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What are ‘natural’ personal care products?


As you search for at-home, anti-aging skin care, you’ll come across a variety of skin care labels, such as “natural” and “organic.” What do they all mean?

Mary Duh P.A.-C, a Mayo Clinic physician assistant in dermatology in Onalaska, Wisconsin, breaks down the claims. Also, watch a video on the Mayo Clinic-developed SkinSafe smartphone app that rates products based on how safe they are for sensitive skin.


The term “natural” represents ingredients that are directly derived from nature and not created in a lab. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never legally defined the term and has no regulations on its use.

Sometimes natural ingredients are safer and better than synthetic alternatives. But many naturally occurring substances are not safe, and some are used as ingredients in personal care products. For example, clays may be contaminated with toxic heavy metals and certain additives can cause an allergic reaction.


The FDA regulates personal care products, but not the term “organic” for these products. Organic claims on cosmetics are regulated by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), but these regulations only apply to the agricultural ingredients used in personal care products.

The USDA allows two categories of certification to display its organic seal:

  • 100% organic. This certification indicates that a product contains only organically produced ingredients.
  • Organic. This certification signifies that at least 95% of a product’s ingredients are organically produced and the remaining percentage of ingredients are on an approved list of substances. If a manufacturer claims a product to be organic, but that product does not carry an official seal, the product may not meet USDA organic standards.

Free of synthetics

A synthetic ingredient is anything synthetically derived, and neither found nor harvested directly from nature. A number of synthetic chemicals have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and other harmful health effects.

Companies turn to synthetic versions of certain ingredients as a method of maintaining the safety and purity of their products. Synthetics ensure a product is always effective and identical each time it is made.


Hypoallergenic cosmetics are products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergic reactions than other cosmetic products. Consumers with hypersensitive skin, and even those with normal skin, may be led to believe that these products will be gentler to their skin than nonhypoallergenic cosmetics. However, no federal standards or definitions govern the use of the term “hypoallergenic.”

Ingredients to avoid include:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), found in lipsticks, moisturizes and some food items.
  • Coal tar dyes, which are used as a colorant in hair dye and often labeled as “P-phenylenediamine” or “CI” followed by a five-digit number.
  • Diethanolamine (DEA), used to make products sudsy. It can be found in cleansers, soaps and shampoos.
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a plasticizer found in nail polish.
  • Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, which are known carcinogens. They also may be labeled as “DMDM hydantoin,” “diazolidinyl urea,” “imidazolidinyl urea,” “methenamine,” “quaternium-15” and “sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.”
  • Parabens, which are found in many personal care products as a preservative. These are easily absorbed through the skin and are linked to a multitude of health risks, including cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.
  • Parfum or fragrance. According to the FDA, fragrance and flavors can be classified as a trade secret. Therefore, specific ingredients do not need to be disclosed on packaging.
  • Polyethlene glycols, or PEG compounds, which are used as thickeners in cream-based cosmetics. These compounds are synthetic chemicals that may be contaminated with a chemical identified as a probable carcinogen.
  • Petrolatum, which is also called mineral oil jelly, is used to lock in moisture on the skin. It often is contaminated by cancer-causing impurities.
  • Siloxanes, which are silicone-based compounds that can be found in cosmetics, deodorants, moisturizers, and facial treatments to soften, smoothe and moisten. Some compounds associated with siloxanes are toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative, and they interfere with hormone function.
  • Sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), which makes products sudsy and foamy. It can be found in cleansers, shampoos and shower gels. SLS can cause skin and eye irritation, and it is frequently contaminated with a known carcinogen.
  • Triclosan, which is an antibacterial agent. In 2016, the FDA banned triclosan from use in antibacterial soaps and hand washes, but it may still be found in other cosmetics including toothpaste, shave gel, deodorant, lotions and shampoo. Triclosan has been linked to hormone disruption and the emergence of bacteria-resistant superbugs.

To help consumers buy products that are safe, Mayo Clinic experts have developed the SkinSafe app. The experts have done all the label reading for you, so when you buy and apply your lotions and creams, you can be more certain that the ingredients are safe.

This article originally appeared on Mayo Clinic Health System.

Mary Duh, P.A.-C

Mary Duh is a physician assistant in dermatology at Mayo Clinic Health System branch in Onalaska, Wisconsin.

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