Are organic beauty products really better? Beauty expert and author, Desiree Stordahl, reveals the surprising answer

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Some of Renee's favorite beauty products that contain natural or organic ingredients.

As I’ve been incorporating healthier lifestyle options into our family (that juicer I got two years ago was finally used—once), it seems only natural that I would take a closer look at my beauty products.

But the beauty industry’s standards on organic products are unclear, making it difficult for consumers to make informed choices. I took my questions to Desiree Stordahl, coauthor, with Paula Begoun, of the new beauty book The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here.

Why is there such a big push towards organic or natural beauty products?

As organic and natural products have become more highly esteemed in recent years, it’s no surprise that a similar trend would find its way into the cosmetics industry.  It reflects the way consumers think—since many believe natural ingredients are inherently healthier or safer, then, of course beauty brands are going to seize the opportunity to fill that niche with skincare, makeup and hair products.

What’s the difference between organic and natural products?

Legally speaking, there is no difference when it comes to cosmetic products. The terms “natural” and “organic” aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means there isn’t an approved standard for labeling products as such. Even within the cosmetics industry, there is no agreed upon definition of what natural or organic means.

Other organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and ECOCERT (an international organic certification agency) do have their own systems for approving some standards of organic plant claims. However, there are also other random companies that develop their own sets of guidelines and then charge a fee for their organic seal of approval. So, basically, if a cosmetics company is willing to pay for the certification and their product passes whatever standards the certification group has, any brand can label their products "organic"—that’s where it gets tricky. Adding to the confusion, cosmetic companies can and do make claims of organic or natural without regard to what their products contain.

Are organic or natural products better for you? 

When it comes to beauty products, natural or organic ingredients aren’t necessarily any better, safer or healthier for skin. That may be true for food, but substantiated, published research has yet to prove that organic ingredients used in cosmetics are superior to or safer than non-organic or synthetic ingredients. The bottom line: There are good and bad ingredients in each category.

For instance, natural ingredients such as peppermint, menthol, eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, and essential oils are commonly found in natural beauty products, yet research has clearly established that these ingredients can irritate skin. Skin irritation causes collagen to break down and impairs the skin's ability to heal. Who wants that?

On the other hand, there are tons of lab-engineered, synthetic ingredients that have a clean track record for safety and are backed by research supporting their effectiveness in treating the signs of aging and other skin concerns. If it were me, I’d want the best of both worlds—state-of-the-art synthetic ingredients blended with phenomenal plant extracts and other beneficial natural ingredients.

If a product is labeled organic or natural, does that mean it is?

Not necessarily. As mentioned above, there are many "Certified Organic" seals that don’t hold any meaning or whose standards are loosely defined and unregulated. However, if a product carries the official USDA Organic seal, you can count on the following.

"100% Organic" = The product must contain only organically produced ingredients.

"Organic" = The product must be made up of at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Products cannot be produced using synthetic preservatives, petrochemicals, ionizing radiation or any other excluded methods.

*The label "Made with organic ingredients" can be used when a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients, but it is not accompanied by the official USDA Organic seal.

The take away here? Organic certification only tells you the source of an ingredient—not whether it’s safe for skin or what benefits it may or may not have.

What should a consumer look for when navigating the beauty aisles for healthier, safer beauty products?

Analyzing whether a product is safe and beneficial for skin comes down to the overall formula and the research behind its ingredients, regardless of whether it’s natural or not. Unfortunately, for the average consumer it’s hard to know what’s good or bad just by looking at an ingredient list. So where to turn? You can use the Beautypedia app in stores to look up a product’s review based on the claims and research, or look up the info ahead of time at Beautypedia.com. There you’ll get a break play by play of the product’s performance and formula. Another resource to use is the Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary at PaulasChoice.com, where you can look up individual ingredients and the research behind them.

And if you’re still set on wanting natural products, check out brands like Yes To and Paula’s Choice Earth Sourced, as well as the pricier but good newcomer Drunk Elephant.

The takeaway? Do your research before hitting the beauty aisle to save yourself a headache. I spent the last 6 weeks testing some natural and organic beauty products and below are my favorites (from left to right):

Tammy Fender Antioxidant Crème Neroli & Orange, Acure Foaming Shaving Gel, Love and Sage Sunday Morning Lip Balm, Plantogen Manuka Skin Oil, Obagi Nu-Derm Foaming Gel, Kelly TeeGarden Organics Lip Gloss (Diva), and Mineral Fusion Blush/Bronzer Duo in Rio.

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