Natural skincare - the why, what and how

There is a lot of discussion around natural skincare, products and ingredients, how natural differs from synthetic and what constitutes a natural product. We talked to two industry insiders, natural cosmetics and holistic skin care expert Maria Varon (right) from the Pro Natural Cosmetics Association and Regulatory Affairs Manager Eeva-Mari Karine (left) from the Finnish Cosmetic and Detergent Association to hear their views on the subject.

1. Why is natural skincare growing in popularity?

Maria Varon: I think it's due to a larger phenomenon of holistic wellbeing. People want pure natural food and they would like to have their cosmetics in the same way. It’s a question of chemical awareness. We start to realize how chemicals act when they end up in our body and nature.

Eeva-Mari Karine: There are a number of reasons why the natural cosmetic market is growing. First, sustainability is a trend that is also reflected in the manufacturing and use of natural cosmetics. Consumers are, for example, more environmentally conscience. They are more aware of ingredients, including their origin and they are demanding “greener” products. Environmental awareness affects the demand for natural cosmetics, although natural cosmetics do not necessarily mean more environmentally friendly cosmetics. Also, the availability of natural ingredients has increased, making formulating products easier and thus affecting the volume increase of these products.

2. What is the difference between natural and synthetic cosmetics/skincare?
MV: In synthetic cosmetics you can use all the ingredients allowed by the cosmetics legislation (approximately 20 000), but in certified natural cosmetics there are much fewer ingredients that are allowed (approximately 2000-3000). From the skin’s point of view, our skin cells are able to recognize the natural fatty acids and polyphenols and other nutrients that are usually present in high quality natural cosmetics and therefore the skin can benefit from them. Skin cells or skin microbes cannot process synthetic silicone or highly processed ingredients and therefore skin is not able to benefit from them.

E-MK: The main difference is in the ingredients used. In natural cosmetics you can mainly use natural ingredients (there may be some exceptions, e.g. some synthetic preservatives may be allowed to use in natural cosmetics). In natural cosmetics the number of ingredients allowed is smaller than in synthetic cosmetics although the number of these ingredients has increased. In respect to efficacy,  all ingredients have the same requirements. The origin of an ingredient does not automatically say anything about its efficacy or the products efficacy. Regardless of origin, all possible efficacy claims must be verifiable.

3. How do you know if a product is natural?

MV: For the consumer, the easiest way is to look for a natural cosmetics certificate. And if the product doesn't have one, take a look at the INCI (ingredients list) and see if you can recognize all the ingredients. If there is something you are not sure if it's natural just ask the importer or manufacturer. You also always ask about fragrances, if they are natural or not.

E-MK: There is no official definition for natural cosmetics. The European Cosmetics regulation (EC/1223/2009) gives a definition for cosmetics in general and natural cosmetic products fall under this definition.

Usually, the term natural refers to a product in which the ingredients are derived from nature. For consumers it might sometimes be confusing to know which products really are natural as there is no official definition for it. One way to recognize a natural cosmetic product is to look for a natural cosmetic certificate, such as COSMOS or Ecocert, on a product. However, one should bear in mind that a certificate always costs money and companies may produce natural cosmetics although they do not have any certificate on their products.

Unfortunately, the INCI list of a product does not disclose origin of its ingredients. Some ingredients can be derived from nature or produced synthetically – regardless of their origin (if they are same ingredient) they have the same INCI name, such as glycerine.

4. What's the difference between organic and natural skin care?
MV: In organic cosmetics there are more organic ingredients and in natural cosmetics the ingredients can also be from regular farming.

E-MK: A natural ingredient is anything that is a plant, mineral or animal by-product. The word organic refers to raw materials produced by organic methods. Both products use natural ingredients, but the production methods vary.

There are ISO standards for raw materials for natural and organic cosmetics and for product specification (ISO 16128-2: 2017 and ISO 16128-1: 2016). In addition, there are several different natural and organic cosmetics certifications with slightly different requirements.

5. What to think about when changing to natural skin care (e.g. allergens)?

MV: Your skin will definitely start to act differently when you change your conventional skin care products to natural ones. It's because the skin usually gets more beneficial fatty acids and other nutrients that are attached to skin cell receptors. Usually the skin becomes more glowing and healthy-looking, but there might also occur some purification reactions at first, especially if the product is pumped with natural active ingredients. About allergies: it's very individual, what kind of cosmetic ingredients trigger the immune response and when the body is in a hyper sensitive state, it's beneficial to avoid many things that normally won’t do any harm. If this is the case, then you should use natural cosmetics that are suitable for sensitive skin. On the other hand, if you are allergic for example to synthetic fragrances you might be able to tolerate some natural scents. Or if you are allergic to synthetic preservatives you might still be able to use natural cosmetics. If you suspect you might be allergic to some product, do a test: apply a small amount of the product on the skin of your elbow crease (where the skin is thin) for a week or so. In this time, you will notice if the product is irritating your skin short or long term.

E-MK: One should always try to find suitable products for one’s own skin – both synthetic and natural product groups have excellent products! Consumers can find the best products for them by trying them. Concerning product safety, all cosmetics must be safe for the consumers. There are no differences in approaches for risk assessments between natural and synthetic ingredients. Every chemical, irrespective of its origin, must be toxicologically assessed first before any conclusions about its safe use are drawn.

Although cosmetics must be safe, this does not mean, for example, that one cannot be allergic to some of its ingredient. You can be allergic to a synthetic or a natural ingredient. For allergies, sometimes natural cosmetics are associated in public discussion to be safer but in fact, natural cosmetics may contain even more known allergens than synthetic ingredients. This is because natural ingredients are usually mixtures of substances of which the chemical structure and composition are unknown, and composition may vary depending on production batch. Natural ingredients also in many cases contain natural fragrances that can cause allergies. So, the “good guy/bad guy” concept of natural vs. synthetic cosmetic ingredients is obviously not based on scientific findings. All ingredients may cause allergies to some consumers.