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Why Natural Beauty Ingredients Aren’t Always Safe & How to Know the Difference

Things that come from nature are always better and safer, since Mother Earth knows best, right? As an environmentalist and unapologetic advocate for consumer safety, I want to tackle an interesting and misguided consumer trend that’s been taking hold of the beauty industry: “natural”.

While it’s safe to say that many ingredients that come from nature are safe to use, but the honest truth is there are many more that aren’t as safe as we may think. This principle is also the drive behind the industry’s newest term “clean” which while undefined is addressing the fact that natural doesn’t always equal safe.

The history of synthetic chemicals and ingredients isn’t pretty. When we think of “man made” chemicals, we have flashbacks to many synthetically derived ingredients linked to health impacts, like cancer. But answering the question about what makes a chemical safe, or safer, is really where we are going to shift the beauty industry.

Gone are the days where synthetic ingredients are only harmful, in fact, synthetic ingredients may hold the key to the safest ingredients used in the beauty industry moving forward. And the more I can share with you about how to be mindful of which natural ingredients are actually safe, you can make more informed decisions. So let’s start, shall we?

Natural Pigments & Heavy Metals

I want “natural” makeup. Ok, so what does that phrase mean? You’re sending a signal to manufacturers that you don’t want any synthetic colorants in the makeup you use on your skin, and instead to use those that come from the ground or plants. The problem with many natural colorants is that they have much higher levels of heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and arsenic, than their synthetic, lab-made counterparts.

Here’s why, heavy metals are naturally occurring in the Earth. They distribute themselves in the ground and when we go to mine them or dig them up to be crushed and added to our makeup, we run the risk of exposing ourselves to high levels of heavy metals. This is the dirty little secret people don’t want to tell you about the natural beauty industry.

Most companies are not actively testing for heavy metals, or setting their own health protective standards. Most companies instead are relying on certificates from their suppliers that show they are within compliance of the industry standard, which is 10 ppm lead. The issue of heavy metals is nearly unavoidable (more on that here) for any company who wants to make cosmetics, but you can certainly make products that are significantly safer!

What to look for: Beauty brands that use a blend of natural and synthetic colorants and screen both for safety, regardless of if they come from the Earth or a lab. Synthetic colorants must be carefully screened for their own set of health screening and companies must actively test for and try to reduce heavy metal exposure. Shop with brands who actively test for heavy metals and have set standards below current industry guidance.


Formaldehyde, is a known human carcinogen, and can be both naturally occurring (in foods like apples, pears, certain meats etc.) and synthetically derived. For more information on formaldehyde that is naturally occurring in food, check out this graph by the Center for Food Safety.

What to look for: Shop the market for beauty products that do not actively formulate with formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing agents (a blend of chemicals added to products to create a formaldehyde preservative in the product).

Avoid the following ingredients:

Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are seen as the cure for everything and of course they can smell delicious. But aside from the rampant issues with quality and transparency in the essential oil industry, many essential oils are known allergens (most are allergens at some level), can be caustic to the skin, or even impact some of our healthy functioning systems. For example, some citrus oils can be used safely, but if formulated with at a high level will irritate and in some cases burn people’s skin.

What to look for: Beauty brands that look at essential oils with the same scrutiny that they look at other fragrances. And of course, those who disclose all fragrance ingredients, essential oils or otherwise!

Confused? Don’t believe me? Write a comment below and we can continue this important conversation about better, safer beauty.

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