Problem Skin: Is Green Beauty the Answer?

July 27, 2016

Marigold Fields

I came across a recent Instagram post from a lovely, honest, straightforward beauty blogger, who made a controversial announcement that she was no longer going to be using just the so-called green beauty skin care and makeup products but a mix of conventional and natural products. This was based on the advice of a dermatologist whom she had consulted because while using exclusively natural brands, her skin suffered from ongoing sensitivity and acne breakouts (which she developed when she switched to natural products). The dermatologist's suggestions were to avoid certain potentially irritating ingredients, namely several essential oils. 

Some felt threatened or betrayed by this blogger's change of heart, but I found it thought-provoking. It made me realize that I would like to share a few beliefs I have developed about skin care ingredients and the state of affairs in the green beauty world, based on my 11 years of experience formulating for Earthwise Beauty and studying herbalism and aromatherapy (plus flower essences of late), but also based on my reading, testing various ingredients and their different ways of processing for the skin care manufacturers, interacting with ingredients manufacturers, and based on observing what other brands are doing. Until now, I have not made these beliefs public because I didn't want to seem that I am "fighting" competition in this "impolite" way. But perhaps it is the right time to talk about a few of these beliefs to help the innocent customers our there make the best choices for themselves for optimal beauty and health.

1. The natural beauty business is highly underregulated in the United States. While it allows small, unique brands to create their formulas and immediately start selling them to customers, it also means that many formulators, while talented, well-intentioned, and studious individuals, they are not required to pass any tests or show any degrees or certificates. Anyone can place an order for a fruit or other acid from a cosmetic supplier web site, follow the manufacturer's recommended use percentage or not, bottle the product and sell it. The same goes for preservatives: while there are many natural options, these are highly concentrated, natural (or nature identical) yet processed ingredients whose goal is to inhibit bacteria, mold, and fungi when they are used in tiny amounts, 1-4%. This is often strong stuff. Formulators are not required to post anywhere what percentage of this antimicrobial products they use in their formulas, and the finished formulas are not tested by any independent body such as a lab. 

2. I have come across facial care products that contain ingredients such as oregano essential oil. The blog review was favorable but mentioned some degree of tingling. Well, when you read books by medical aromatherapists or read the cautions on reputable essential oil supply sites, you would learn that oregano oil is so irritating that it is only recommended to use it on one's feet, nowhere else on the body. Responsible formulators will consult such sources when creating a formula for the face rather than just follow their creative idea. 

3. Authoritative books and web sites on topical use of essential oils or herbs also discuss which oils and herbs should be avoided during pregnancy, on babies and children, on the eye area, and which might cause photosensitivity. A responsible, experienced formulator will spend a lot of time learning these rules and will post relevant warnings on their labels and on their product pages. 

4. I keep coming across incomplete ingredients lists, or ingredients lists with strange errors making it impossible to figure out the actual ingredients used. It is so because unless informed customers demand it, there is no pressure on the small manufacturer to provide a complete ingredients list. Sometimes an ingredient is abbreviated ("hibiscus"-but is it a dry flower, alcohol tincture, a bleached extract from a cosmetics supplier with a preservative built in?), sometimes essential oils are not fully disclosed but listed as a proprietary essential oil blend. I also come across products that do not list any preservative even though they contain water and oil, which means without a preservative they would spoil very quickly. 

5. Some suppliers sell essential oils that are adulterated, either stretched with lab produced components, or "standarized," which also means lab-produced components have been added to them. Some companies also choose to use as "natural" fragrance "linalool," "chamazulene," "cineole," and similar chemical compounds, and claim these are natural ingredients (or "occurring naturally," which to me reads, occurring naturally elsewhere), such isolated parts of essential oils, even if they are derived from essential oils rather than easily manufactured and still bearing the same chemical name, they are much more likely to cause irritation or allergic reactions than the essential oils that smell similar. (They also do not have the aromatherapy benefits of the oils they resemble or may even be derived from.) 

6. Customers seem to seek a major transformation of their skin when investing in expensive beauty products. Many wise and responsible formulators learn the need to educate customers about the risks and limitations of all beauty products, but the truth is that many customers do not want to hear these messages. Rather than spend time laboriously, messily exfoliate with ground oats or say almond meal, customers opt for all-night, every-night exfoliation with enzymes, salicylic acid ingredients (such as willow bark), and high concentration naturally derived acids in the form of a lotion or serum. To me, over-exfoliating in this way interferes with the skin's natural cycle of renewal and replenishing, and using such products beyond a single treatment of up to 2-3 weeks, can not only cause irritation and make the skin more allergy prone, it will accelerate aging of the skin and may result in an aging, stripped-off skin appearance. 

