Totally Natural Skincare – a Definition
A totally natural skincare product is generally considered to be ‘one comprised of natural ingredients – those produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man’. However, there is a lot of ‘greenwashing’ in this industry – products which are regulated e.g. the Cosmos Soil Association Accredited Natural Products have gone through a rigorous process to prove they are totally natural (right through from their packaging to the materials used to clean the equipment!), cruelty free, and can trace the provenence of the product right through to the natural material from which they derived.
So why use natural skin care? At some level, most people probably think ‘natural skincare’ is a good thing…but have you ever thought about what the term actually means, or what might be the benefits of using totally natural skin care products? in this article, we aim to clarify this…
What is the purpose of skincare anyway?
Let’s start at the beginning by looking at what we’re trying to achieve through putting all these various ‘lotions and potions’ on our bodies:
Skincare consists of three different types of moisturisers – each with an important role to play:
There are 3 types of moisturiser
Draw water into the skin to keep it hydrated
Smoothe the skin by filling in the gaps
Seal water in by forming a protective layer on top of the skin
1) Humectants – draw water into the skin and help to keep it hydrated. They also promote the shedding of dead cells. One drawback with humectant products on their own is, in a very dry atmosphere, they can pull too much moisture from the lower layers of skin. Humectants provide temporary anti-aging effects because the extra hydration is extra volume, which effectively plumps out the skin and makes lines and wrinkles less noticeable. However, this effect is short-lived – as soon as the moisture content in skin decreases, lines and wrinkles will return to normal size. So whilst humectants are a great addition to natural anti-aging skin care, they’re better when blended with the other key components of good skin care.
Examples of humectants:
- Hyaluronic acid – a very trendy synthetic molecule at the moment!
- Aloe Vera
2) Emollients – are oily substances which fill the spaces between dead skin cells, thus creating a smooth skin surface and softening the skin. They also help to repair the skin barrier function to keep allergens and bacteria out of the skin and reduce the risk of dryness, itching, acne, eczema and signs of ageing – again a great addition to a natural anti-ageing skin care product.
Examples of emollients:
- Fatty acids
All skin types can benefit from emollients but those prone to ‘breakouts’ should avoid face oils and butters with high comedogenic ratings (pore blocking) such as avocado and coconut oil and choose oils such as jojoba, argan and olive squalene.
3) Occlusives – contain ingredients that create a physical barrier on top of the skin that helps prevent water loss from the skin. Used alone, these ingredients feel thick and heavy after application since they are not absorbed into the skin. So they’re better mixed with emollients.
Examples of occlusive ingredients include the following:
- Mineral oil
- Waxes (such as Beeswax)
These are very good for those with dry skin and conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Applying an occlusive moisturizer immediately after bathing may be an effective way to trap additional water in the skin.
One further point – whilst lanolin and natural waxes are included within this list of occlusives, they’re actually considered to sit somewhere between an emollient and an occlusive as the barrier they form is not impenetrable and lets the skin ‘breathe’, unlike petrolatum (petroleum jelly) or mineral oil which I have often considered to be like covering your body in clingfilm
A good balanced skincare routine should, ideally, contain humectants, emollients and occlusives (The Derm Review).
Why is totally natural skincare better for your body?
OK so you have the basics for a good anti-ageing skincare regime – but how do you choose what’s right for you…and we’ve still not talked about the whole ‘natural’ thing either!
So let’s look at that now – here are a few basic ‘rules of thumb’ that I like:
Read the ingredients!
In UK Law (and many other countries) the complete list of ingredients must be displayed on all cosmetic products (it’s normally on their websites too) The ingredients have to be listed as INCI terms (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) this is simply a standardised way to name cosmetic ingredients and works across different languages. It’s quite easy to decode – here’s a useful link. This can seem a bit baffling but I tend to take the view that, if you don’t know why it’s in your skincare, or it’s clearly there for the manufacturer’s benefit and not yours then maybe this product isn’t as great as the ‘blurb’ might make out.
Avoid the preservatives
This is my biggest bugbear! The vast majority of Lotions and Creams contain water mixed with oil – indeed this is the definition of ‘creams’ and ‘lotions’. To sell such a product, the manufacturer needs to include an emulsifier to get the oil and water to mix – rather like fairy liquid (NB this is not on our list of products beneficial to the skin – remember the occlusives, emollients and humectants) and is legally obliged to add a preservative to stop bacteria than can grow in products that contain water – ever left a cup of coffee out and about for a few weeks – this is what your water-based skincare would look like without the preservatives!
The problem is that those preservatives not only kill the bugs in your lotion or cream but also kill the natural ‘good bacteria’ on your skin damaging the skin’s natural microbiome – thereby leaving your skin exposed and vulnerable. . A study of 5 of the leading cosmetic preservative ingredients concluded they inhibited the survival of the skin’s normal bacteria, and logic dictates that all other cosmetic preservatives are likely to do the same.
Basically, putting a lotion or cream that contains water (aqua in its INCI name) is doing to your skin microbiome what antibiotics do to your gut flora.
This has interesting consequences – an imbalance of your skin’s natural flora and a damaged skin microbiome impacts on acne and symptoms of eczema and reduces your skin’s protection against the damaging effects of UV and other pollutants.
If your skincare cream or lotion includes Aqua (water) in the ingredients, there’s every chance it’s giving you wrinkles! Anti-ageing skin care really should not include these ingredients
Don’t put ON your body what you wouldn’t put IN your body
Your skin is the biggest organ in your body. Did you know that an average of 64% of what you put on your skin is actually absorbed into your body (source: American Journal of Public Health 1). If you wouldn’t eat it, do you really want to be applying it?
