I have a few bugbears about the beauty industry. Natural skincare is up there in the top three. To be fair, my issue is more to do with the ‘greenwashing’ that brands use to market their products under the guise that just by virtue of being natural, they’ll be good for your skin. It’s lazy and misleading. Lazy, because a lot of brands rely on a natural claim and that alone to justify why consumers should buy their product, and misleading because it simply isn’t true that because something is natural, it’s automatically good for you.
When ‘natural’ isn’t always good
Mushrooms are natural. Should you go to a forest, pick one and eat it? No, because it might be poisonous and kill you. The sun is natural, but if you lie out in it with no sun protection, you’ll burn your skin and potentially risk skin cancer in the future. And while I am a great believer in the soothing power of aromatherapy, we know that many essential oils are incredibly irritating to the skin and can easily trigger contact reactions. I had eczema throughout my childhood and still get flare-ups as an adult.
What natural products can do to my skin
The worst skin reaction I’ve ever had – and bearing in mind that it’s my job to do all sorts of things to my face and try all manner of products on my skin – was full-body allergic hives from an oil used in an aromatherapy massage. Not retinoids, chemical peels or the high-strength anaesthetic creams applied before tweakments that require numbing. But a ‘natural’ substance – i.e., something derived directly from a plant and left pretty much unchanged.
What does ‘natural’ really mean?
No matter how virtuous an ingredient’s origin, by the time most plant-derived substances end up packaged in a skincare product the process they’ve been through is about as far from natural as you can get. A natural ingredient needs chemical processing to make it stable (so the compound doesn’t change) and absorbable (so it can actually get to where it needs to be in the skin). At this point, it becomes lab-engineered anyway. But a brand can still whack a ‘natural’ label on it along with some spiel about how it’s good for you and good for the earth.
Which skincare ingredients have the most effect?
Skin is such a hugely complex organ, and the reality is that nothing ‘all natural’ can take complete and total care of it – that’s if you want it to look its absolute best. In order to smooth uneven texture, fade pigmentation, unclog pores, fill wrinkles, tighten laxity and everything else we want to do, we need smart, expertly formulated products supported by robust data and containing active ingredients that are engineered by skincare scientists. And to be clear, it is possible that a plant-derived ingredient can be harnessed in this way – like the fruit enzymes that make effective exfoliators and beautifully nourishing natural-origin oils and body butters. But you’re not going to get anywhere with your skin if you rely exclusively on natural and shun anything you deem ‘chemical’ (by the way, water is a chemical).
Yes, there are natural extracts that I love
Now, what I do have a lot of time for are products that take a natural extract that has been well-researched in terms of its benefits to the skin, support it with synergistic synthetic ingredients and harness it in an elegantly formulated product. Maysama is a case in point – its Green Rooibos Pressed Serum combines green tea extract with niacinamide and lots of humectants for a brilliant antioxidant serum. Its pH has been engineered to be neutral, it doesn’t contain any essential oils, fragrance or known EU allergens, and the efficacy of green rooibos is backed up by solid data.
Unless you’re slicing open the leaf of an aloe vera plant and smoothing its sticky gel onto your skin, just consider if you think a brand is really justified in selling a product to you under the guise of how pure or natural it is. It may contain some ingredients that originated from the Earth, but so do cigarettes…
The Tweakments Guide Takeaway
Natural extracts in skincare can be brilliant – but they can also be allergenic and their claims are often overstated. Approach with caution and don't be scared of synthetic ingredients – they're the best route to great skin.
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