I've noticed a definite trend in the last five years. More and more of my patients with sensitive skin and eczema are reporting that they've turned to "natural" products to try to help their skin. I tell them to stop.
You cannot rely on the term "natural". It might seem as though this one word on the label would be an easy shortcut to identifying good products, but it doesn't work that way. Just because something says it's "natural", it doesn't automatically mean that it will be good for your skin.
1. There's no FDA definition of this term. It's used for marketing purposes.
2. A product can truly be derived from nature and still be bad for your skin.
3. Many "natural" products, especially liquid cleansers or those in a lotion or cream form, must still contain preservatives to prevent the overgrowth of bacteria and mold. Some of these preservatives can trigger allergic reactions.
Here's more information:
1. There is no FDA definition of the term "natural" on skin care products. Just as in the food industry, the skin care industry has turned to certain labeling terms and uses them for marketing purposes. I've noticed that many people see the term "natural" on a label and then make the assumption that the product is safer and better, especially if they have sensitive skin.
That is simply not the case.
Think about it this way. Who decides what ingredients and chemicals go into a "natural" product? If there's no FDA definition, then the manufacturer gets to decide. And the ingredients that they choose may not always be the best for those with sensitive skin.
As I tell my patients with eczema and sensitive skin: you can't just rely on a marketing term on the label. Every skin care product you use has to be evaluated on its own merits.
2. Just because it's from nature, it doesn't mean it's good for your skin. I have two words for you: Poison. Ivy.
Certain natural ingredients have gained in popularity in recent years, and I'm seeing them used in alarming ways.
I've had patients ask me about a particular facial lotion that's marketed for persons with rosacea and sensitive skin. This lotion contains an ingredient called oil of bergamot. Oil of bergamot is an essential oil, derived from a plant, so it is indeed a natural ingredient. It's also notorious for triggering allergic reactions. Search for "berloque dermatitis", and you'll see lots of examples of allergic reactions to this ingredient used in perfumes.
This particular ingredient should never be applied to the face, and I was shocked to see it in a product marketed for persons with sensitive skin.
I've seen reactions to many other essential oils. In fact, I see so many that I often test to sandalwood oil, ylang ylang oil, tea tree oil, oil of cloves, and derivatives of cinnamon--all of which are natural substances that may trigger allergic reactions.
A hand wash advertising "natural" on the label
Label advertising "no synthetic fragrances"
But natural fragrances such as ylang ylang oil may still trigger allergic skin reactions
3. Lotions and creams and liquid cleansers, even if they're derived from natural ingredients, can still go bad. Preservatives must be added to prevent the overgrowth of bacteria and molds. Some of these preservatives can trigger allergic reactions.
I'm seeing an epidemic of allergic reactions to a chemical called methylisothiazolinone. I've seen so many reactions to this preservative that I now recommend full avoidance of it for my patients with sensitive skin. (Link here for an ABC News interview on this topic.) Despite this, there are plenty of natural products that still make use of this chemical.
A "natural" dish liquid
But still use caution, as methylisothiazolinone is a preservative that may trigger allergic reactions
What conclusion can you draw? You can't rely on the one word "natural" to evaluate a product. If you have eczema or sensitive skin, ask for expert recommendations. Some natural products are definitely great for your skin, but not every all-natural product is the same. This is a very large category (how many plants are there in the world?), and you cannot assume that all of them have the same effect on the skin. Here's a condensed version of my recommendations on natural ingredients. All-natural ingredients that tend to be safe for people with sensitive skin: (disclaimer: notice I said "tend to be safe". That's because I've seen allergic reactions to even some of these. Although it's rare, I've had a handful of patients allergic to coconut oil, for example.) Coconut oil Olive oil Safflower seed oil
All-natural ingredients I do NOT recommend (in persons with sensitive skin): Balsam of Peru
Eugenol (oil of cloves) Isoeugenol
Lavender oil Oil of bergamot Sandalwood oil
Tea tree oil Ylang ylang oil
Dr. Rajani Katta is the author of Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. To receive future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.