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By Cynthia Bailey MD.

Certified Organic Ingredients

How do you tell if a skin care product is really natural and non-toxic?

The Food and Drug Administration sets legal certification criteria for the term “organic”. Ingredients labeled organic must meet those criteria. There is no similar legal basis for the term “natural”, “nontoxic” or “plant-based”. Even “free of” is ambiguous.

Green washing and “natural” claims are trending because people want safer skin care choices than they had in the past. Other tricky terms are “free of synthetics”, “non-toxic” etc. yet,

Not every synthetic ingredient has harmful health impacts.

Even the Environmental Working Group states, 

there are many synthetic chemicals that have not been associated with health harms and that play an important role in personal care products.

The term “non-toxic” is also not necessarily helpful.

As EWG states,

Scientifically speaking, nothing is nontoxic. Even water, in large doses, can be harmful.

The same ambiguity applies to the term “hypoallergenic”.

As a physician, dermatologist, scientist and consumer, I have to use my education and judgement to decide how these terms apply to my skin care products – and all the personal care products that I recommend to my patients, and that I buy for myself and my family.

  • It’s not easy. I read labels, knowing that the first ingredients in any product are present in the highest amounts. Ingredients listed last are present in the least amounts.
  • I’ve treated allergic skin for years and use my knowledge of contact dermatitis to rate hypoallergenicity.
  • I use my education and experience in both science and medicine to make sense out of what is truly toxic and harmful to the health of humans and the planetary ecosystem.

I know that this is not a set of educational and professional experiences that everyone has. Here is how I have taught my patients and family to analyze products.

5 tips to tell if a product is really natural, healthy and a smart choice?

It starts by reading the ingredient lists.

1. Look for products with certified organic ingredients. This way, at least the ingredients were held to defined standards.

  • Look for the first ingredients to be organic.
  • Ideally, almost every ingredient should be organic. 
  • Know that some ingredients, such as water, minerals and clay can’t technically ever be labeled organic.

2. Avoid terms like “fragrance” which is fraught with ambiguity, toxic ingredients and allergens.

3. Pay attention to the preservative systems. Products need preservation or you’ll be dealing with rancidity and microbial contamination, but choose wisely. Very few natural preservatives work really well, so here is where you need to make judgment calls and weigh the pros and cons for each product. Preservative ingredients are typically at the end of the ingredient list. 

4. Avoid artificial colors and dyes, they can be allergens and are unnecessary.

5. Be very choosy about using essential oil essences that are common allergens, irritants and can cause phototoxic reactions to skin. That said, I still love some essential oils. So, when you really want to use them, be certain their inclusion in a formulation is at a low concentration that is most likely to fall under the concentration that will incite an allergic or irritant response. Some of the botanical essences to be careful with include:

  • Tea tree oil
  • Citrus
  • Ylang-ylang
  • Propolis
  • Peppermint oil
  • Lemongrass oil
  • Rosemary oil
  • Sandalwood

My products listed below are made with primarily certified organic ingredients. They are also made and/or scrutinized with my dermatologist’s and naturally-nelly science geek values and experience. Any essential oils are carefully selected and included to be present in low enough concentrations to be safe for most sensitive skin.

Preservatives, if included are also mindfully selected and included only if absolutely necessary to create product stability and a reasonable product shelf life for you.

About The Author
Cynthia Bailey, MD
Dr. Bailey Skin Care
(888) 467-0177
425 South Main St
Sebastopol, CA
95472 US