Why natural beauty products can be secretly horrible for your skin

Photo: iStock

The INSIDER Summary:

• Most health-conscious consumers go for natural, botanical ingredients.
• These ingredients can be bad for people with sensitive skin.

Which shampoo would you rather use: One that contains tea tree oil, lavender, and chamomile — or one loaded with pentylene glycol, disodium cocoyl glutamate, and acrylates copolymer?

Most health-conscious consumers would defer to the more natural formula, but those familiar-sounding plant ingredients might not be the smartest choice when it comes to the health of your skin.

“People have to be really cognisant of the fact that just because [a product] is botanical, that doesn’t meant it’s not going to be an irritant or an allergen,” Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at the Yale University department of dermatology, told INSIDER. “Poison ivy’s organic and it’s not good for you.”

In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that many top triggers of allergic reactions in the skin are natural, plant-based ingredients, like balsam of peru, eucalyptus, and rosemary. And even if you don’t have allergies, some natural ingredients — like tea tree oil and citrus-derived ingredients — are common causes of skin irritation. Even if they don’t cause an allergic reaction, they can still make some people itch and develop a rash.

Natural essential oilsFlickr/Nina Nelson. CC by 2.0Natural oils can be a problem for people with allergies and sensitive skin.

“There’s kind of a false sense of security thinking, oh, it’s botanical, it’s not going to hurt me,” Gohara said. “It might not be carcinogenic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to irritate the skin.”

I know from firsthand experience: Natural products can wreak havoc.

Earlier this summer, I consulted an allergist to help treat the burning, itchy rash that had suddenly erupted all over my face. After some testing, I learned that that a nickel allergy was a major part of the problem — but even after I reduced my exposure to the metal, the rash persisted.

So, with guidance from my dermatologist, I started testing small amounts of all my beauty products on my skin to see if any would provoke an allergic reaction.

It turned out that I am aggressively allergic to my natural shampoo and soap.

I’ve had allergic reactions on my skin before — rashes from poison ivy, hives whenever I’m near a cat. But this was like nothing I’ve ever seen. For the test, I’d placed just a few drops of my organic, all-natural shampoo on my skin. Two days later, I was sporting a burning, blistering welt four or five inches across. My skin turned a deep, angry red and started oozing and itching.

Eventually — with the help of a steroid cream my dermatologist prescribed — the swelling and itching calmed, and the affected skin turned leathery and discolored. Later, my fragrance-free, plant-derived hand soap gave me a similarly gnarly reaction.

The reaction sites still look like fading bruises, even months later — all because of products I’d trusted implicitly.

Natural products aren’t all bad — just don’t assume they’re the best for everyone.

Now (after lots of trial, error, and itching) I use a mix of natural and synthetic products that keep my skin much happier. My new soap is made out of mostly olive oil, but my allergy-friendly shampoo and moisturizer are laden with hard-to-pronounce chemicals.

Die-hard natural beauty junkies might scoff, but for me — and many allergy sufferers like me — it’s the healthiest choice I can make.

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