Are natural beauty and personal care products as effective as the more traditional formulas? Learn what ingredients to look for.
Everywhere we turn, we’re bombarded with advertisements discussing “clean” or “natural” personal care products like skin care, shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant. Given the volume of harmful ingredients in many personal care products, we have reason to be more cautious when we make product choices.
One of the major concerns when people consider switching to “natural” personal care products is their efficacy. If you’ve been using the same deodorant for the better part of a decade, the idea of switching to a new brand may feel a little risky.
There are a lot of misconceptions about natural personal care products. Here’s what going “clean” means for beauty and hygiene products, how the active ingredients differ, and whether or not they’re effective.
The Case for Clean Personal Care Products
As people become more aware of the ingredients in their personal care products, they’re becoming pickier about what’s in them. Sulfates and parabens are in nearly everything, and research is beginning to tell us that while some are safer (such as sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS), others are not (such as sodium laureth sulfate, or SLES).
One of the more pressing matters is the number of chemicals in the products that we slather all over our skin. It only takes about 30 seconds for the skin to absorb whatever has been smeared across it — sunscreen, lotion, face wash, etc. The good, the bad, and the ugly can all be absorbed in a matter of seconds.
Because some ingredients have been identified as endocrine disruptors (such as BPA, parabens and phthalates), demand has been strong enough for companies to create product lines that do not include such ingredients. However, many still do, so it’s important to read the labels carefully. To that end, Rebekah Jasso Jensen, Founder and CEO of Sanara, says she looks for ingredients she can easily look up if she’s unfamiliar. “I love when brands mention the English word along with the INCI (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient).”
Looking up the ingredients in your natural personal care products is easier than you might think — you don’t need to sift through multiple results pages in Google to make a determination. The Environmental Working Group has an excellent database with a search function that lets you look up any ingredient to determine how safe or dangerous it may be. Using this resource yourself — and encouraging your patients to use it — can be a step in the right direction for choosing safer personal care.
“I think it's important to be aware of the ingredients in your products and try to minimize your use of chemicals or ingredients known to cause harm,” says Dr. Erin Stair, MD, MPH, founder of Blooming Wellness. However, she cautions against people becoming too obsessed with every single ingredient.
Stair believes in being prudent without becoming paranoid .“The truth is, as long as we're alive, there's no such thing as 100% clean living or 100% toxin free — those are myths. Anything could be toxic at a certain threshold. Balance and moderation are key. Yes, try to minimize your use of known, harmful chemicals, but also remember that in most cases, the toxicity is in the dose.”
The Environmental Factor
In addition to going “clean” for health reasons, another large reason to consider switching to clean beauty products is the effect they have on the environment.
Products like microbeads have been banned due to their negative impact on natural bodies of water — the filters used to clean water before it enters our lakes and oceans often miss these tiny beads, which means they have the potential to become fish food. Microbeads are synthetic plastic and cannot be digested, so if a fish eats too many, it could die.
However, the negative effects of microbeads don’t stop with marine life. Researchers studying the effects of microplastics in humans stated that “preliminary research has demonstrated several potentially concerning impacts, including enhanced inflammatory response, size-related toxicity of plastic particles, chemical transfer of adsorbed chemical pollutants, and disruption of the gut microbiome.”
Furthermore, some data suggests that nanoparticles can be harmful in a number of use cases — even in products like sunscreens made of clean ingredients (like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). Therefore, choosing products that do not use nanoparticle delivery systems may be wise.
Do Clean Personal Care Products Actually Work?
According to Jensen, the short answer to whether or not natural or clean personal care products “work” as well as more traditional formulas is “yes — they absolutely work as well,” but she also points out that time and age are important factors. Specifically, the younger you start, the better off you’ll be. You can’t expect a product to be as effective if you’re starting in your 30s as opposed to your 20s. This is the case regardless of whether or not you’re purchasing natural personal care items.
Sometimes it’s easier to focus on one thing at a time — switch to a clean deodorant, then look into soap, body lotion, hair care, toothpaste, etc. To that end, let’s talk about how the ingredients in some clean beauty and personal care products differ from their traditional counterparts.
“Clean” deodorant typically does not include aluminum, which is an active ingredient in antiperspirants. Antiperspirants work because the aluminum plugs sweat glands to reduce wetness — a desirable effect for people who have concerns about sweating. However, the aluminum is absorbed into the skin, and therein lies the concern among the medical community. Because aluminum is a neurotoxin and its structure is highly biologically reactive, aluminum is “uniquely equipped to do damage to essential cellular (neuronal) biochemistry.”
Regular deodorant does not contain aluminum (regardless of whether it is “clean” or “natural”), but rather relies on ingredients that will maintain freshness and protect against odors.
Common ingredients in natural deodorants include tapioca starch, baking soda, coconut oil, shea butter, cyclodextrin, magnesium hydroxide, probiotics, glycerin, and sodium stearate. They also usually have essential oils for fragrance, and also to kill bacteria. The simplest natural deodorant contains just natural mineral salts. Salt kills bacteria and thus prevents odor.
