Everything You Need to Know About Natural Skin Care

Flat lay of natural beauty products and tools

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After decades of powdering our faces with petrochemicals, beauty trends are finally beginning to swing in a direction that could be beneficial to the planet. The only problem with natural skin care being so fashionable? Its growing popularity and lack of regulation means virtually everything is now labeled as "natural"—even when it's not.

Indeed, "natural" has become one of the most controversial and overused words in beauty. At its most basic, it can be defined as being derived from plants rather than noxious chemicals. Still, it's not a regulated term in the U.S., and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is notoriously lax with cosmetics labeling.

Thus, the market remains a minefield of misleading claims and questionable practices, and one must be well-versed in a range of environmental issues before being able to sniff out the greenwashers.

What Does 'Natural' Mean Legally?

Person in lab coat scooping cream from jar

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Unlike "organic," a word that is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program and requires certification, the word "natural" has no legal standard or definition. Instead, the FDA (the governing body that regulates cosmetics under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) puts the safety of beauty products in the hands of the brands themselves.

Today, the U.S. bans only 11 ingredients in cosmetics—compared to the 1,328 banned by the European Union. Advocacy groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Environmental Working Group have organized to meet the growing demand for "clean" ingredients.

According to a 2018 survey by Stella Rising, Gen Zers value products that are made from botanically derived ingredients, not tested on animals, and water-efficient. A reported 83% of them already buy natural and organic.

While the government catches up with the societal demand for stricter regulations, the Environmental Working Group has put together a nifty Skin Deep Cosmetics Database that rates the toxicity of thousands of skin care ingredients (and products, and brands) on a scale of zero to 10.

Likewise, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has developed a scientist-curated Red List of "chemicals for concern" based on their health ratings but not environmental impacts.

Skin Care Chemicals to Avoid

Without a defined standard, consumers are left to decide which skin care products are natural on their own. If passed, the Natural Cosmetics Act (a bill that would establish guidelines for "natural" products but has been stuck in Congress since 2019) would ban "petroleum or petroleum-derived ingredients" from products labeled as such. The beauty industry, in fact, has a long history of sourcing its ingredients from crude oil.

Common Petroleum-Derived Ingredients

  • Mineral oil
  • Paraffin wax
  • Benzene
  • Butanol (aka butyl alcohol)
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Polyethylene glycols (PEGs)
  • Diethanolamine (DEA)
  • Ethanolamines (MEA)
  • Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)
  • Fragrance

Petrochemicals serve all sorts of purposes in skin care: they moisturize, preserve, create creaminess or sudsiness, produce pleasant scents, and so forth. Like all petroleum-derived products, they have a horrendous impact on the environment. In the case of skin care, petrochemicals also get washed down the drain and into waterways where they bleach coral reefs and compromise marine life.

Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

Conventional sunscreen is the perfect example. Today, 70% to 80% of sunscreens contain the petroleum-based ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals proven to increase coral reefs' susceptibility to bleaching, damage coral DNA, cause deformations, and generally disrupt growth and reproduction in coral environments. The former has been detected in more than 3,500 SPF-providing skin care products globally.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate are so harmful that Hawaii outright banned them at the start of 2021. A similar bill was proposed in California but died in committee in 2020.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, other common sunscreen chemicals that can harm marine life include octocrylene, nano-zinc oxide, nano-titanium dioxide, and several benzophenone compounds.

Mineral Oil

While the word "mineral" might sound natural enough, mineral oil is simply a byproduct of refining crude oil. It's a petrochemical proudly used by major skincare brands like L'Oréal and Paula's Choice, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems it toxic, not readily biodegradable, and likely to bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms.

Discharging it into our waterways can essentially have the same effects as an oil spill—only on a smaller scale.  


Bottles of chemicals on a table for testing

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Fragrance is widely perceived as the primary problem ingredient of skin care and beauty products, in general.

Brands may freely use any number of 3,059 oft-toxic chemicals in their scents without undergoing any FDA approval process or having to disclose specific ingredients on their labels. Most often, they're lumped into catchall categories like "perfume," "parfum," "essential oil blend," "aroma," or simply "fragrance."

These concerning blends appear in a vast range of skin care products, from cleansers to shaving creams to deodorants to makeup. They're made up of volatile organic compounds that contribute to air pollution and wind up in wastewater systems that lack the treatment methods to remove them.

They're so ubiquitous that they contribute to at least 50% of ozone pollution in some urban areas. Eventually, they wind up accumulating in the bodies of fish, and then in the humans who eat them.

To make matters more complicated for the consumer, going "unscented" or "fragrance-free" doesn't mean you won't encounter these chemicals. Fragrance molecules are still often added to unscented products to mask bad smells and serve other purposes unrelated to scent.

The best way to avoid synthetic fragrances in skin care is to look for brands that disclose the exact ingredients that make up their fragrance profiles. These ingredients should be clearly listed on the label, sometimes in parentheses following "fragrance."

Parabens and Phthalates

Parabens and phthalates, the most widely criticized Ps in today's beauty market, are often added to skin care to A) preserve and B) serve as "plasticizers," enhancing the flexibility and durability of a product. While they aren't necessarily derived from fossil fuels, they're no less polluting than petrochemicals.