Back to the ‘natural’ point. With a first degree in Chemistry and studying for a qualification in Traditional Herbal Medicine, I’m probably a bit biased here, but I do think we generally accept that food closer to its source is better for us than processed food – e.g. a meal made using freshly grown vegetables, recently laid eggs, fresh fruit etc. is probably more nutritious and better for your health than the tinned, dried, processed, over-salted, over-sugared equivalent.
Likewise, in the pharmaceutical industry – you were probably aware that many pharmaceuticals originated from natural products. Willow bark, for example, has been used for millennia to reduce pain and fever with no known side effects. Scientists decided that Willow Bark’s key active ingredient was salicin and basically synthesised a similar molecule called acetylsalicylic acid – aspirin.
However, by separating and synthesising only this assumed ‘active’ (acetylsalicylic acid) they introduced all the side effects of aspirin that were mitigated by the other many thousands of molecules naturally contained within the pure willow bark.
Similarly with totally natural skin care – if a moisturiser contains natural jojoba oil, olive oil or such then you can be confident that you’ll have all the other ‘goodies’ that we chemists don’t search for when we analyse and synthesise a ‘new molecule’. I’m always wary when I see ’nature identical’ or ‘derived from a natural product’ – it’s basically been stripped away from all the natural goodness…and who knows what that’s going to do to your skin (and your internal body) in the long term! I have always believed that totally natural skincare is as important as healthy natural food.
Watch out for the marketing hype – is it really totally natural skincare
It’s really difficult not to fall for this one – you see some glamourous looking model who says she uses this that and the other miracle anti-ageing face cream for the price you could buy a small car and you’re convinced. Now it might be that the producer has, indeed, found a lovely new natural oil or botanical from the deepest darkest Amazon that really does have a lovely benefit, but I would bet that special oil has really similar benefits to a lovely ‘tried and tested’ local equivalent such as borage oil, rosehip oil, sunflower oil, calendula infusion.
…and most likely, this new cream is probably just a mixture of water (aqua) oil (most often petroleum jelly – yes a by-product of the stuff you put in your car) and therefore preservatives (which badly disrupt your natural skin flora and expose your skin to wrinkles) and some artificial parfum (if it says ‘Parfum’ on the INCI list then it’s an artificial, synthesised molecule that doesn’t have to be declared) – apologies if I sound cynical!
Bringing it all together – what’s a good totally natural skincare regime
So where are we at then?
- Skin can dry out, so it’s a good idea to moisturise with a mixture of humectant, occlusive and emollient
- Because many humectants are water based and won’t mix with oil without an emulsifier (and in a cream or lotion they need to be preserved) I think it’s best to use these separately and fresh. Beeswax is one of the few natural humectants that mix with oil and so stay fresh
- You don’t need to spend a fortune on having healthy glowing skin – totally natural anti aging skin care is available!
Here’s an idea:
- Wash your face with water or natural soap if you like the ‘squeaky clean feel’ or use the oil cleaning method (OCM) Neve’s Bees Cleansing Face Balm is a lovely gentle option for a deep cleanse that leaves your face feeling clean, plump and hydrated
“A natural beautiful smelling product, this has got to be the best cleansing natural product I have ever used in my life! I am now 55 years old, wow my skin feels silky smooth. I feel that this has made my skin feel nourished beyond belief.” – Jennifer
- Apply a natural humectant – if you have an aloe vera plant, cut off a leaf and dab on the ‘juice’. The leaf will seal itself and you can slice off a slither of the dry end to reuse next time (if you buy the bottled Aloe Vera juice, UK law dictates it contains preservatives – read the label) Or a small pea-sized bit of natural honey on wet skin is a fab humectant. Products containing natural beeswax are also a humectant. Neve’s Bees Night Balm is a totally natural skin care option which contains all three moisturisers – leaving skin glowing with natural health.
“I LOVE this face balm. I thought it might be a bit heavy but it’s really not. Smells absolutely gorgeous and feels great on too. Also acts as a nice lip moisturiser before bed too” – Sarah
- Then apply an emollient and/or occlusive – a pure, cold-pressed facial oil containing all the natural goodness is fab and/or a balm containing waxes, butters and oils is great for a rich night-time balm.
“Loved it! Normally use creams, but thought I would try this, it’s easy to apply, smells great and my skin is really soft.” – Jane
And of course, it would be remiss of me not to add that we make a beautiful range of pure and totally natural skincare including night balms, oil cleansers and facial oils
Anyway, thanks for reading hope you’ve found this interesting and helpful to choose whether to use all-natural skin products. If you’d like to read more, we’ve also written about What’s in my Skin Cream (a more detailed review of some of the ingredients in many skincare products) and Why use Beeswax Hand Cream (a look at how hand cream works and why we love beeswax in hand cream – OK we’re biased but we do think it’s great!)
Would love to hear your thoughts…
Here’s a little postscript for those who are interested:
What is Organic Skincare?
Again, this term is much misunderstood:
- In Chemistry, the term ‘organic’ defines the study of molecules and compounds containing carbon (excluding simple binary compounds and salts) and
- The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Organic’ as ‘relating to or derived from living matter’. whereas
- The Soil Association defines ‘organic’ in skincare as ‘using organically grown materials’ which encompasses the preservation of hedgerows and wildlife…but doesn’t necessarily exclude ‘synthetic’ ingredients or preservatives (more on this later!)
1) Source for 64% of contaminants absorbed into the skin: Brown et al. The role of skin absorption as a route of exposure for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in drinking water. Am J Public Health. 1984 May; 74(5): 479–484.