'Organic,' 'Natural': What do these terms mean?
Use of the terms organic and natural mean different things to different people and different cosmetic companies. The FDA does not define or regulate these terms, so people are free to use them as they wish.
“There are some brands out there that call themselves natural that have chemicals. Having one natural ingredient doesn’t make it a natural product,” Ms. Foster says.
Dr. Lupo says “natural” does not mean low allergenicity or more effectiveness.
“It simply means, in most cases, that the active ingredient is found in nature (a plant, usually),” she says.
It’s not so much what natural and organic mean, but, rather, what they imply.
“There is this overall trend that what’s good in your diet can easily be translated to skincare, and that includes organic or natural skincare lines, non-GMO, which stands for genetically modified, as well as gluten-free,” Dr. Friedman says.
The idea, he says, is that anything that is synthetic is not good. But that doesn’t make sense, according to Dr. Friedman.
“Antioxidants, which most of these skincare lines have, are highly unstable as well as have difficulty penetrating the skin. They need ingredients to stabilize them and surfactants to help them get to where they need to go. And what about preserving them from bacterial contamination? Some skincare lines that follow the paleo diet mentality are pretty much throwing chopped fruit and proteins into a jar. That’s not going to last more than a couple of days before it gets colonized with bacteria or fungi,” Dr. Friedman says.
The biology of the gastrointestinal tract is different than that of the skin, Dr. Friedman says. Though the cell types are somewhat similar, the architecture and immune environment are different.
“While there is no question (there is) a skin-gut connection with respect to health, it’s really a poor comparison when considering interactions with topically applied or ingested materials,” he says.
That’s what makes the topical gluten-free fad curious, according to Dr. Friedman.
In cosmetics, Triticum vulgare (wheat) gluten can be found in mascaras and skincare and haircare products. Gluten functions as a binder or a hair and skin conditioning agent. It may appear as hydrolyzed wheat gluten, Triticum vulgare (wheat) gluten, and Triticum vulgare (wheat) gluten extract on the label, all of which are huge wheat proteins. These can’t get through even an impaired skin barrier. And there have been studies in celiac patients who used a shampoo with wheat gluten extract, according to Dr. Friedman.
“So unless the consumer is eating the product, the likelihood of gluten sensitivity or inducing a flair of celiac disease is next to none,” he says.
To assume natural and organic equal safety in skincare is unfortunate, Dr. Friedman says.
“There are toxic substances on the planet that are ‘organic.’ Aflatoxin, which is derived from fungi found on peanuts, is the most carcinogenic material on the planet. Anthrax is organic. … bloodroot, an ingredient found in online moles and skin tag removal creams is an extraordinary escharotic agent. It burns right through your skin like acid,” says Dr. Friedman, who wrote a paper on the topic, published June 2012 in Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.
Poison ivy is natural, but people definitely don’t want to apply it to the skin, Dr. Levin says. The dermatologist says she tries to steer patients away from products with tea tree oil.
“I know it has antimicrobial benefits and it has a really nice cooling sensation on the skin, however there is a really high incidence of irritant in patients that use tea tree oil,” Dr. Levin says. “When people ask for an all-natural product, I do try to explain that natural ingredients can be toxic, as well, or cause irritation and allergic reaction. Then, I try and replace that with a recommendation that would be the best for their skin.”