Natural skin care's promises are only skin-deep

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?

Understand labels

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.

Research 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.