What’s Up With Organic Skin Care?

Face cream woman

Written by Arthur W. Perry, MD, FACS

Organic may be the most bastardized word in the English language.

Organic chemicals are supposed to be carbon-based, according to their strict definition. Somewhere along the line (actually more than 100 years ago), the term became associated with edible products that did not contain toxins, such as pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics. While the definition was not particularly good, the concept was a welcomed one. And over the last two decades, the “organic food” industry has steadily grown.

The introduction of “organic skin care” recently has really chewed up this organic concept. Real chemists cringe when products containing inorganic zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, talc, and iron oxide are described as organic. Confusion of our language is one thing, but is this purposeful fraud or simply linguistic gymnastics? When we run to the FDA for a definition, we don’t find one. They say if a company calls their products organic, the USDA definition must be followed. This is particularly bizarre since inorganic minerals are not agricultural products.

But why should a skin-care product even be designed as organic? The concept comes from a desire for wholesome products made with healthy ingredients. This goal is reasonable, but consider a skin-care product made from organically grown poison ivy. Legally it could be labeled organic, but you don’t need to be a physician to know that this is not something you would want on your body. Essential oils, which make up so many wonderful fragrances, may be organic but also may cause allergic reactions called contact dermatitis. In fact, many people suffer with allergies to essential oils. Synthetic fragrances, certainly not called organic (but may be created with organic chemicals) are less likely to cause allergies than “natural” ones. Safe and effective ingredients, such as organic vitamin C, can cause a terrible corneal injury if splashed in the eye.

What about those so-called “natural” substances in skin care? Plutonium and cadmium are natural, but you wouldn’t want those chemicals near your body. On the other hand, phenoxyethanol is a synthetic preservative that is reasonably nontoxic and helps keeps your products safe and fresh. But it’s neither organic nor natural.

The truth is that a well-formulated product carefully evaluated for toxicity and efficacy is what should be created. As a chemist and plastic surgeon, I want a short ingredient list because each ingredient, whether labeled as natural, synthetic, or organic, has the potential to cause toxicity or allergy. I look for scientifically proven ingredients that have low toxicity. Skepticism of all cosmetic ingredients, whether “organic” or “natural” is warranted. Skin care should be safe and effective, rather than organic or natural.

Dr. Perry is a board-certified plastic surgeon and a member of The Dr. Oz Show expert panel.