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Are “Natural” Skincare Products Really Better?

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By Dr. Fayne Frey, M.D, Board Certified Dermatologist

Are you drawn to natural skincare products?

Jenna Smith (not her real name) came to my office one day with her face red, swollen, and 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 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 large amounts of poisonous cancer-causing chemicals are in standard facial moisturizers and cleansers. 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.

The definition of “natural” on personal care products

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 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.”

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 skincare products without harmful side effects, some plant-derived ingredients may cause severe reactions in those with allergies. These products often contain Teatree oil, lavender, chamomile and its related family plants, including daises and ragweed, which 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.

Whether a chemical, “natural” or synthetic, causes cancer or any other toxic reaction depends on the dose of the chemical, not the chemical itself.

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.

natural skincare products

Chemicals are everywhere

Keep in mind, absolutely 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 from an orange or synthesized in a laboratory, is called (5R)- [(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxyfuran-2(5H)-one. Your 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.

Too much of a good thing, isn’t

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, a substance that can produce cyanide. And potatoes contain a deadly poisonous compound called solanine. Water, apples and potatoes all contain “natural” chemicals that can be dangerous in large quantities. 

The bottom line

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. Remember “natural” on a label does not indicate chemical-free. More information about Dr. Frey and skincare products can be found at


fayne freyFayne 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, 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. 




article updated: 7/9/2021

Disclosure: This information is not intended as medical advice. The opinions in this article are Dr. Frey’s. Consult with your doctor if you have concerns about a skin condition.

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