There is a lot of debate about sulfates in hair care products. Sulfates help break down dirt and oil — something that sounds like a pretty good idea in hair care. However, hair needs the natural oils our body creates. To some degree, we don’t want to wash it all away.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is often found in shampoo (as well as hand soap) because it creates bubbles, which makes people “feel” like it’s cleaning, but lather is not necessary to clean a surface.
At the very minimum, sulfates can be irritants for people with sensitive skin. Additional complications with sulfates include dryness of both scalp and hair, which can lead to flaking and breakage (since the sulfates are removing oils), so people who already have dry, frizzy, fragile or chemically treated hair want to avoid sulfates. In addition, sulfates strip out hair dyes, causing your expensive new color to fade.
Common clean hair care ingredients include some sort of base oil (such as coconut, avocado, or jojoba), herbs, leaf extracts, essential oils, and sometimes, apple cider vinegar.
On an average day, we use multiple products on our skin — soap, lotions, makeup, creams, etc. Given how quickly these products are absorbed into our skin (and then entering our bloodstreams), it’s important that we’re picky about the ingredients in these items.
“The most common allergens in personal care products are fragrance and preservatives. Minimize exposure to those,” says Dr. Cynthia Bailey, MD, FAAD. “Yes, you can still use targeted products that blend scientific technology for a given purpose, such as acne treatment, anti-aging skin care, oven cleaning etc., but for the majority of what you expose your skin, lungs and the local aquatic environment to — go chemical free and hypoallergenic.”
Common clean skin care ingredients include base oils (such as aragon, coconut, avocado, etc), shea butter, aloe, quinoa (yes, the protein-rich grain), seaweed, matcha, apple cider vinegar, bentonite clay (in masks, typically), cetearyl alcohol, charcoal, L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and turmeric.
Natural toothpaste is highly effective and can be less irritating on enamel and gums than some name brands, especially for those with allergies and sensitivity reactions to the chemicals in drug store toothpaste. Natural toothpaste reduces exposure to toxic chemicals (which are readily absorbed by the mucosal membranes of the mouth), and come in varieties that both include fluoride and some that do not so that customers can choose for themselves.
They often contain xylitol, which has anti-cavity activity and neem, tea tree and other antimicrobial essential oils to manage decay causing bacteria. Many people prefer to use natural fluoride free toothpaste for small children so they don’t ingest the chemicals and flouride. Also many adults choose fluoride-free toothpaste, especially if they have fluoridated water.
Max Harland, founder and CEO of Dentaly.org says that switching over to more sustainable types of dental floss is also important when switching to natural personal care products. “Traditional string floss is plastic-based and therefore not biodegradable. It may not seem like much, but think about how much you throw away each year. If it ends up in the ocean it can be extremely damaging to marine life, too.”
Harland says that the main purpose of floss is “to physically scrape plaque off your teeth” and there are plenty of materials suited for this purpose. “There are many effective alternatives to traditional dental floss which are plastic-free and biodegradable. They can be made from bamboo, silk, or corn fibers. The important thing is to floss at least once a day."
Bug repellent is one area in which people have become increasingly concerned about potentially harmful active ingredients. DEET is widely considered to be the most effective bug repellent available, but it doesn’t come without risks. In large amounts, DEET can be harmful to humans, animals, and the ecosystem.
While DEET is considered safe when used as directed, there are natural alternatives available if you’d like to avoid the issue entirely. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of minimum risk pesticides that includes ingredients like cedarwood, citronella, lemon eucalyptus, thyme, and spearmint oils. Emerson Ecologics has plenty of natural bug repellent options available that contain these minimum risk active ingredients.
Another important personal care product that you should prioritize to be “clean” is sunscreen. There are essentially two different types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral (natural). While chemical sunscreens use these ingredients to filter the sun away from skin, mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide to protect the skin without being absorbed.
While you may not use sunscreen year-round (though perhaps you should) people tend to use a lot of it in the summer months, which will cause your skin to absorb a significant amount of chemicals in a short period of time. Sun safety doesn’t have to be laden with potentially harmful chemicals. Instead, look for mineral sunscreens that use zinc and/or titanium oxide.
What Does “Natural” Really Mean?
Generally speaking, “natural” is a very broad term that can mean nearly anything. Remember that not all “natural” ingredients are good for you. For example, arsenic is a naturally occurring substance — but it’s also deadly.
The best course of action in determining whether a “natural” product is of good quality is to read the ingredient label and research the products you’re not familiar with in the EWG Skin Deep® database. This will help you determine how safe or dangerous a particular ingredient may be.
A good rule of thumb is that the fewer ingredients in a given product, the better. Products with fewer chemicals and more wholesome ingredients you can identify will always be better for your body (whether inside or out).