7. As a frequent visitor of cosmetic ingredients supplier web sites, I am the first one to tell you that there seems to be a relaxed rule in place when it comes to INCI ingredients names. When I started my business, by law, a cosmetic manufacturer was obliged to list every ingredient in the INCI format. For example, chamomile essential oil would be listed as Matricaria recutita (German chamomile) oil. In recent years, the FDA seems to suggest listing the English name as the first priority: German chamomile oil, the Latin name being optional (if it fits). I agree with this idea because if space on the label is limited, it benefits the consumer more to have the English names there.

But there is a second trend with ingredients listings that is bothersome: the required INCI name on a cosmetic ingredient often sounds all natural (such as "cranberry extract"), but as we learn from the web site description on a diligent supplier's site is that in actuality there are two other ingredients in this product (usually one or two preservatives). I have now seen it often enough to conclude that something must have changed in the law (in all honesty I have not gotten to the bottom of it on the FDA web site) and the INCI names that get transferred onto product labels sometimes conceal some important truths.

8. There is also controversy as to what types of cold-press, carrier oils can be comedogenic (pore clogging, or causing breakouts). While there are comedogenic scales circulating online, based on my own experience and a discussion with a supplier who is also a chemist, there is no reliable comedogenicity scale. Experienced formulators learn to blend oils to balance some richer, potentially comedogenic tendencies with anti-acne additions to their formulas. In my own experience, based on helpful reports from customers in part, I find that freshness of cold-pressed oils is a huge factor, and their unrefined status. There are also individual tendencies: my pores get clogged from petroleum ingredients and from products with a relatively high percentage of waxes (other than unrefined beeswax). And I break out like crazy from bleached, heavily processed natural ingredients, with rash-like, sometimes itching blemishes. 

Now returning to the blogger's dilemma whether natural products could be responsible for increased sensitivity or clogged pores or breakouts, yes, it is certainly possible. However, for me, returning to main-stream cosmetic products would not be the answer. Most green beauty enthusiasts did not turn to natural skin care products just because they hoped for a more beautiful, more radiant skin. There are aspects of conventional products that for me are not acceptable no matter what the effectiveness might be. I choose green beauty products, as well as green cleaning products for my home, because of the green manufacturer's assurances about cruelty-free sourcing and manufacturing, no animal ingredients except for consciously gathered gifts from bees, biodegradable status, environmentally friendly repurposed packaging materials, no artificial fragrances or colorants, and in general, it is very important for me to support the growth of companies that are on a larger mission to protect the natural world and our natural resources, and to compensate their employees fairly. 

Once again, I want to assure you that I am not here to condemn anyone or any companies, just to offer some hopefully illuminating truths about the state of affairs in the Unites States cosmetic industry so you call can make the best selecting decisions for yourselves. I will welcome your comments below!

7 Responses


February 24, 2019

While it’s great that there are many natural and organic beauty products available nowadays, it’s still better for the environment and your pocketbook to avoid buying products you don’t need.

October 19, 2016

You are totally right, I fully agree with you.

Linda. Depina
Linda. Depina

August 21, 2016

Well!!! This is exactly the information I’ve been waiting for. I know from our conversations in cyber space and your posts on Instagram, that you are knowledgable, compassionate, meticiculus, and most of all, generous! You share all of this with all of us. Your product line is new to me, as you know, and I’ve been moving toward your products is place if others. I’ve felt intuitively that you are producing a line that will be dominating my skincare/ selfcare in future. As I’ve always been highly sensitive to others " vibes" I am feeling that I have stumbled upon the way to minimizing my collection of brands. The habit of latching on to the next " best thing" in the green beauty world, is slowly dying of neglect. As it should! My switch from conventional products is fairly new, only since August of 2015. It’s been overwhelming and confusing at times as I’ve tried different brands, listened to advice from bloggers, and believed that green beauty brand were always transparent & trustworthy. As I’m muturing in this world, I’m learning the differences between the truth and the hype. In many ways the green brands are not that different that conventional when it comes to their " bottom line". This is where Earthwise continue to impress and inform me. Ava is taking my gently by the hand and walking me down a field of green goodness. It is with kindness that she whispers all the intelligence she possesses in my ear. For the benefit of my skin not her “bottom line”. This much I’m sure of! My instincts tell me so. Thank you for YOU! I am one of many who know your true worth in this green community and it’s my purpose to speared the word. And so I shall.

