Is all-natural, organic skincare really best?

words by Harriet Chubb


Why are we so frightened of synthetic ingredients and how can we make our decisions about skincare, especially natural versus synthetic, when we do not feel fully informed as consumers?

What is one of the first things that you do when picking up a new moisturiser from the shelves? My guess is that you causally flip it around and glance, all at once intimidated and terrified at the mighty tome of unfathomable ingredients it lists. A habit we have most likely picked up from years of responsible food shopping, however, instead of reeling at the amount of sugar or gasping at the salt levels there is only a feeling of inferiority and blankness, for pathenol or butrospermum parkii mean nothing to us as consumers. (They mean Pro- Vitamin B5 and Shea Butter – good to know eh?).

We care as much, if not more, about what we put on our skin as we do what we eat so it is understandable why we want to put (what we deem to be) the most natural, organic ingredients possible on our skin. It feels like a sorry state of affairs however, that a growing number of us like to see what is not in a product rather than what is. Phrases such as ‘No Parabens’ or ‘No Silicones’ have become buzz-words in the natural and organic skincare industry and are what a supposedly increasingly savvy customer should look for in a skincare product. But why did such chemicals get a bad reputation and are we really better off without them?

Let’s go back over 70 years, sharp maroon lip liner and charcoal smudged smoky eyes were the latest beauty trends. Meanwhile parabens were being developed and subsequently revolutionised the beauty manufacturing process. They were formulated to stop fungus, bacteria and other nasties developing in your favourite foundation or coveted moisturiser; in fact parabens have been and still are the most widely used preservative in personal care products. It is only recently that a debate has formed between scientists and cosmetic manufacturers that investigates if parabens may be harmful to your skin. For example there have been studies showing that parabens can be present in cancerous tumours, but there is no proof that they have cause these cancerous cells. In 2004, Philippa Darbre, Senior Lecturer in Oncology at the University of Reading, conducted this test and found that 18 out of 20 samples of tissue from a breast cancer biopsy displayed parabens. Although this concludes that parabens are easily detected in cancerous cells, it did not prove that parabens cause or ‘encourage’ breast cancer to develop. In fact, the United States Food and Drug Administration, who house the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel have actively disagreed with this study, saying that parabens are ‘safe as used’ in cosmetics. Health Canada also agrees with this statement saying that “currently, there is no evidence to suggest a causal link between parabens and breast cancer”.  In 2008 further studies were carried out which proved that there is no actual scientific evidence found to support the direct causal link between parabens and cancer. Cosmetic Scientist for Alfa Chemicals, Jennifer Cargill, (who also used to work in-house developing ingredients for Neal’s Yard) states that, as a result, the “mainstream cosmetic industry still believes that parabens are safe based on their long term use and safety records, however as the link to parabens and breast cancer has been made, most companies prefer to show that they are listening to their customers and are using different preservative systems in their products”.

Skin Expert and Cosmetic Scientist, Pauline Hili, who is the founder of organic skincare range Nourish, also concludes that the “jury is out regarding the link between parabens and cancer”.  As Jennifer said, this doesn’t mean that companies haven’t been cautious about their use in light of this research, Pauline informed me, “there has been a strong lobby among consumer groups to apply the ‘Precautionary Principle’ and have them removed from products which has resulted in a dramatic fall in their use.  None of the global organic standards allow the use of parabens”.

The simple fact is that parabens are only ever used at entirely safe levels in cosmetics – to be precise, a level of 0.3 %. Personally, this sheer lack of evidence does not put me off using my favorite cleanser. In fact, there are currently discussions within cosmetic legislation that products will soon not be able to use the ‘Contains No …’ phrase, a step that could prove to be a positive move for the industry in quelling this unnecessary deep-rooted fear that customers have. I don’t use my moisturiser because it does or does not contain parabens, I use it because it works, it feels good and it’s rich in natural ingredients.

Let’s also take a quick look at silicones. Silicones are used in products because they impart a particular ‘silky’ feel to the skin that a lot of consumers like. Again certain friends of mine are intent on avoiding these slippery customers because they are not natural; but silicones do not readily cross the membrane barrier of the skin so therefore are never absorbed, making them a very safe range of ingredients. However, as they are derived from petroleum by-products they are not found in organic skincare and are prohibited by the Soil Association (the organic standard for cosmetics in the UK). Pauline divulged that “although they are beneficial in imparting a particular feel on the skin, unlike natural oils they do not provide any nutritional value such as vitamins and omega fatty acids”. They may not provide any active benefits, but they do help the product spread evenly across your skin and leave a nice, light, powdery finish which is why they are often used in make-up. Nothing natural, yet nothing to be afraid of.

To those Hip and Healthy paraben dodging, silicon-free readers, this is not a pro-chemical monologue, it is about you feeling informed regarding the entire skincare market, both natural and synthetic, enabling you to make your own decisions. Nevertheless, it would be rude of us not to tell you what natural ingredients you should be looking out for that have had the Hip and Healthy seal of approval from both Pauline and  Jennifer. It seems that sugar is currently making a come-back in the natural ingredients lists, not only because they are natural and they are mild for the skin, but they have a strong retention for water leaving you highly moisturised as well as providing those all important anti-aging properties. Jennifer advises to “look out for ingredients with sucrose in them and of course the widely used hyaluronic acid; both made from sugar”. In other natural news, Pauline suggests looking out for any “natural fragrances, natural tocopheral (Vitamin E to you and I) and natural vegetable derived glycerine” in your beauty products; effective natural ingredients.

Hip and Healthy Ingredient Translator:

Retinol Palmitate = Vitamin A

Tocopherol = Vitamin E

Asorbic acid/ascorbyl phosphate = Vitamin C

Panthenol = Pro Vitamin B5

Benzyl Alcohol = Actually a naturally occurring alcohol found in many essential oils which has preservative properties

Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol = These are often read as “alcohol” by the consumer when in fact there in no actual alcohol in them at all. They work as consistency agents in your moisturiser!

Hip and Healthy Top 5 Organic/Natural Skincare Brands

1.       Nourish – Possibly (we believe) the best organic skincare available on the market today. We wish all products told us in a clear, helpful percentage just how organic they are.

2.       Liz Earle – A Hip and Healthy favourite and the best example of the types of products written about above, this is one of Jennifer Cargill’s favourite brands also as they have a perfect balance of active, natural ingredients to synthetic ones such as silicones; “They use synthetic ingredients where they are affective and not just to bring costs down”.

3.       Neal’s Yard Remedies – They stay true to their brand with high quality ingredients, in fact their motto is, if an ingredient can be found organically they will use it.

4.       Pai Skincare – A fantastic new brand that Hip and Healthy jumped on as soon as they launched! They spend a long time researching their ingredients, so the products they put on the market are not only filled with ingredients they trust, each ingredient has a purpose in the product.

5.       A’Kin – For those who still feel intimidated by ingredients lists, A’Kin’s products all have the ‘plain English’ translation in brackets after the chemical – so you know exactly what you are buying.

One to Watch = Korres, a Greek brand which is fast becoming more well-known around the world. We are yet to test it but Jennifer assures us that “their products aren’t certified organic but they do contain a lot of natural ingredients in them, especially active ingredients which are unique to Greece where they have sourced them from collaborations with local farmers”.

Hip and Healthy would like to give special thanks to Pauline Hili from Nourish Skincare and Jennifer Cargill from Alfa Chemicals for their help with this article.