• Josep Orellana, science journalist

    The fact that a cosmetic is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe!

    8 Jul The fact that a cosmetic is natural doesn't mean it's safe!



    Food and Chemical Toxicology

    The use of "natural" skin care products has grown exponentially in recent years. The market offers cosmetics, creams, lotions, fragrances and numerous other products labelled as "natural". Bamboo, lavender, fruits and essential oils are often the ingredients in such cosmetics. But are they effective in keeping our skin healthy? Are they safe?


    Interest in what is natural and sustainable has led to the increased availability of “natural” products in street markets, supermarkets and, most especially, online. Thousands of websites sell natural cosmetics, promising all kinds of remedies and treatments for all skin types and conditions. The countries with the greatest demand for such products are the USA and the EU. It is estimated that in 2015 in the USA alone this sector will move about 19,000 million dollars. Also anticipated is a large increase in sales in the Asia and Pacific regions, due to the growing concern for personal care in the emerging economies.


    Currently available for purchase are products like bamboo creams, marigold lotions, mint masks, propolis soaps, lavender and rose petal oils and numerous ointments based on extracts of fruits and medicinal plants. In other words, thousands of products, also known as green cosmetics, are labelled as natural, organic or sustainable.


    Seek out safe products

    Just to be clear: most green cosmetics sold in Europe and the USA comply with the law and are properly labelled. Here we are not referring to products that do not even have this minimum level of control, as consumers use these entirely at their own risk.


    However, today it is possible to buy "natural” cosmetics online from many different sources. Products manufactured in countries with regulatory controls in place will have passed the tests that guarantee efficacy and safety, the two most fundamental factors.


    But precisely what controls are applied is not so clear for many other countries. The real problem for consumers is that there are no well-defined rules governing international trade in such cosmetics.


    If a "natural" product is not effective and does not produce the desired effect, that is a lesser evil and the user is merely disappointed. But if the product causes a reaction or some disorder, the user ends up consulting their doctor, with few possibilities for lodging a complaint. Fortunately, serious complications from using these products are fairly infrequent.


    Not all that’s "natural" is good for the skin

    Most ingredients in natural cosmetics cannot be applied to the skin in their natural state. Logically, therefore, since they need prior technical and chemical processing, their supposed "naturalness" is compromised.


    Although we tend to think that all that is natural and handmade must be better, the truth, supported by scientific evidence, is that natural does not automatically mean healthy.


    Plant extracts, for example, may contain chemical substances that can cause and allergies and irritate the skin. Some such natural substances are naphthoquinone (a component of henna), oxalic acid and tartaric acid.


    Tulips, daffodils, chamomile and certain essential oils (like tea tree oil) used in natural cosmetics can cause skin sensitization. Limonene, for example, a fragrance extracted from citrus fruits, often causes allergic reactions and rashes.


    Finally, other natural ingredients, such as mint, dill, fennel and certain fruits and vegetables (lemon, figs, celery and carrots) may cause phototoxicity or photosensitization on coming into contact with the skin.


    The consumer must choose

    Medical and scientific associations and consumer bodies are calling for international legislation and advise caution with the use of the products whose origin is unclear.


    A study published in the prestigious PlosOne journal which analysed the composition of several "natural" products, has shown how some contain very high levels of toxic metals for our body (especially those from China). Content in these hazardous substances would be above legislation limits (in this case, those corresponding to the USA).


    So, for the consumer it is important to read the labels to find out what substances a cosmetic products contains and to choose products that have been more thoroughly tested. And, it goes without saying, better to purchase from a recognized establishment or through a trusted website than to buy cheap, unknown brands through untrustworthy Internet sites.