marie-paule CHABOT
marie-paule CHABOT

July 30, 2016

green beauty skincare (and make-up) was the answer to my problems of mature and combination skin (not conventional skincare):I know ingredients at first and how to use them the best :morning evening ,and i change my “routine” in summer and winter. So I’ve tested Ambrosia del cerrado"thanks to AQNE Pharmacy-MOSS Skincare set “summer essentials”,I needed a sunscreen and i’ve tested HALO SUN powder MOSS and ZATIK -BLISSOMA
My preferred Us brands are : MOSS skincare ,Josh Rosebrook,and of course in France we know MAHALO and May LINDSTRÖM But I’m so sorry : it’s impossible to buy on US websites since July because of customs taxes and duties (TVA)
for orders over 150 $: twice a month , it’s too much ! and european websites don’t reference your brand EARTHWISE !
WHY ?I should like to have your advice about a skincare “routine” for my skin.
Thank you so much !
In France CLELIA2612 et MONAGROM (2"green" blogs ) are serious (only natural and organic skincare,and make-up) and there are serious websites for your brand (in France and Belgium )too.


July 29, 2016

Wonderful article, Ava! It’s so nice to hear your thoughts on the topic and I’m happy you are speaking out about problems such as underregulation of brands and products. I know here is way harder to start selling your own products (you need certification, proper tests and so on). I always learn something new from reading your posts and captions on IG and I thank you for sharing them with us. Your transparency, honesty and knowledge are the reason I love supporting you and your stunning products. You inspire me. Thank you. <3 xx


July 27, 2016

Wow – this is an EXCELLENT article! It also addresses a lot of concerns I have, personally, but have not had the courage or forum to voice. I’ve been using cruelty-free, “green” skincare products for a few years and often have mixed results. Just recently, I was able to confirm a severe allergy to sodium benzoate, though I cannot seem to find much on this preservative, and the EWG only gives it a 3. Just two weeks ago, I had an issue where something I purchased had different ingredients than what the website listed; the company switched to sodium benzoate but never bothered to update the website. I knew something was wrong when my face literally looked like I had severe sunburn within 60 seconds of applying.

As a consumer, I am not only frustrated when brands don’t list all of the ingredients and/or preservatives but am also disconcerted when there is not a Made On/Use By date. Green products should be used fresh and consumed within a certain period of time; however, only a tiny percent (20% maybe?) of the green products I buy have any date on them. I recently took a Basic body butter, lip balm and soap-making class, and properly listing ingredients and a “Use By” date on the label was considered a MUST by the instructor, who spent extra time on this subject. And we weren’t even making items to sell – only to use ourselves or give to friends and family.

I don’t know who the blogger is who quit, but I can understand why she got frustrated, I’m an independent “hobby” green beauty blogger, and I have drastically reduced my posts, because I got tired of trying the latest trends and suffering from traumatic allergic reactions. But I haven’t given up on green beauty; instead, I am studiously analyzing ingredient lists and sticking with brands – like yours – who exhibit the utmost integrity with their products.

Thank you, again, for everything you do and for taking the time to write this most excellent post!!


July 27, 2016

OMG, thanks for such a great article! You are SO on point with, well, everything.

What are your thoughts on the various labels and certifications in the current green beauty world? I have been very interested in the new Made Safe certification, as well as consistently disappointed with orgs like the EWG. I was also just reading about Oille’s focus on a particular testing method for essential oils. I don’t know much on the subject, but I do really appreciate transparency when it comes to sourced ingredients.

Products that do not list preservatives but must contain them are the WORST. I wish I had unlimited time/money/equipment to do my own tests to see what is really in them.

I also am hoping to see more transparency/high standards from eco beauty retailers. It can’t just be about reading an ingredients list to make sure the products they carry are free of certain bad ingredients… but do retailers have the training and resources to curate the best ingredients? For example, I am always wary of shops that carry 100% pure due to my questions about their ingredients and preservation systems.

As a nutritionist I am constantly aware of the risk of recommending some use, say, a brand of probiotics that does not live up to its claims. At the same time, you can go down a rabbit hole of questioning the integrity of every single brand you might purchase and end up 10 years older and completely stressed out :)

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