The Truth About "Natural" Cosmetics - What's Really in Them?

The Truth About "Natural" Cosmetics - What's Really in Them?


Are the natural cosmetics you're using made with real, natural ingredients? Or are you being misled? Walk down a beauty aisle and you'll see countless products advertising themselves as "all-natural" and "organic." But with little regulation or oversight of these marketing claims, it's hard to know if they're honest.

The truth is, many supposedly "natural" cosmetic products contain man-made chemicals and unnatural ingredients. Brands take advantage of consumers' desires for healthy, eco-friendly products through vague labeling and greenwashing. However, some products live up to their natural claims through third-party certifications and thoughtful ingredient choices.

In this guide, we'll explore what defines a truly natural cosmetic product, help you navigate misleading marketing, and reveal what's really in some of the products you use every day. You may be shocked to learn just how many unnatural additives are lurking in products branded as "all-natural." Armed with the facts, you can make informed choices and find products that are natural in more than name only. Let's dig in to discover the truth about natural cosmetics.

Defining 'Natural' Cosmetics

There is no legal or regulated definition of the term "natural" when it comes to cosmetic products. Unlike organic foods, which must meet strict USDA standards to be certified organic, cosmetics brands can use the term "natural" in marketing without following any specific criteria. This makes it challenging for consumers to know if a product is truly natural or not.

The lack of regulation around natural cosmetics claims allows brands a lot of leeway. They may choose to define natural in different ways. For some, it could mean using mostly plant-derived ingredients. For others, it may mean avoiding certain synthetic chemicals. With no oversight or consensus, "natural" has become an arbitrary term in the cosmetic industry. Consumers seeking truly natural products must research ingredients lists carefully rather than relying on natural claims.

Common Ingredients

Natural cosmetics ingredients vary widely but tend to draw from certain categories of plants, minerals, and other natural substances. Common natural ingredients include:

  • Plant oils: Natural oils extracted from seeds, nuts, and fruits add moisture, vitamins, and fatty acids. Popular options are coconut, olive, avocado, almond, and jojoba oil.

  • Plant butters: Natural butters from plants provide thick texture and moisture. Shea and cocoa butter are commonly used.

  • Essential oils: Fragrant and concentrated plant extracts, like lavender, tea tree, rosemary, and citrus oils. They provide aroma.

  • Clays: Mineral-rich clays like bentonite and French green clay help purify, exfoliate, and nourish skin.

  • Herbs: Soothing, anti-inflammatory herbs like chamomile, calendula, and aloe vera are often added.

  • Natural waxes: Plant-based waxes like beeswax and candelilla wax thicken and stabilize formulas.

  • Water: Purified water forms the base of many natural cosmetics.

  • Vitamins: Vitamins like vitamin E and botanical extracts supply nutrients.

  • Minerals: Minerals like zinc oxide and iron oxides add natural color or sun protection.

  • Salt: Salts like magnesium sulfate, sodium bicarbonate, and sea salt exfoliate.

The key is using recognizable, minimally processed ingredients directly from nature.

Synthetic Ingredients

Even when a cosmetic product is labeled "natural" or "organic," the ingredients list can still contain certain synthetics. This is because, while there are strict standards for organic and natural cosmetics, they still allow some wiggle room.

For example, certain preservatives, emulsifiers, surfactants, and fragrances may be derived from petrochemicals or created in labs. These ingredients serve important functions in cosmetics, like preserving freshness or enabling proper texture, so they are permitted in limited quantities.

Some of the most controversial synthetic ingredients that may lurk in "natural" cosmetics include:

  • Parabens - Preservatives that mimic estrogen and may disrupt hormones
  • Phthalates - Ingredients that help fragrance stick to skin but may be endocrine disruptors
  • SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) - A foaming agent and potential skin irritant
  • Petrolatum - A mineral oil-derived moisturizer that may contain impurities
  • Silicones - Used for slip and sleekness but not easily biodegradable

While these ingredients are still considered safe in the tiny doses used in cosmetics, some consumers wishing to avoid synthetics at all costs may be unaware they can be present even in "natural" products. Carefully reading the ingredients label is important.

Reading Labels

Reading the ingredient list on cosmetic products can help you determine how natural or synthetic a product is. Here are some tips for deciphering ingredients lists:

  • Look at the order of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order of concentration, with the highest concentration ingredients listed first. If the first few ingredients are plant-derived, it's a good sign. If the first ingredients are chemicals, the product likely contains more synthetics.

  • Watch out for "natural" ingredients that are actually synthetic. For example, vitamin E acetate and tocopheryl acetate are synthetic versions of vitamin E.

  • Beware of scientific-sounding ingredients. Long chemical names usually indicate synthetic ingredients. Names like "benzoic acid" and "polyethylene glycol (PEG)" are lab-created.

  • Research unfamiliar ingredients. With a quick internet search, you can often find out if an ingredient is natural or synthetic. Get familiar with common natural extracts versus chemical additives.

  • Look for certifications on the label. Third-party seals like USDA Organic, EcoCert, and NPA Natural indicate adherence to natural standards. Their presence adds credibility.

  • Avoid products with fragrance/perfume. This is an unregulated term that can hide hundreds of synthetic chemicals. Go for products scented only with natural essential oils.

  • Check for preservatives like parabens, which are synthetic. Better options are natural preservatives like vitamin E and rosemary extract.

Following these simple tips when reading cosmetic labels can give you a good sense of how natural or synthetic a product really is. Get familiar with decoding labels to become a more informed consumer.

