I like to consider myself a reasonable balance of holistic and shrewd—as someone who's wellness-obsessed, I'm understandably concerned with what goes into my body, but as a 20-something trying to hack it in a creative field, I’m just as conscious of what’s coming out of my wallet. Thus, it’s always been a priority to parse out which pricier natural products are worth investing in. Thanks to information like the Environmental Working Group’s list of the safest conventionally grown produce, knowing what to buy organic (and what to skip) is a breeze at the grocery store. Unfortunately, shopping for beauty can be a different story.
Of course, there are environmental reasons to opt for sustainably manufactured whenever possible; after all, the chemicals in our products eventually end up in our landfills and water supply. When it comes to our health, however, is where things get murky: The beauty industry isn’t subject to FDA regulation, and terms like “natural” and “organic” can be confusing (or even misleading).
To complicate things further, not all chemicals are necessarily hazardous. Preservatives, for example, keep harmful bacteria at bay. Plus, there’s a reason chemicals started showing up in our products in the first place—sometimes, the organic option just doesn’t work as well. I suspected that just like at the supermarket, there has to be a smart way to determine which organic and natural products are worth the higher price point. So I enlisted a bevy of experts to determine which beauty buys you should always be organic—and which ones you can skip. See what they had to say below.
What the experts say: “Organic skincare is primarily important only when you are talking about fruit and vegetable extracts and compounds,” explains Ayelet Faerman of Ofra Cosmetics. “With mineral-based products, it is less important to [choose] organic as the minerals are naturally occurring, and being organic has no real impact on the mineral’s effects. For example, if you are using a lip balm that is mineral oil-based, having it be organic is not as important as if you are using a beeswax-based lipstick. Powders and shadows also normally don’t differ between natural ingredients and organic products, since they are not involving any plants.”
The bottom line: Save your organic budget for plant-based products.
What the experts say: “Organic products are most likely perfectly fine, but the organic label may be immaterial,” reveals David Lortscher, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Curology. “I don’t like the idea of putting pesticides on my face, so it is tempting to reach for a cleanser or moisturizer labeled ‘organic.’ But even if the source of the ingredient is not organic, that does not mean that there are chemical and pesticide residues that remain in the product—highly unlikely, in fact! I typically look for ‘organic’ in the food aisle but not the skin products aisle. Plant extracts, which are organic, may have irritating properties and cause skin irritation and allergic reactions, such as may be seen with lavender oils, peppermint, and so on.”
The bottom line: Choose whichever product is right for you—organic skincare is no less likely to irritate your skin, so don’t be afraid to go conventional.
What the experts say: “I think it’s important that, with any product, we avoid harsh chemicals such as parabens and sulfates,” says stylist Csanyi. “Also, supporting cruelty-free products is always a plus. You can find products that will pass that checklist and still won’t necessarily be organic. I certainly wouldn’t knock all organic products! I think it really depends on the client and their hair type—sometimes an all-organic product just can’t get the job done.”
The bottom line: While organic, specifically, might not be effective for some hair types (for example, oily or fine), always skip stripping chemicals. One study from UC Berkeley showed drastic drops in hormone-disrupting chemicals among teen girls who stopped using non-natural care products (those without phthalates, parabens, and triclosan) for just three days.
What the experts say: “The unfortunate truth is there haven’t been any long-term studies on whether organic tampons are healthier or safer,” reveals Jane van Dis, an ob-gyn at OB Hospitalist Group in Los Angeles. “While organic tampons don’t contain bleach, chemicals, or toxins, you still need to remove them after four to five hours to prevent [toxic shock syndrome]. Many people think that organic tampons protect against TSS, but this is a common misconception. Also, tampons (organic and otherwise) shed, leaving behind material and altering the pH balance in the vagina, which can lead to infections. Products with certain body-safe, non-organic materials—like Flex, which uses a special medical-grade polymer, or certain menstrual cups—don’t have these issues.”
The bottom line: We’ve talked about the fem care revolution, and organic tampons certainly don’t hurt—but if you’re extra sensitive or looking for a 100 percent shed-free option, opt for a Flex or DivaCup.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetics Q&A: Why are cosmetics not FDA-approved? Updated February 22, 2018.
Harley KG, Kogut K, Madrigal DS, et al. Reducing phthalate, paraben, and phenol exposure from personal care products in adolescent girls: findings from the HERMOSA intervention study. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(10):1600-1607. doi:10.1289/ehp.1510514