All-natural, pure, safe, green, organic… Many cosmetics companies are going clean these days, and new niche brands seem to pop up daily. But are these natural makeup products really better for my skin and body? Would I be smart to ditch my Clinique foundation for a product that is formulated with “raw, food grade and organic ingredients in their natural state”? Why are these products so popular, anyway—is the take-home that traditional makeup is dangerous? First, it’s important to understand why “natural” cosmetics have gotten so big. The U.S. government—more specifically, the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that regulates cosmetics—doesn’t require safety testing for cosmetics ingredients other than color additives. That freaks a lot of people out, because it means that makeup could be full of chemicals no one has ever shown to be safe. The FDA does periodically inspect cosmetics factories, follows up on consumer complaints and can remove a product from the market via the federal court system if it discovers something unsafe—but this can take a while, if and when it happens. (That said, some states, like California, have passed their own more stringent safety regulations.) Essentially, it’s up to the cosmetics companies to ensure that their products are safe. Can we really trust them to prioritize safety over their bottom line? Here’s the thing, though. The companies that have created natural product lines are asking us to trust them, too. Because while products labeled as organic are indeed more tightly regulated in that agricultural ingredients have to be raised according to USDA organic standards, the much more popular “natural” label, along with labels touting products as “clean,” “pure,” “safe,” “green,” and “eco-friendly,” are not held to any national standards, either. “Natural” is not federally defined or regulated, and products labeled this way aren’t subject to any safety testing. So are companies using the term in good faith or scamming us? Let’s investigate. “Natural” doesn’t have a strict definition, so companies use it to mean different things. Cosmetics companies often don’t define the word “natural” anywhere in their marketing literature. Do they mean that their ingredients are derived from plants? Or from renewable resources? Or are not man-made? And how many ingredients in a given product need to fit these criteria in order to earn the company’s natural label? At Arbonne, which says that its products integrate “the most beneficial botanical ingredients from nature with the principles of green chemistry,” I stumbled across a list of “1339 Ingredients chosen in line with our botanical tradition” that, bizarrely, included quite a few non-botanical, synthetic ingredients such as this mouthful: “Acrylates/Aminoacrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Peg-20 Itaconate Copolymer.” Ilia Beauty touts that “each product is filled with up to 85 percent bioactive organic ingredients,” but that whole “up to” thing leaves me wondering if some products contain little to none. (I contacted the company to ask, but no one got back to me in time for my deadline.) Similarly, Clarins says that all of its products “contain natural botanicals,” which doesn’t actually tell us anything about how many, or what percentage, of its total ingredients are indeed natural. And some companies’ claims I investigated were too weird to even make sense of. Perusing the website of Ecco Bella, a company selling “natural and organic cosmetics,” I was informed that “instead of [using] water, we present our customers all actives; instead of vitamins we use VitaminCells.” Hmm. (I noticed in my poking around that companies sometimes say they choose natural ingredients over chemical ones, but that’s not quite right—even natural products are chemicals. I think they mean “synthetic.”) That’s not to say that all natural makeup claims are vague or meaningless. Jane Iredale’s products have undergone third-party EcoCert certification as Natural Cosmetics, which means that at least 95 percent of their ingredients are “natural” in origin, in that they are derived from renewable resources and manufactured by environmentally friendly processes, and that at least 50 percent of all the plant-based ingredients in their formulas and at least 5 percent of all ingredients by weight come from organic farming. Now that’s a clear definition that actually means something. Are “natural” products better for you? Not necessarily. But even if products are plant-derived or non-synthetic, that doesn’t mean they are safe—there are plenty of naturally produced toxic compounds. (Hi, arsenic and cyanide and lead!) Biochemist Bruce Ames at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute systematically compared the toxicity of synthetic and natural chemicals and found that at high doses, the two classes are equally likely to be dangerous. And dose, by the way, really matters. I get annoyed when I see news stories warning that trace amounts of some cancer-causing chemical have been discovered in shampoo or eyeliner or food packaging. Toxicologists cannot determine how dangerous a contaminant is until they know how much people are exposed to, yet so many of these articles don’t estimate or even nod to dose. If your blush contains something that was shown in a study to boost the growth of cancer cells, that doesn’t mean that you’ll get cancer if you use it, because the risk depends on how much you use and how much gets absorbed into your body, among other things. And even if no research suggests that a chemical is dangerous, that doesn’t mean that it’s safe, either—it might just mean it hasn’t been studied. Remember when water bottle companies suddenly began touting that their products were free of bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic-hardening chemical linked to hormone issues? Well, when they got rid of BPA, they had to switch to other chemicals—ones that everyone assumed were safe but had actually just never been studied. And now, unfortunately, some research suggests that these replacements could be more dangerous than BPA. Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics database, ranks various products according to safety, but a lot of the “safe” ingredients have simply never been studied. The database is transparent about the lack of data, but still: It’s amazing just how many so-called safe ingredients have never actually been shown to be harmless. What ingredients are “good” and which ones are “bad” isn’t black and white. Speaking of switching over to new chemicals, one more thing is crucial to keep in mind about natural cosmetics. Many of the chemicals these companies avoid are synthetic preservatives such as parabens and phthalates, which are added to products to prevent microbial contamination. In their stead, companies use natural preservatives, which are often less effective. Your natural foundation might be pure in that it doesn’t contain petrochemicals, but it might also be contaminated with mold or bacteria. In 2015, the FDA sent a warning letter to the facility that manufactures products sold by Juice Beauty, which says it carries “The Purest Organic Skin Care Products,” because the company’s eyeshadows were contaminated with Bacillus cereusa—bacteria that the FDA warned can, within 24 to 48 hours, cause “significant loss of vision and often loss of the eye itself.” (The company says its tests revealed that the amount of Bacillus in its eyeshadows was far below the acceptable level set by the FDA, and the case was closed.) In June 2017, Beautycounter, which is “committed to a health and safety standard that goes well beyond what’s required by U.S. law,” had to recall its Nourishing Day Cream because it was contaminated with Pluralibacter gergoviae, bacteria that can cause skin and eye infections. These same bugs contaminated 15,000 tubes of “Naturally Active” brand Liz Earle’s Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser in November 2016. Natural preservatives can introduce other problems, too. Grapefruit seed extract, which is commonly used as a natural preservative, has been shown to interfere with the body’s metabolism of certain medications. And a preservative found in moisturizers, shampoos, and cleansing wipes called methylisothiazolinone, which has become more popular since parabens fell out of favor a decade ago, was named the 2013 “Allergen of the Year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. So when companies swap out what they believe to be potentially dangerous synthetic preservatives for “safer” alternatives, they may introduce new risks, too. And by the way, fears over some of these synthetic preservatives may be overblown. People began avoiding parabens after a small 2004 study identified traces of parabens in 20 human breast cancer samples. Yet the scientists didn’t check to see whether parabens might lurk in healthy breast tissue, too, and it’s not silly to think they would: In 2010, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported finding traces of the most common paraben, methylparaben, in the urine of more than 99 percent of Americans they tested. So although the scary 2004 study found parabens in cancer tissue, it didn’t come close to showing that parabens caused the cancers. And to put things into perspective, the estrogen-like activity of parabens, what is believed could make it carcinogenic, “is 10,000 to 100,000 times more weak than a birth control pill,” says Kenneth Portier, Ph.D., the managing director of statistics and evaluation at the American Cancer Society. (Phthalates, on the other hand, are probably worth avoiding, but according to the FDA, they are used a lot less in cosmetics than they were in the past.) So a “natural” label doesn’t mean much. And it certainly doesn’t mean a product is any better than its conventional counterpart. Let’s rattle them off: “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean plant-derived, or made from renewable resources, or safe, or eco-friendly, or not tested on animals. It could, but it doesn’t have to. So before you spend more on that fancy foundation or lip gloss, do some homework. Check out the company’s website to see if it clearly describes how it sources its products, what they contain and why it matters. And trust your gut—if the product sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Marketing, even with the best of intentions, is still just marketing. What’s irksome about natural marketing (besides the aforementioned list of things it doesn’t mean) is the way it implies that other products, which aren’t touted as natural, are somehow bad for you. Why else would they go through all the trouble of being natural if there weren’t a good reason, right? But the conventional cosmetics you buy are held to the same standards of safety as the ones with the green leaf on the box, so buy what you like and try not to worry too much. If you’ve been using the same kind of mascara for years, you shouldn’t see the popularity of natural alternatives as a sign that you should stop. And if you find a natural lipstick you love, that’s great, too. For my part, I’ll be keeping my Clinique foundation. This article was updated with a statement from Juice Beauty about an FDA inquiry into the safety of its products. (By Melinda Wenner Moyer – science and health writer based in New York. She regularly contributes to Slate and Scientific American too).