Third-Party Certifications

With the rise in popularity of natural cosmetics, several organizations have emerged to certify products that meet certain standards for natural, organic, or eco-friendly composition. These third-party certifications can help guide consumers in identifying truly natural cosmetics products.

Some of the major natural cosmetic certifications include:

  • BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics - This German certification denotes products made with plant-derived ingredients and without synthetic chemicals. At least 95% of product ingredients must be naturally derived.

  • NATRUE Certified Natural and Organic Cosmetics - With headquarters in Belgium, this organization certifies products with at least 95% natural origin and organic portion requirements. Three levels indicate percentage of organic content.

  • ECOCERT & COSMOS - Operated by international organic certification bodies, these interlinked certifications denote products made with plant-derived, environmentally friendly ingredients per defined standards. Several label grades indicate percentage organic.

  • USDA Organic - Primarily for food, the USDA organic seal can also apply to cosmetics with 95%+ organic ingredients and restrictions on certain chemicals.

  • Soil Association Certified - A UK-based certification for organic and natural cosmetics meeting standards for sustainability and ecological responsibility.

  • Leaping Bunny - Certifies cruelty-free cosmetics not tested on animals during any stage of product development.

Seeking out these logos and certifications on natural cosmetic products can help identify ones meeting legitimate standards for natural composition and ethical, eco-friendly production.


Greenwashing in the natural cosmetics industry refers to the trend of exaggerated or misleading claims of using natural ingredients. As demand for natural and organic cosmetic products grows, some brands take advantage of this by making claims that their products are "all-natural" or "organic" when that may not fully be the case.

Some common examples of greenwashing in natural cosmetics include:

  • Using images of nature, leaves, flowers on packaging to imply natural ingredients even when synthetic ingredients are used.

  • Vague claims like "natural origin" that don't specify percentage of natural ingredients.

  • Emphasizing one natural ingredient on the front of a package while other synthetic ingredients are listed on the back.

  • Certifications from fake or self-made "natural certification" groups used to mislead consumers.

  • Claiming to be "chemical-free" which is impossible for any cosmetic product.

  • Making the brand name or product line sound natural like "Organix" when the products contain mainly synthetic ingredients.

Consumers should be wary of these types of marketing claims and carefully check ingredient lists and certifications when shopping for truly natural cosmetic products. Relying solely on front packaging claims and images without verifying can lead shoppers to purchase products with high amounts of synthetic ingredients and overpay for something that isn't as natural as claimed. Being an informed buyer is key to avoiding greenwashing in the natural cosmetics industry.

DIY Natural Cosmetics

Making your own natural cosmetics at home can be a great way to control exactly what ingredients go into your beauty products. With just a few simple ingredients and materials, you can whip up your own moisturizers, masks, scrubs, and more.

Overview of Making Your Own at Home

The basic process for making DIY natural cosmetics is:

  1. Choose your ingredients - Make sure to select natural carrier oils, butters, essential oils, herbs, etc. Research ingredients thoroughly to understand benefits and proper usage.

  2. Gather materials - You'll need containers to store your creations, measuring tools, mixing bowls, etc. Specialized materials like preservatives may be needed for some recipes.

  3. Sanitize and sterilize - Thoroughly clean tools, containers, and work area. Sterilize containers by boiling or using alcohol.

  4. Measure and mix ingredients - Carefully measure all ingredients as called for in the recipe. Mix and blend well as instructed.

  5. Store properly - Fill sanitized containers, label, and store away from heat and sunlight. Refrigeration may be needed for creams and lotions.

  6. Use safely - Patch test DIY products before full use. Make sure to follow recipe directions.

With some basic methodology, equipment, and care, creating natural cosmetics at home can be easy, affordable, and fulfilling. Be sure to find and follow trusted recipes, and take care with ingredients and sanitization.


Natural cosmetics generally come with a higher price tag than conventional cosmetics. This is because truly natural ingredients tend to be more expensive to source and produce than synthetic chemicals.

For example, procuring organic plant oils and extracts directly from small farms costs more than buying mass-produced chemicals. Handcrafting natural cosmetics in small batches also requires more labor and care than manufacturing conventional cosmetics en masse.

Additionally, many natural cosmetic companies avoid ingredients that are cheap due to unethical labor practices or environmental damage. They may also donate a portion of proceeds to environmental causes. These socially and environmentally conscious practices further increase production costs.

While the sticker price may be higher, many consumers feel the benefits of natural cosmetics justify the extra expense. Those seeking budget natural cosmetics can also opt for simpler products with fewer ingredients or DIY their own from base ingredients.


  • After reviewing the topic of natural cosmetics, a few key takeaways emerge. While the term "natural" is appealing, it lacks a clear definition in the cosmetics industry. Products labeled as natural may still contain synthetic chemicals, so reading the ingredients list is essential.

  • Third-party certifications like USDA Organic, ECOCERT, and BDIH Naturkosmetik provide assurance that products meet certain natural standards. However, some products engage in greenwashing with dubious natural claims despite containing synthetic ingredients.

  • Ultimately, natural cosmetics come at a premium cost compared to conventional cosmetics. Consumers must weigh the potential benefits against higher prices. Homemade cosmetics allow full control over ingredients, but require more time and effort.

  • When it comes to natural cosmetics, doing your homework on labels, certifications, and ingredients is crucial. While more virtuous in theory, natural cosmetics still demand careful scrutiny by consumers to cut through clever marketing claims and identify truly natural products. Caution and research are advised.