Unpacking the All-Natural Skincare Movement: Finding Natural Skin Care Amidst Marketing Hype
by Heather Smith on Feb 20, 2021
I'm a clean beauty advocate. I'm a consumer who uses natural skincare products. I'm also a brand founder dedicated to providing effective, botanical, plant-based formulas to my customers.
So why am I telling you that the beauty industry and the "all-natural skincare" movement are doing a disservice to consumers?
Because marketing hype gets in the way of what the actual goals of skincare should be.
The goal of skincare should be for you to have beautiful, healthy skin. The goal of marketing should be to match you (the consumer) up with brands that offer products that are compatible with your worldview, shopping preferences, and budget. Unfortunately, the end result of all this marketing has been to confuse consumers and leave people wondering what is actually best and what brands they can actually trust.
Let's try to unpack some of this by doing some myth-busting.
The Chemical vs Natural Skincare Debate
So much of this comes down to the difference between semantics and meaning.
The noun chemical is defined as a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, especially artificially.
This means every ingredient used in cosmetics, even the most natural ones like distilled water and cold-pressed oils, are chemicals.
Chemicals and chemical reactions are central to our entire existence and ongoing survival on this planet.
Micro-organisms + carbohydrates = alcohol (fermentation 🍷)
The word chemical has been used in marketing to imply that a skincare ingredient is the opposite of natural. This is a misuse of the term.
Instead of pitting natural vs. chemical skincare ingredients against one another, we should focus more on transparency and consumer education regarding the specific role of certain ingredients and the rationale for their presence in a formula.
Natural Skincare Case Study: Viscosity and Texture Modifiers
Carbomer is synthesized through various chemical reactions and is a polymer related to acrylic. It bioaccumulates in the environment and is persistent without being biodegradable. Thus, it's classified as a liquid microplastic. Synthetic. Not plant-based.
Hydroxyethylcellulose is created by modifying cellulose using an intense chemical reaction between alkali (sodium hydroxide) and ethylene oxide (a petroleum derivative with known harm to humans and the environment). The end product is biodegradable. Since it's based on cellulose, it's marketed as natural and plant-based despite the intense and potentially harmful chemical modification required to manufacture it.
Xanthan gum does not exist in nature and must be synthesized. This occurs by fermenting sugar with a specific type of bacteria and then drying/grinding the resultant powder. Synthetic. Plant-based.
Glucomannan powder (konjac root) is a viscosity and texture modifier that thickens and stabilizes solutions. It is harvested, dried, and ground into a powder. Natural. Unmodified. Plant-based.
I think we can all agree that carbomer has no place in natural skincare products. I don't intend to demonify the ingredient, but if a brand is labelling itself as "natural" while using it, there needs to be some serious explanation and transparency available to its consumers.
It's also safe to assume that there isn't much debate about whether konjac root powder has a place in natural skincare products. This is an easy one.
Where it gets tricky is in the grey zone. Technically, xanthan gum is not natural. It cannot be found in nature. However, it is created by a fairly simple chemical process using just sugar and bacteria. The process used to synthesize xanthan gum is decidedly more eco-friendly, less toxic, and more "natural" than the one used to modify cellulose into hydroxyethylcellulose.
This is why we should spend less time labelling products based on arbitrary words with no consistent meaning.
Natural Skincare Consumer Intent
Consumers who are attracted to the words "natural," "chemical-free," "safe & non-toxic," "blue beauty," and all manner of other clean-beauty marketing phrases are generally consumers who are looking for products that are more simple, closer to nature, less processed, and less controversial.
These consumers still want results, but they want to fully understand what is going onto their skin and why it's in the product.
What they are not looking for is the (ever-growing) list of ingredients with red flags regarding ethics, human rights, animal rights, environmental destruction, and (most importantly) uncertain health risks. Consumers often choose to bypass ingredients that are highly processed, synthetic, modified, or have had suspicion cast upon them due to claims of potential risk (whether substantiated or not).
All natural skin care is not automatically better. Not for you. Not for our earth.
Another reason to get away from blanket statements and labels is because sometimes, natural just isn't better. There is a dark side to the plant-based skincare world that beauty brands don't always want you to see.
Consumer demand drives momentum forward at a frenzied pace. This is especially true when something new or exciting is desired or discovered. The "natural" and "superfood" movements are responsible for triggering mass deforestation and irresponsible agricultural processes that reduce biodiversity and forever change local ecosystems and indigenous cultures.
Paying attention to responsible, sustainable, and ethical sourcing of these amazing ingredients is the responsibility of manufacturers and the consumers who purchase them. That's one reason we prefer certified organic ingredients when available. It's most certainly going to be more expensive to manufacture a product when you pay attention to ensuring the ingredients come from small-scale, traditional farming practices. Organic skincare ingredients and products have a higher degree of monitoring that goes into their production.
Natural Skincare Case Study: Wild Harvesting vs Biosynthesis
Sandalwood oil is used in the cosmetics and fragrance industries for its aromatic properties and potential skincare benefits. Harvesting sandalwood trees for their oil is resource-intensive and often unsustainable, particularly because the trees take a long time to grow and are increasingly endangered due to overharvesting.
Sandalwood trees are harvested from the wild, which puts pressure on natural ecosystems. They are also subject to illegal harvesting, given the high market value of pure sandalwood oil. Therefore, although sandalwood oil is a "natural" ingredient, its current harvesting practices make it a non-sustainable option.
