What you need to know about using natural cosmetics

Are eco beauty products effective, and what ingredients should you avoid?

By Elise Wilson

It’s hard to imagine a time when the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ weren’t part of everyday life.

Thanks to increased awareness around the number of synthetic chemicals we ingest through our food and the cosmetics we use on our skin – not to mention the impact manufacturing products and their packaging has on the environment – the trend for clean, green living is more popular than ever.

If you already eat organically, recycle regularly, and use eco-friendly cleaning products, then you’re more than ready to take the plunge into natural beauty – and you’re not alone.

In the past year, demand for natural/organic skincare sky-rocketed by 21.4 per cent in New Zealand, according to pharmacy data. So it’s safe to say this is one beauty trend that isn’t just a temporary fad.

“There exists clear evidence of a shift in people’s buying behaviour towards brands that have a positive impact on the world, and look after the environment and their wellbeing,” says Lisa Wilson, international communications manager for Trilogy.

“People are becoming aware that what is put on the body is absorbed through the skin into our systems – and therefore is just as important as what is consumed.”

While this all makes sense, the question remaining on most people’s lips is ‘do natural products actually work?’

Luckily, the answer is yes – choosing eco-friendly cosmetics doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice results.

In fact, plant-based beauty products can be even more effective than their man-made competitors, thanks to a plethora of superfood ingredients and increasingly sophisticated formulas, and brands are only too happy to prove it.

“Premium natural and organic skincare not only allows you to get as close to nature as possible, but brands are now also bringing to the market scientific validation too,” says Deborah Sampson, global brand specialist for Antipodes.

So, if you’re ready to make the switch, where should you begin? What’s the difference between natural, organic and certified organic and what ingredients are best avoided?

Here, we explain the terminology and give you the lowdown on how to hunt out the best nature has to offer.

What does natural beauty mean?

The term ‘natural’ isn’t regulated at all in New Zealand, meaning the word can be applied to any beauty product regardless of how few natural ingredients it contains, a practice known as ‘greenwashing’.

“Greenwashing is sometimes used by companies to give the impression that their products are all natural,” says Antipodes’ Sampson.

“Words such as natural, pure, and nature-identical feature on packaging to trick the customer into believing the products are natural.”

So, how do you tell the difference between genuinely natural products and cleverly marketed frauds? The answer is to read the fine print in the form of the ingredients list.

Ingredients are listed from highest percentage to lowest, so aim to pick a product where synthetic ingredients are mainly at the bottom of the list, if included at all.

Be aware, however, that natural ingredients may be listed under their scientific names, making them harder to identify without turning to your smartphone.

“It can actually be quite difficult to identify ingredients in beauty products – often, ones that sound complex are in fact entirely natural,” says Eithne Curran, who founded an eponymous range of natural haircare products.

“For example, the Butyrospermum parkii in my Black Collection conditioner and treatment is just pure shea butter, despite sounding quite scary.”

The best guide to picking a genuinely natural product, is to look for the BioGro or NATRUE certification logos.

“When you see the BioGro or NATRUE logo, you know you’re buying an authentically natural product, which means no animal testing, no synthetic fragrances and colours, no genetically modified ingredients, petroleum-derived products, silicone oils and derivatives, or irradiation of end products and botanical ingredients,” says Trilogy’s Wilson.

What does organic beauty mean?

The term ‘organic’ refers to the way in which ingredients are grown without the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides or other artificial chemicals.

Sounds great, but there’s a hitch: New Zealand is classified as an ‘unregulated organics market’ according to Wilson, so there is very little control over what can be presented or sold as organic.

“Products that are labelled as organic, rather than certified organic, may well be a more natural alternative to synthetic products, however cannot be guaranteed as truly organic without a certification logo,” she says.

The key, according to Wilson, is to look for products labelled as ‘certified organic’ and feature the logo of a trusted agency, such as BioGro or NATRUE.

Celia Trevisani, senior brand manager for cosmetics label Inika, agrees.

“To be certified organic, products need to adhere to strict criteria, which include production standards for sourcing, processing and packaging,” she explains.

“This also includes having the ingredients grown and harvested without the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, synthetic chemicals and growth agents while also being free from irradiation and chemical sterilisation.”

So, now you can pick bona fide organic cosmetics from the imposters, how do you get the best results from your products?

“We believe organic products work as well, if not better than conventional products,” says Trevisani, “but things like certified organic skincare and make-up do have a shorter shelf life. A preservative like phenoxyethanol can give a liquid product, such as a foundation, a three-year shelf life, however it cannot be used in organic products as it is synthetic.”

Brands like Inika use plant-derived preservatives, such as radish root, coconut or sorbic acid – a naturally occurring compound that is the most commonly used food preservative in the world.

Most organic beauty products don’t display expiration dates on their packaging, as this will depend on when the product is opened. However, as a guide, mascaras, eye creams and eye shadows will last for between three to six months, while moisturisers, lip balms and natural deodorants typically stay good for six months, and soaps, bath and shower gels keep for up to a year.

As with any product, it’s a good idea to discard anything that smells off, has separated (unless that’s to be expected of a particular product) or has changed colour.

Ingredients to avoid