Despite your good intentions, buying skin care products labeled "organic" or "natural" doesn't always translate to a healthier body or planet.
Many such products still contain the chemicals you're trying to avoid. And even if a product is bursting with nature's bounty, those earthy ingredients may not produce the desired results.
How can you know which earth-friendly products are best for your skin, inside and out?
The first step is to look past the marketing.
Terms like "natural" and "all natural" have no legal definitions and therefore are unreliable indicators of a product's content.
The term "organic" is regulated but can sometimes be misleading.
A product bearing the USDA Organic seal must contain at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients (excluding water and salt). That's difficult to achieve for skin care products, as some ingredients needed in the formulations aren't available in nature.
Products labeled "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70 percent USDA-certified organically produced ingredients.
Anything else isn't supposed to carry the term organic anywhere on the display panel, but that rule is rarely enforced for skin care products as long as they don't carry the USDA seal or "made with" label, said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association.
"You could put anything in your product, call it organic, and the USDA won't do anything about it," she said.
Also, a brand can have the word "organic" in its trademark without containing any organic ingredients.
Rather than trust the marketing, research the ingredients.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group manages a cosmetics database called Skin Deep (http://ewg.org/skindeep) in which it evaluates the health risk of more than 79,000 products, one ingredient at a time, and lists the most common harmful contaminants to avoid.
But just because an ingredient is low-risk doesn't mean it will be effective.
Leslie Baumann, founder of the University of Miami Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute, advises that consumers first find out their skin type so they can seek ingredients that are best for their skin. (You can take a free questionnaire on her site, http://skintypesolutions.com.)
In some cases, organic versions are best. For example, if green tea agrees with your skin type, it's ideal to use an organic product, she said.
But if your skin calls for retinol, choosing a product containing retinol-rich carrot extract won't do as well as good old Retin A, Baumann said. That's because carrot extract does not react properly in the skin to have the anti-aging and anti-acne effects retinol can have, she said.
Vitamin C, which helps strengthen skin and prevent brown spots, is another tricky ingredient in skin care. Because it has a very low pH, it is difficult for the skin to absorb it, and it goes bad in the bottle quickly so it's tough to have a good one without preservatives, Baumann said. Better to consume Vitamin C in your diet, she said.
Just because something is natural doesn't mean it is risk-free. For example, bergamot can accelerate sunburn, Baumann said. And essential oils can cause allergic reactions; people allergic to ragweed, for example, often are also allergic to camomile or feverfew, she said.
And just because it sounds good doesn't mean it is. Many products proclaim themselves "paraben-free" but may contain other preservatives that are more harmful or that we know less about, Baumann said.
While Baumann encourages going green when possible, she cautions against falling for hype. She gets particularly frustrated with products that tout plant stem cells.
"It sounds really good, but the stem cells are not going to live in the cream on the shelf, and they can't penetrate into your skin, so it's worthless marketing," Baumann said.
Five to try
Dr. Laura Baumann recommends these natural products (click through the photos above):
1. Burt's Bees Natural Acne Solutions Maximum Strength Spot Treatment Cream, $13 at http://burtsbees.com
2. Jurlique Rose Hand Cream, $25 at http://jurlique.com
3. Shea Terra Organics Moroccan Argan Oil, $24 at http://sheaterraorganics.com
4. Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, $17.99, for 5 oz. at http://bluelizard.net
5. Aveeno Ultra-calming Daily Moisturizer, $16.99 at http://aveeno.com
Ten to avoid
David Pollock, a beauty industry executive and chemist who advocates for safe beauty (http://www.justaskdavid.com) and has his own line of natural skin care products called PUR attitude, advises consumers to stay away from these 10 potentially harmful ingredients commonly found in skin care products:
2. Polyethylene glycol (PEG) and propylene glycol
3. Lauryl/laureth sulfates
4. Petrochemicals (petrolatum, light liquid paraffin, petroleum distillate, mineral jelly, petroleum jelly)
5. Synthetic fragrance
6. Synthetic dyes
7. Triehtanolamine (TEA)