In the course of becoming a top-shelf status symbol, green beauty has splintered into nuanced, sometimes bewildering, factions. “Organic” products are untouched by pesticides, GMOs, or synthetic chemicals, while “vegan” products do not contain animal byproducts. Beauty offerings labeled “natural” are perhaps the most confusing, as they are unregulated but generally deemed to be made without any artificial ingredients or fragrance. With today’s emphasis on purity and sustainability disrupting industries from food to fashion, this last classification has become especially desirable—and abused.
“Natural is a classic marketing word,” says pharmacist and Truth Treatment Systems founder and formulator Benjamin Fuchs. “To a chemist, there’s no such thing as natural. The distinction the body makes is not between natural and synthetic; it just looks at the molecular structure. If I take vitamin C [from nature] or I create it in my lab, it’s the same molecule. I look at ingredients to see whether the body will recognize them.” That recognition is what translates to results, the holy grail of any beauty product. Nevertheless, an ever-growing number of consumers are greening their routine, whether motivated by concern for the planet or the suspected toxicity of certain chemicals—but they’re also questioning the scope of what can be achieved for the skin using all-natural products. “Every day, someone comes into the store wanting to go organic,” says Jessica Richards, owner of cult beauty shopping mecca Shen Beauty, in Brooklyn. “Often it’s because someone close to them has cancer, or they’re pregnant. They want everything new. And 99 percent of them come back to buy something to get a result they can’t get with a natural product, like fixing an age spot. They always incorporate something chemical back in.”RELATED STORYWays to Use Less Plastic in Your Beauty Routine
The Case for Natural
For years now, studies have suggested that certain endocrine disrupters found in personal-care products, such as phthalates and parabens, may have adverse effects when used long-term, and many informed beauty shoppers have a general aversion to silicones. But that’s not the only reason to go natural. “One of the main benefits of natural ingredients is that they can be more sustainable and generally better for the environment” if responsibly sourced, explains Perry Romanowski, one of the cosmetic scientists behind the Beauty Brains website.
Some of the hardest-working, scientifically proven ingredients in beauty products are natural. Romanowski recommends rosa canina fruit extract (rose-hip oil) and niacinamide (vitamin B3), which are “skin-smoothing, antiwrinkle, and antihyperpigmentation,” as well as green tea, “an antioxidant that is a preventive against aging.” For redness and inflammation, scan the ingredient list for soothing argan oil, feverfew, chamomile, and aloe, says Leslie Baumann, MD, a Miami dermatologist and author of Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients. Blue tansy, the superstar ingredient in May Lindstrom Skin the Blue Cocoon, an übercalming skin balm, instantly counters irritation, while the rice and cotton extracts in Burt’s Bees Sensitive Daily Moisturizing Cream provide major hydration. Plant oils like rosemary and rose, two ingredients found in Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum and Kypris Antioxidant Dew, boast antioxidants to both combat the stressors that cause dryness and return the glow to parched skin. Even acne has met a worthy foe in the salicylic acid contained in black willow bark, a key element in True Botanicals Clear Cellular Repair Serum. Hyperpigmentation can be addressed, to a degree, with brightening mulberry extract or with licorice, as in Juice Beauty Stem Cellular Exfoliating Peel Spray, which whisks away dead skin cells in minutes to bestow luminosity to all skin types. Vitamins A and C are similarly effective; Tata Harper Retinoic Nutrient Face Oil provides a double hit of both, without peeling or redness.