In contrast, biosynthesized (lab-created) sandalwood oil is a more sustainable alternative. Through a controlled biological process, typically using yeast or bacteria, scientists produce sandalwood oil that has the same chemical composition as the naturally occurring oil.
So, while the biosynthesized sandalwood oil may not be considered "natural" in the traditional sense, it offers a far more sustainable and environmentally responsible alternative to naturally harvested sandalwood oil. If the end result is bioidentical, then why would synthetic skin care products like this be viewed as a bad thing?
Seven Natural Skincare Myths
MYTH 1: Botanical Extracts are all Safe
Cyanide is extractable from the seeds of apples, cherries, and apricots. This makes it a botanical extract, but we're going to leave that one off our ingredient list! Safe botanical extracts are safe, but merely just being extracted from a plant does not make safety automatic.
While the example of cyanide is a bit extreme, remember that natural products like tea tree oil are unsafe for some people with sensitive skin. Something like macadamia nut oil could be deadly for a person with allergies. The word safe shouldn't be used without a proper definition, and skincare brands should be using the term responsibly.
MYTH 2: Synthetic Chemicals are Contaminated
Quite the opposite. Natural, unrefined substances in their "pure" unmodified form are impure. If you manufacture a bio-identical substance in the lab environment, you can eliminate any chance of contamination and ensure purity.
Synthetic Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can be purer and more stable than its naturally sourced counterpart. Lab-made ascorbic acid undergoes rigorous quality control, ensuring high purity and effectiveness while also often being more sustainable to produce.
MYTH 3: Leading a Toxin-free Life is Possible
This is a tricky one. From a purely medical standpoint, everything in the world has a toxicity associated with it. Some things are instantly toxic and poisonous, but even simple substances like water can kill you at toxic levels. My personal favourite toxin is produced during the fermentation of grapes, and I consume this toxin frequently.
One of my pet peeves is when products are labelled as "toxin-free." It's like marketing a steak as "gluten-free." Nobody makes face creams out of asbestos and arsenic. Labelling cosmetics as toxin-free doesn't tell the consumer anything. ~Dr. H. Smith, bareLUXE Founder~
Focusing on clear labelling about what is IN the product is far more useful and informative than focusing on labelling about what is not in the product.
MYTH 4: The Cosmetics Industry is Unregulated
Health Canada and the FDA regulate the ingredients you're allowed to use and the requirements for labelling. Canadian Ad Standards monitors for unsubstantiated claims or misleading advertising. What they don't do is take samples of the (?)millions of products out there and independently analyze them. This is why you need to choose a brand you trust.
It's worth noting that some people point to the European Union's extensive list of banned skincare ingredients as evidence that agencies like the FDA are lax in their oversight. However, the EU's list isn't necessarily a clear-cut indicator of ingredient safety or lack thereof. The EU often employs a precautionary principle, banning substances if there's even a minor suspicion of harm without always requiring conclusive evidence. This approach can sometimes result in the banning of ingredients that are actually safe when used as directed.
In contrast, the FDA often requires a higher level of evidence to ban or restrict an ingredient. This doesn't mean the FDA allows "poison" into skincare; it means the regulatory approach is different.
Both systems have their pros and cons, but it's misleading to suggest that a longer list of banned substances automatically translates to safer products.
Trusting a brand's commitment to safety and effectiveness remains key.
Myth 5: "Natural" Ingredients Are Always Gentle on the Skin
The assumption that natural skincare is always gentle and safe for all skin types is a widespread misconception. Many natural ingredients, such as essential oils, citrus juices, and even some herbal extracts, can be highly potent and may cause skin irritation, allergies, or photosensitivity in some individuals.
Like any ingredient, natural or synthetic, it's important to consider its potency, your own skin's sensitivities, and how it interacts with other ingredients in your skincare routine. Always perform a patch test when trying out new products, whether they are natural or not.
MYTH 6: "Natural" Means Organic or Sustainably-Sourced
It's easy to assume that "natural" on the label also means that the ingredients were sourced sustainably or are organic. This is not automatically the case. 'Natural' doesn't guarantee that the raw materials were grown without pesticides or that their harvesting doesn't contribute to deforestation or biodiversity loss.
For example, palm oil is a natural ingredient, but its production has significant environmental consequences, including deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat. If sustainability is a concern for you, look for certifications like USDA Organic or Rainforest Alliance rather than relying on the term "natural."
MYTH 7: Preservatives are Bad
Preservatives get a bad rap, especially in natural skincare circles. However, preservatives are crucial for preventing the growth of bacteria, mould, and yeast in skincare products, which is a definite health risk. Even "natural" products need some form of preservation to ensure they're safe to use for an extended period.
While it's true that some preservatives have been called into question for potential health risks, not all are created equal. There are preservatives that are both effective and considered to be low-risk, whether they are naturally derived or synthetic.
Time for a New Label?
At heart, natural skincare, green beauty, and clean beauty are all terms that point towards a well-thought-out approach to skin health that includes a broader view. The health of the farmers who create ingredients, those who manufacture and refine ingredients, the earth around us, and the aquatic ecosystems that, sadly, accumulate much of beauty industry waste - those all matter too.
Conscious consumers are willing to trade a small potential loss of effectiveness and/or pay a higher premium for products that consider the bigger picture. Beauty brands need to change the marketing narrative.
Choosing products like oil serums helps to bridge the gap by keeping formulations as close to nature as possible while still being very effective. Natural oils are wonderful for this reason. Taking a well-thought-out approach to ingredient and brand selection is critical to the slow-beauty approach - which should be the way of the future.