The Truth about Natural Skin Care and What you NEED to Know

Imagine your morning routine. You wake up, probably before you're ready. You drink some coffee or tea, take a shower, maybe apply some makeup or sunscreen, and prepare to face all the dangers and challenges of the world outside your door.

What you probably don't realize is that, by the time you open that door, you've already been exposed to more than 100 chemicals. That's the reality for the average person, at least. And while the chemicals that are in your skin care products might now be considered safe, you don't know what future research will reveal. That's why so many people today are looking for products made from natural ingredients.

Natural Skin Care: The Basics

With all the choices on your store shelves and the sheer amount of confusing information available about natural skin care, it can be hard to keep everything straight.

The FDA and Skin Care

Before you shop for skin care products, it's important to realize the role of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. While we trust that the foods available in our local stores have been verified to be safe for consumption, we can't always trust that our cosmetics (which include skin care products) are safe. That's because the FDA does not have to approve cosmetics before they can be sold.

The FDA does require that manufacturers accurately label all ingredients in cosmetics, and it's illegal to make cosmetics containing any ingredient that is known to be harmful when used according to directions. But while the FDA has banned ingredients that have been proven to cause cancer and other harmful reactions, such as chloroform and methylene chloride, research into product safety is ongoing. In short, the chemicals that are in your products may be legally safe to use because they haven't yet been definitively proven to be unsafe. And, of course, you may still be sensitive or even allergic to ingredients that the FDA allows.

The Meaning of "Natural"

"Natural" simply means "derived from products that occur in nature." But again, the FDA has not defined the term "natural" and has not established a regulatory definition for this term in cosmetic labeling. So a manufacturer might make a moisturizer using coconut oil, honey and seven chemicals, and still call it natural. That's why it's the job of the consumer to do some research before using a product.

Some manufacturers use products that are derived from nature, but process them in ways that change their organic structure or otherwise strip them of their natural benefits.

"Organic" and "Hypoallergenic"

If you're concerned about natural skin care, you're probably interested in products that are organic too. That means that the ingredients in the product were made without pesticides and other certain dangerous chemicals, and that the manufacturers didn't use certain methods such as genetic engineering and ionizing radiation. Again, the FDA doesn't regulate the use of the word "organic" to advertise cosmetics. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does get involved here.

The USDA certifies products organic if the products meet certain standards. A product can be labeled "100 percent organic" if it's made with completely organic ingredients. Products made with 95 percent organic ingredients can be labeled "organic," and those made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients can be labeled "made with organic ingredients."

By contrast, "hypoallergenic" doesn't have any real meaning. The use of this label isn't regulated, so anyone can use it.

Choosing Products

With so many terms and regulations, and so many products on the market, choosing skin care products that are truly healthy for your skin can be daunting. Get very acquainted with reading ingredient lists.

How to Compare Ingredients

Generally speaking, the more recognizable and easy-to-pronounce a product's ingredients are, the better.

When you find a natural product that seems promising or comes highly recommended by a friend or skin care professional, you can do a little research to find out more about its ingredients. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a great place to start. Enter a specific product name to get a full report of its toxicity levels. Alternately, research the specific ingredients in the products you're considering. You can enter single ingredients into the EWG's database.

Ingredients to Avoid

Skin care and public health experts warn consumers against certain ingredients, even though they may be legal. The EWG recommends avoiding products meant for daytime use if they include retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinoic acid and retinol. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition made up of several public health advocacy groups, also has a list of what it calls "Chemicals of Concern." They include homosalate, octinoxate, phthalates, parabens, hydroquinone and fragrance.

Finding the Right Products

These are only general guidelines, and everyone's skin is different. A product could be made with 100 percent organic ingredients that are derived from natural and minimally processed sources, and it could still make you break out or not meet your skin care needs.

Do a spot test of any new product before applying it to your face or all over. The American Academy of Dermatology advises dabbing the product on a spot on your inner forearm twice a day for four to five days. If you don't experience any redness, rash, pain or itching, applying the product to your face or body probably won't cause sensitivity.