What Natural Skincare Really Means

Natural skincare is a popular beauty trend these days. We need to define what natural skincare means and what beliefs make one jump on the bandwagon.

So, what is “natural” skincare? This term generally refers to skincare products that contain ingredients derived from plants and botanicals (fruits, flowers, vegetables), legumes, nuts, roots, oils, herbs, and spices. Natural skincare also implies that the product is free of chemicals synthesized in the lab. Furthermore, they are generally free of chemical preservatives (ie parabens) that are usually added to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination and maintain integrity of the product. Does natural mean healthier, superior efficacy, less irritating, less harmful? NO.
There is no data demonstrating that natural skincare is superior or safer than chemically synthesized counterparts. There have been safety concerns that synthetic chemicals are cancer-causing and endocrine disrupters, and thus natural skincare avoids these risks. However, there is no scientific basis for these claims. Additionally, natural skincare products are plant and botanically based, and the derived ingredients are common culprits for allergic and irritant contact dermatitis. These skin reactions often don’t manifest on day 1 of application, but weeks to months later. Therefore, the culprit skincare product is often not suspected as cause for the rash.

Furthermore, these products are not FDA regulated, and there is no set criteria for a product to qualify as natural skincare. There is no reassurance that consumers are truly buying skincare that is all natural vs only a small portion that is natural. Therefore, consumers need to critique and choose their brands wisely.

For consumers pursuing the natural route, I encourage you not to get swooned by the words natural and or organic, but rather scrutinize the ingredients on the bottle (assuming they are listed!). Investigate the active ingredients and find out their particular function. Individuals with sensitive skin should avoid products with ingredients that more commonly cause allergic or irritant contact dermatitis such as tea tree oil, ylang-ylang oil, lemongrass oil, lemon, balsam of peru, amongst many others.

If natural is hands down the route for you, then you won’t be using topical tretinoin, which is the number one ingredient at the heart of every dermatologist’s anti-aging skincare regimen. A relatively new alternative is bakuchiol, which is a molecule derived from the seeds of the plant Psoralea corylifolia. This molecule bears no structural resemblance to retinol; however, it exhibits a similar functionality to retinol because it has been found to have a retinol-like regulation of gene expression. In other words, it turns on and off genes like retinol does. In 2018, Dhaliwal et al. published results of a randomized, double-blind study with 44 patients receiving either bakuchiol 0.5% cream twice daily or retinol 0.5% cream daily for 12 weeks. Bakuchiol had comparable efficacy to retinol in terms of improving photoaging (wrinkles, dark spots, elasticity, firmness). The kicker is that bakuchiol was better tolerated than retinoids, which are known to cause a lot of skin irritation. While the data is still limited, bakuchiol may become an increasingly popular product amongst those who prefer natural products and even those who can’t tolerate retinoids.

So what is my personal preference? I am going to stick with my topical tretinoin for now and my current skincare regimen, much of which is synthesized in the laboratory. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, and my skincare has been working well for me. However, I am all about sampling new ingredients and products, exploring the unknown, and experimenting. And who knows what the future holds for me. This brief article is in no way intended to discourage use of natural products. There truly are some amazing natural products out there. My goal is to share knowledge to aid my patients and readers in making the best decisions for themselves to create their most healthy skin.