claims

But what about the claims of "natural" and "vegan" (meaning that none of the ingredients were derived from animal products), which seem to be popping up on every aisle in drugstores and health-and-beauty shops?

"The word 'vegan' usually refers to products that do not contain any animal products and ideally are not tested on animals," explains Padgett. "However, not all vegan products are organic and some may not be cruelty-free, so one cannot assume. Truly vegan products should not contain even beeswax or carmine, which comes from a beetle."

Is Natural Always Better?

There's no real regulation for terms like natural and vegan. In fact, we may be putting too much emphasis on what the package says instead of the proof behind the product's ingredients.

"What I look for is evidence-based medicine. I look for things that have clinical data about safety and efficacy," explains Doris Day, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. "People always think that natural is better, but I don't understand it. It's either good or it's not good."

Adds Dr. Nakhla, "Tobacco is natural. Marijuana is natural, but I'm not advocating for those in a skin care product. The point is, it's a marketing term and it doesn't mean anything."

The Danger of Parabens, Sulfates, and Chemicals

Parabens (preservatives found in sunscreens, lotions, and more), sulfates (detergents found in cleansers like shampoos and bath gels), and phthalates (chemicals found in fragrances and plastics) often get a bad rap in cosmetic and skin care products thanks to a few different studies that linked their use to an increased risk for cancer. However, experts agree the research is weak at best.

"Parabens have been used for a long period of time. They add value to the products, otherwise they wouldn't be in there," says Dr. Day. "That said, you don't want to be swimming in parabens and phthalates."

Nakhla adds that a few reasons you may consider steering clear are that parabens can cause free-radical damage and sulfates may irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction.

The Bottom Line on Organic Makeup

No matter the label, the most important factor when shopping for skin care is to find products with clinically proven ingredients in them — like retinol, for example. "When you look at skin care products, you don't want to get fooled by the razzle-dazzle of a good marketing campaign," says Nakhla.

"One of the easiest things to do is look for organic seals like the USDA seal, or another from ECOCERT, BDIH, Biologique [an EU certification], and BIO [a German certification for organic products]," says Padgett. "Also look for specific terms such as 'free of parabens' or 'free of synthetic fragrance and dyes.' These won't guarantee the product is clean, but it's a good start. Companies usually won't make such specific claims if it's not true."

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