Beauty Health Makeup Skincare

What’s the Difference Between Natural and Organic Beauty Products?

By Diane Small
More and more women are learning that their cosmetics and skincare products may be full of hormone-disrupting, skin-irritating, health-ruining chemicals, many of which have been been linked to cancer. From formaldehyde and phthalates to BHA, BHT, parabens and other conservatives, cosmetic ingredients can be anything but pretty.

This fact is all the scarier when you consider that the cosmetics industry is basically unregulated, especially when compared to other industries like the food and drug sector (which are both also dubiously safe, given the politics behind the approval of new products, but that’s another story). Yep, that’s right: the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act doesn’t require the FDA to approve every ingredient that a cosmetic company uses. What this means is that some very harsh chemicals enter your cosmetics and skincare products, and anything applied to the skin goes directly into the bloodstream, through the lymphatic system–essentially, you may as well be eating any cosmetic product you’re using.

Many people try to avoid harmful chemicals by buying grooming products labelled ‘natural’ or ‘organic’, assuming these goods contain plant extracts from nature and/or biological ingredients that have not been touched by synthetic chemicals, respectively.  But in America at least, it’s possible to use both the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ on a label without all the ingredients even being so. However, one important exception to this rule includes products bearing the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) Organic Certification label. These products are required to contain 70-94% organic ingredients, but can also contain chemicals too, and will only say:“Made with organic [up to three organic  ingredients]” on the label. If a product is 100% organic, it can bear the higher grade Certified USDA Organic seal.


What Does ‘Organic’ Really Mean?

The standards and requirements for each country are quite different–it comes down to how each government believes products should be labeled. In the U.S.A, the umbrella body is the Organic Trade Association, which grew out of the organic food movement. Internationally, there are various certifying bodies, including the Soil Association in the U.K., and BDIH in Germany.  The French Ecocert label signifies that 100% of the ingredients are of natural origin, and this  label is the only organic certification for colour cosmetics. That is not to say only products sold in France bear the Ecocert label; in fact, some products that are sold in the US, such as Physicians Formula’s Organic Wear line, carry this certification. One very high standard accreditation is the German NaTrue label, which is more rigid than most others. Details can be found in English at

It is still possible for any brand to claim their product is ‘natural’, however, so long as it doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients or colours, and is minimally processed.

Even better than certified organic are Biodynamic Cosmetics. This label means the farms that grow the organic ingredients for the product are focused on emphasising the development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs. While there is very limited ability to verify such ingredients, quite often Biodynamic products far exceed organic standards for purity and care for the earth.


AEOS skincare claims to use biodynamic principles


Differing Views

While some believe that the only way is organic, there are advocates of synthetic compounds who argue that not all natural and organic products are good for you. Even Liz Earle, known for her ‘natural’ skincare range puts some synthetics in her formulae, on the grounds that not everything natural is good: “Cyanide and arsenic are natural and are poisonous, of course.”

Still, the jury is also out on the safety of synthetic preservatives. There was a regulatory body to review the safety of parabens in 1984 and found they were safe to use in cosmetics up to the level of 25% (most of the creams and lotions contain 0.01 -.03%). But a study published in 2004 detected the presence of parabens in breast tumors, and another study published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Applied Technology shows further evidence of a correlation between parabens and incidences of breast cancer. While parabens in one cosmetic may be considered to be at ‘safe’ levels, the 2012 study indicates that if you layer on different cosmetics that contain them several times a day, the paraben levels in your body can accumulate dramatically and become harmful. No wonder they’re banned in the European Union.

Liz Earle justifies her use of preservatives by stating that non-preserved products can really grow some nasty bugs and become more harmful than those containing synthetic preservatives. “I have bought non-preserved products in the past only to find they have grown some pretty nasty bugs. I bought one ‘natural’ skin cream only to find that a couple of months after opening it grew asperillus niger, a green toxic mould that causes the deadly farmer’s lung disease.”

While this may be the case, if you use your products in good time, this should never happen.



Know Your Products

If a key natural component of a product is water (aqua), you should realize there will be a preservative, which could be natural (like citric acid, for example) or chemical (like parabens). How do you know if the product is safe? Unless it bears a label like the NaTrue, EcoCert or Certified USDA Organic seal, it’s hard to say. If you can’t pronounce or understand half the ingredients on the bottle, it’s probably not organic. Any ingredient that is identified by the prefix, word, or syllables “PEG,” “Polyethylene,” “Polyethylene glycol,” “Polyoxyethylene,” “-eth-,” or “oxynol” is synthetic, and possibly harmful in some way. There are several apps on the market, like Cosmetic Maze or Dirty App, that allow you to enter ingredients of a product or scan its bar code, to know what’s safe and what’s not, and there are some good articles in Eluxe that walk you through the worst chemicals in cosmetic products. Memorize the top 10 worst ingredients, and avoid!

The Bottom Line

So, what’s the difference between natural and organic beauty products? Generally speaking, organic ingredients are those which are grown without pesticide or herbicides, and they must also be GMO free. To carry an official ‘organic’ label, certain standards for health and safety must be carried out–‘natural’ cosmetics will not follow those safety guidelines, and because their ingredients are so harsh, they are likely to test them on animals for safety, too.

Natural just means ‘derived from nature’. While, as Liz Earle points out, it may be true that some ‘natural’ ingredients can also be harmful, certified organic labels are not at all likely to carry such ingredients. Moreover, while any cosmetic can contain some natural or even organic ingredients and still be bad for you (think a harsh shampoo, loaded with chemicals, but which also has a touch of Argan oil, for example), to have a certified label on  a product saying it is ‘organic’, the vast majority of ingredients have to be so.

The bottom line is, do your research. If a company cares enough to use organic ingredients, they’re not likely to use harmful synthetic ones, too. But as with any product on the market, buying safe grooming products is a case of ‘buyer beware.

*Thanks to Beauty Press for help on this article.

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  • Reply
    Apr 24, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    Recently I’ve been researching beauty products to see if the ingredients are harmful or not. It isn’t as easy as it seems and I wish regulations were more transparent and effective. After reading through your article, I have a better idea of how all of this works. In general, as you mentioned, if there’s tons of ingredients listed, it’s probably not the best option.

  • Reply
    Liz Earle
    Apr 25, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Interested to see myself widely quoted here! Please be aware that the 2004 study regarding parabens was flawed and since has been widely discredited. The traces of parabens were not found to be in the breast tumour samples but on the glassware used for the experiment (from the washing solution). Unsure why the researchers have never publicly acknowledged this basic error, which led to a global skincare scare. In the 11 intervening years, studies have found no link between parabens and breast cancer – indeed parabens are a naturally occurring family of compounds that keep fruit fresher for longer (a reason why blueberries – a superfood full of parabens – last longer than raspberries). Hope this is helpful. Liz Earle.

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