When natural and organic skincare first appeared on the scene, I was skeptical. (Yes, I’m considered to be an OG of beauty blogging now; I’ve been doing this for one site or another since 2007! But I digress.) At the time, natural and organic skincare just seemed to be overhyped, another trend like oxygen masks or sugar scrubs or DIY skincare.
But natural and organic skincare has stood the test of time. The natural skincare market is expected to grow from about $4 billion in 2019 to $7 billion in 2024 (Statista). Now, considering that the overall skincare market is about $120 billion (source), that’s still a measly 5% — but still enough to merit a second look, especially when Gen Z is more attuned to buying natural, organic, and “safe” skincare.
So here are the three questions I always ask when evaluating a natural or organic skincare product.
Question #1: Are Effective Concentrations of the Ingredients Established?
My biggest issue with natural and organic skincare is that most of the ingredients used don’t have established concentrations that are proven in scientific literature to be effective.
For instance, with synthetic ingredients, we know that the following ingredient concentrations work from the scientific literature:
- Vitamin C as L-ascorbic acid – 15% or higher (Dermatologic Surgery)
- Vitamin E as tocopherol – 2% or higher (Free Radical Biology and Medicine)
- Retinol – 0.5% or higher (Journal of Drugs in Dermatology)
- Salicylic acid – 2% or higher (British Journal of Dermatology)
- Glycolic acid – 15% or higher (Dermatologic Surgery)
And, yes, some of the above ingredients can also be naturally-sourced, in which case, the same percentages/concentrations apply.
But when it comes to skincare ingredients found most of the time only in natural skincare products, like bakuchiol, sea buckthorn oil, and turmeric, efficacy data is harder to come by, and brands aren’t exactly selling “All-Natural Bakuchiol 5%” or “Sea Buckthorn 10%” like they are retinol or vitamin C.
With that said, if I’m looking for the most efficacious products, I try to be sure the efficacious ingredients are listed towards the top of the ingredients list. I also keep in mind that any ingredients at 1% or lower can be listed in any order in the United States, so an ingredient listed towards (but not at) the bottom half of an ingredients list could be at just 0.00002% and truly dead last in terms of concentration.
I also try to stay on top of the known data for natural skincare products. While I don’t exclusively use natural skincare, I do like to stay on top of the new studies. For instance, bakuchiol has shown to have effects at concentrations as low as 0.05% (Clinical Cosmetic Investigations in Dermatology), which is great, because many of the bakuchiol products I’ve looked at seem to have 2% or less of the ingredient.
Question #2: Do The Ingredients Come From a Trustworthy Source?
This can be a really tricky question for a skincare consumer to answer. I’ve consulted with skincare companies, and, truth be told, even on the production and manufacturing side, it’s difficult to know which suppliers are providing pure ingredients.
What’s even trickier with natural skincare is that the ingredients differ considerably based on when and where they are sourced. For instance, vitamin C is about 2x higher in fruits and vegetables when they are in-season versus when they are not (Journal of Science and Food Agriculture). But in natural skincare products, the ingredients aren’t checked for efficacy or purity, and certainly not with the same level of scrutiny as synthetic ingredients. This is industry-wide knowledge that isn’t often talked about in the beauty marketplace, and few consumers know it. (I’m also not selling skincare products anymore, nor do I have any intention to, so I honestly don’t have reason to say this other than to be honest and inform).
Question #3: Is There a Better Synthetic Alternative?
There are several debates online about whether or not it’s better to use natural or synthetic ingredients in skincare. Those in favor of natural ingredients tend to say that a superior skincare ingredient is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, the antioxidant content of an apple is 263x more potent than its vitamin C content alone (Beauty Detox Foods). There are ingredients like antioxidant polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals in trace amounts that synergistically make natural ingredient complexes more potent — at least arguably so.
On the other hand, there are skincare experts who argue that skincare is different from food, and that the skin cannot break down and absorb ingredients as well as the digestive tract. In the case of the skin, you want to use the most potent and concentrated forms of an ingredient (unfiltered, if you will), so the skin can get the maximal benefits. Truth be told, I tend to be on this side of the debate camp. I’ve found much better results using a potent 15% L-ascorbic acid and 2% vitamin E serum for decades than I have intermittently changing over to “natural” serums with less concentration of these ingredients.
Personally, even though the marketplace has come a long way, I don’t think there is enough research to justify using a skincare product with “natural” extracts versus pure, concentrated, potent forms of the ingredients that are synthetic. I just don’t.
However, if you’re dead set on using natural skincare products, I recommend using natural products that cite the concentrations of ingredients they use, such as 15% vitamin C or 0.5% retinol,. I also recommend using natural product lines that indicate they stand behind the sourcing of their ingredients, both in terms of timing and location, as the antioxidant activity and hence potency of ingredients can vary dramatically based on when and where they are sourced.