A 2015 study found that parabens were present not only in fish and aquatic microorganisms but also in marine mammals—including dolphins, sea otters, and polar bears—off the U.S. coast. A subsequent report stated that these parabens "can act as endocrine disruptors, which can promote adverse health risks in organisms and are also related to carcinogenic behavior."

Phthalates also disrupt hormones in the wildlife they reach through soil and water. They've been shown to alter animal behavior and increase the risk of both infertility and congenital malformations.


Up-close texture of exfoliating cream with microplastics

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Plastic is pervasive in beauty—it appears in cosmetics and skin care formulas, in the form of disposable wipes and sheet masks, and as the packaging for these products as well. 

One major consequence of a plastic-dependent personal care industry is that oceans are now inundated with the tiny particles we rinse down the drain. Polyethylene makes up a great deal of that pollution. It's been the most common plastic used for exfoliating microbeads in scrubs and cleansers for a whole half-century.

These microbeads are detrimental to the health of marine animals—once ingested, they can cause internal abrasions and blockages, plus they can essentially poison the animal with monomers and plastic additives.

Studies have shown that a third of organisms in England's River Thames have ingested plastic, and a 2018 study from published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warns that by 2050, 99% of all seabirds will have, too, if nothing is done.

The FDA introduced The Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015 to ban plastic microbeads in cosmetics. The U.K. government banned the use of microbeads in beauty products in 2018, and environmentalists are lobbying for a ban on wipes, too. Disposable facial wipes are often made of polyester or polypropylene (more plastic) and are also sometimes marketed as "flushable" even though the EPA says to "NEVER"—in all caps—flush wipes.

Animal Ingredients and Testing

To cause further confusion, natural skin care isn't always necessarily vegan. Again, the FDA has no say over the ingredients in "natural" products or how they're tested. Your cleansers and creams could contain glycerin, gelatin, retinol, milk, milk protein, snail gel, silk, collagen, tallow, or squalene. Most of these come from animals unless the brand specifies otherwise.

Likewise, just because a product is vegan doesn't mean it's inherently cruelty free—even if it's labeled as such. The Leaping Bunny Program says a cruelty-free claim can apply just to the finished product, but "nearly all animal testing occurs at the ingredient level." The best way to ensure a product is fully cruelty-free is to look for the famous Leaping Bunny certification.

Tips for Creating a More Natural Skin Care Routine

Hands stirring DIY bath salts surrounded by natural ingredients

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The FDA's lack of authority over cosmetics safety makes it near impossible to pick products that aren't somehow problematic for the planet. You can reduce your impact by paring down your routine, investing in research before buying, and making your own skin care with whole, nutritious foods from the pantry. Here's how.

Practice 'Skinimalism'

The premise of skinimalism—i.e., skin minimalism—is to strip your skin care back to the basics. The idea reinforces a less-is-more attitude, which ultimately leads to less waste and consumption.

82 million tons of waste from plastic containers and packaging were produced in the U.S. in 2018, and only about half of these items were recycled.

Reducing your routine to a simple cleanser, moisturizer, and mineral-based sunscreen can help not only keep harmful chemicals out of waterways but also eliminate a generous amount of plastic waste.

Do Your Research

When you do buy "natural" products, it's important to do some research to make sure the company isn't greenwashing. Here are some things to evaluate.

  • Ingredient sourcing: Where do the botanicals in this product come from, and are they cultivated sustainably? 
  • Company values: Is being environmentally friendly a priority for the brand? Does it pay fair wages throughout the supply chain?
  • Parent companies: Some companies that seem sustainable at the surface level are actually owned by large, problematic corporations that perpetuate waste and overconsumption.
  • Certifications: Be sure a brand's claims are backed by the appropriate certifications, including Leaping Bunny (cruelty-free), EWG (free of harmful chemicals), Forest Stewardship Council (packaged in sustainable paper), and the USDA's Certified Biobased Product label (assuring it has a verified amount of renewable biological, petroleum-free ingredients).

Choose Organic

Although the FDA doesn't regulate the use of the term "organic" in cosmetics, the USDA's National Organic Program does regulate it in agricultural products that can be used in skin care.

The program's Organic Seal appears on products made of 95% to 100% organic agricultural ingredients, meaning they haven't been treated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Those with 70% to 95% organic ingredients may say "made with organic ingredients" but must not display the seal.

Pay Attention to Packaging

Person pumping bulk body wash into reusable jar

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Think beyond the makeup of the product when going natural with your skin care routine. Most beauty and personal care is packaged in plastic that can't be or isn't widely recycled, like bottles with intricate pump features or mixed-material packaging like droppers and hand cream tubes. 

These days, you can often find skin care in glass, compostable packaging or, at the very least, in packaging that can be recycled through the TerraCycle program, which requires you to drop off or ship empty bottles to a special facility.

DIY When You Can

Perhaps the best thing you can do to make your skin care routine more eco-friendly is to make your own products at home using whole, organic ingredients that are responsibly packaged (or not pre-packaged at all—bonus points for buying in bulk). That way, you aren't flushing chemicals into public water systems or creating an abundance of waste.

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