Jenna Smith (not her real name) came to my office one day with her face red and swollen to about the size of a basketball. She could hardly see due to the swelling that forced her eyes almost closed. Jenna told me two days earlier she applied a “natural” facial moisturizer containing lavender essential oil. The bottle label clearly stated it could both help with skin dryness and provide “an uplifting boost”. Unfortunately for Jenna, a health conscious consumer, this product caused more harm than good.
Many of my patients seem almost obsessively drawn to “natural” products. With the number of advertisements bombarding us regularly, promising magical results, who can blame them? The media aggressively gives the message that “natural skincare products are good, synthetic products are bad”. They imply standard facial moisturizers and cleansers are filled with poisonous cancer-causing chemicals. As a result, people understandably opt for “natural” skincare items which seem “better”. In truth, the term “natural” found on product labels is simply an example of brilliant marketing.
Most people are not aware the term “natural” on personal care products has no specific definition. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has no established standards or regulatory guidelines for its use on on skincare product labels. In addition, cosmetic companies are not required to prove these “natural” products live up to their claims. In fact, the FDA warns, “There is no basis in fact or scientific legitimacy to the notion that products containing natural ingredients are good for the skin.”
In addition, the “natural” label tells us where the ingredients come from, if you are one of these people who even bothers to read it, but discloses nothing about safety. A plant-based product is not necessarily healthy, as Jenna Smith found out. While most consumers can apply “natural” personal care products without harmful side effects, some plant-derived ingredients can cause severe reactions in those with allergies. Tea tree oil, lavender, chamomile and its related family plants, including daises and ragweed, are commonly used in these products and will cause a reaction if you have allergies to these ingredients. Additionally, exposure to natural essential oils like bergamot, lavender, musk, and citrus compounds from lemons and limes also frequently used in natural products can cause an increased sensitivity to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
As for the claims that synthetic ingredients, those “bad” chemicals, cause cancer: poor scientific studies and the need to sell beauty magazines that rely on sensationalism consistently find cancer links that don’t exist. Whether a chemical, “natural” or synthetic, causes cancer or any other toxic reaction depends on the dose of the chemical, not the chemical itself. Almost every chemical has a dose below which no adverse effect or harm can occur.
Keep in mind, everything is composed of chemicals. Water is a chemical. Sugar is a chemical. Vinegar is a chemical. And no correlation exists between your ability to pronounce the name of a chemical and its safety. For example, Vitamin C, whether it is from an orange or synthesized in a laboratory, is called (5R)- [(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxyfuran-2(5H)-one. The body doesn’t know the difference. You may see capric triglyceride on labels; this chemical is a skin-conditioning agent derived from coconut oil commonly found in moisturizers that makes the skin feel soft and smooth.
The old saying, “too much of a good thing, isn’t” applies. For example, water is essential for life, yet drinking 6 liters at a time may cause water intoxication and possible death. Apple seeds contain amygdalin, from which cyanide can be produced. And potatoes contain a deadly poisonous compound called solanine. Water, apples and potatoes all contain “natural” chemicals that can be dangerous in large quantities.
Still, plant-based products remain popular. Whether just folklore, or the influence of the beauty industry and advertising media, many consumers prefer “natural” skincare products formulated with plant based ingredients. It’s true plants are a huge reservoir of potentially beneficial compounds, however few studies, if any, demonstrate they are beneficial to humans. We need more data. Keep in mind that just because a plant makes an ingredient doesn’t mean it’s good for you, and by the same token, if made in a factory the ingredient is not necessarily toxic. Also, remember that “natural” does not indicate chemical-free. More information about Dr. Frey and skincare products can be found at fryface.com.
Fayne Frey, M.D., is a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York, where she specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. She is a nationally recognized expert in the effectiveness and formulation of over-the-counter skincare products.. Dr. Frey is the Founder of FryFace.com, an educational skincare information and product selection service website that clarifies and simplifies the overwhelming choice of effective, safe and affordable products encountered in the skincare aisles.