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A Look At Natural Skin Care

When we think about natural skin care products we think of brands that

  • use less chemicals
  • use more natural ingredients
  • make conscious efforts to use sustainable resources

What about the ingredients in these “natural” products?

Do they work better than non-natural ingredients?

And can they ever be harmful or cause skin reactions?

The therapeutic use of essential oils, aromatic substances, plants and herbs has been documented dating back centuries. The Papyrus Ebers, one of the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt, lists over 800 remedies; many incorporating the use of raw materials, oils and resins from trees, plants and berries.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates recommended adding essential oils into daily bathing rituals to alleviate rheumatism and arthritis. The Charaka Samhita written by the physician Charaka in India, is a comprehensive text detailing over 300 herbal medicines used in ancient Indian medicine. Through the centuries although their popularity has waxed and waned, the use of plants, herbs and spices for their therapeutic qualities is still practiced today. The following remedy from the Papyrus Ebers was prescribed for the treatment of wrinkles (take note, the use of olive oil and Cyperus): Incense cake, Wax, Fresh olive oil, Cyperus. Crush, grind, put in fresh milk and apply to the face for six days (Bryan, 1930)

What’s in them?

Natural skin care products can incorporate the essential oils, juices, extracts, waxes and butters from trees, plants, flowers, vegetables, their roots or the fruit they bear. We often hear the term botanicals used. Some botanicals possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties and can even impact the immune system so it’s no wonder why many companies incorporate them into skin care products used today (Millsop & Sivamani, 2013).

Natural ingredients can still cause reactions

Although natural, these substances can still cause irritant and/or allergic reactions, even in the smallest amounts. Some essential oils are toxic (e.g. bitter almond oil) while others are photosensitizing (e.g. oils such as bergamot, grapefruit, lemon). Camphor if ingested by mouth can cause nausea, vomiting, seizures and even death (Flama, Pellechia-Clarke, Benoit, & McGuigan, 2001).

Let’s take a look at German chamomile. Known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, it is a common botanical used in skin care from facial oils, skin creams to even hair care. Although considered to be safe, there have been reports of contact dermatitis and conjunctivitis following its application in chamomile products (Stallings & Lupo, 2009 ).

In another study looking at moisturizers, essential oils and biologic additives were the fourth most common allergens found (present in 44.6% of moisturizers) following fragrance, parabens and Vitamin E. The essential oils most prevalent in causing contact dermatitis include ylang ylang, tea tree oil, compositae mix, propolis and colophony (Zirwas, 2008).

Do they work better than non-natural products?

Research has documented beneficial effects of some essential oils and botanical extracts in the areas of wound healing, anti-aging, as an anti- inflammatory and in some skin disorders. However, more research is needed to answer the question, do they work better than non-natural products?

If product A stated its special extract could improve wrinkles, your best bet is to research what the literature supports. It is probably wise to take everything you read with some reservations and not believe in all that is claimed by a product. Some of what you see is marketing hype and some products are guilty of being misbranded. Natural products are not necessarily more effective than your non-natural brand, and can still cause skin reactions. While botanical compounds can possess therapeutic qualities, the potential for irritation and sensitization is always present.

Before you spend extra dollars on a more natural ingredient based product, assess what skin care needs you have and ask yourself what you’re looking for in a product. If the answer is less synthetic chemicals, no artificial fragrance or chemical preservatives, a brand that cares about the environment, perhaps a natural product is more suitable to your lifestyle.

What products do you choose and why? Do they contain botanical ingredients? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


(1930). . In C. P. Bryan, The Papyrus Ebers (Translated from the German Version) (pp. 158-161). Letchworth, Herts: The Garden City Press Ltd.

Flama, Z., Pellechia-Clarke, S., Benoit, B., & McGuigan, M. (2001). Unintentional exposure of young children to camphor and eucalyptus oils. Paediatrics and Child Health, 80-83.

Millsop, J. W., & Sivamani, F. (2013). Botanical Agents for the Treatment of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer. Dermatology Research and Practice.

Stallings, A. F., & Lupo, M. (2009 ). Practical Uses of Botanicals in Skin Care. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 36–40.

Zirwas, M. J. (2008). Moisturizer Allergy. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 38-44.