Sometimes the decision to go natural with your beauty products can put you in a bind: They are usually better for the environment, but not all of them work as great as the synthetic options.
“Anyone with a garden and a blender can make a ‘natural’ product,” says Mandi Griffiths, manager of education for natural beauty company Dr. Hauschka. “The challenge is creating one that has a good consistency and a good shelf life.”
But some products create unique problems, mainly because no one has discovered natural ingredients to rival the synthetic options. “The primary obstacle is that it is incredibly difficult to find safe and effective raw materials to use, “ says Ginny Cardenas, CEO and Founder of Lila Natural Cosmetics, the maker of Scotch Naturals nail polish. “And because natural ingredients require different manufacturing processes, there is still quite a large learning curve involved in formulation.”
We asked beauty experts why products like mascara and nail polish are rarely found in appealing, effective natural formulas—we call them natural beauty unicorns—and dug up some excellent natural alternatives.
The area of lash enhancement has been lacking until recently. “If you read the ingredients label of conventional mascaras, you’ll see a long list of ingredients that rely heavily on plastics and non-biodegradable ingredients—often petroleum derived,” says Griffiths. The toxic and synthetic materials have traditionally provided thickening benefits and allowed the pigments to adhere to lashes.
“Natural lines are figuring out how to make mascaras without toxic ingredients that won’t smudge or flake,” says Sara Snow, green living expert and author of “Sara Snow’s Fresh Living.” Natural waxes and starches in newer formulas offer dramatic thickening and volumizing benefits without flaking off. But while Griffiths concedes that we may never be able to find a natural mascara we can swim in, the new formulas will at least stand up to daily wear as well as their conventional counterparts.
Natural BB creams, or beauty balms, aren’t in abundance simply because the category is fairly new to the market. “I think you’ll see them coming—it’s just a matter of time,” says YouBeauty Cosmetic Chemistry Expert Ni’Kita Wilson. “There are good naturally derived emollients and pigments, and I can’t think of a formulating issue for natural BB cream,” she says.
And in many cases, brands essentially have a product that does everything a BB cream does, it just goes by a different name. “There is no defining system or category for what a BB cream is, but the general commonality is that it is a tinted moisturizer with SPF,” Griffiths explains.
Yes, you’ve seen plenty of sandalwood and lavender essential oils in natural options, but those don’t compete against a Chanel No 5. “Synthetic fragrances are very complex,” Wilson says. “Essential oils are one-note and lack the subtleties of traditional scents.” But when you consider the potential toxins in many conventional scents, they don’t smell as sweet.
Natural and organic fragrance is evolving to give synthetic perfumes more competition. Elegant botanicals, extracts distilled from plants, and sugarcane-derived alcohols elevate natural fragrance past the one-note scents that used to pack the natural shelves of the foods market.
The secret ingredient in most frizz-fighting products is silicone. It seals the outer layer of the hair so moisture can’t penetrate the hair shaft and cause the swelling that results in frizz.
“Nothing is as effective as silicones,” Wilson says. “Many natural products use oil, which can contain a tiny part of water, and that makes it less efficient than silicone.” For serious weatherproofing, you’ll need a silicone, but more responsible brands incorporate natural oils. Truly natural brands will blend lightweight natural oils and moisturizing plant extracts to help seal out frizz.
Top natural picks:
Giovanni 2chic Ultra Moist Super Potion Anti-Frizz Binding Serum Avocado & Olive Oil, $8
John Masters Organics Dry Hair Nourishment & Defrizzer, $16
Innersense Quiet Calm Curl Control, $20
Big hair requires some heavy-hitting synthetic fixatives or film formers to hold strands in place, Wilson says, and nature doesn’t offer the options that chemistry traditionally has. “Styling products such as hair sprays, sculpting clays, volumizers, and gels are difficult to make because you have to replace propylene glycol, phosphates, silicones, and petro chemicals with natural ingredients that mimic those properties,” says John Masters, founder of John Masters Organics.
To increase your hair’s volume, look for natural starches and gums, Wilson says. These ingredients are good for soft hold, and natural clays are showing promise for amplifying styles with flexible hold.
Few beauty products are more unnatural than nail polish. Solvents are key for a great high-gloss, chip-resistant polish, Wilson explains, because they carry the pigment and ensure the formula spreads evenly. And you need fixatives to adhere polish to your nails. But solvents and fixatives are synthetic.
Most brands have gotten on the “three-free” bandwagon and removed some of the most toxic ingredients, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene. And some have removed formaldehyde resin and camphor to be “five-free.” But that hardly makes them natural. A water-based formula is the only option for natural polish, but few brands are focusing on developing these offerings.
“Nail polish shares the same chemistry as house paint and automotive paint, which are solvent based,” says Cardenas. “In the last decade water-based technology that could replace solvent-based coatings are available, but nail polish is the last hold out to water-based technology.”
Top natural picks:
Scotch Naturals Premium Nail Laquer, $15 each (Pictured: Ceasefire, Bitter n Twisted, Roasted Mellow, Canal Street Daisy)
Priti NYC, $15 each (Pictured: Stone Crop, Baby Tears, Coffee Bush, Chocolate Daisy)
In order to adhere to skin and mask imperfections like uneven pigment and fine lines, primers rely on silicones. “The way silicone polymers are linked allows them to form a second skin and hold on to makeup,” Wilson says.
If formulated properly, there are natural substitutes that can stand in for traditional silicone primers like aluminum ocenyl succinate. And light diffusers can help create the soft focus effect that makes primers so appealing.
Whether you prefer chemical or physical sunscreen, finding a fast-absorbing, non-greasy formula is a challenge. In order to create a formula that feels appealing, you can’t include high levels of sun protection. The higher the sun protection, the more difficult it is to formulate a lotion you’ll want to wear, Wilson explains.
Mineral sunscreens are problematic because the ingredients tend to appear chalky, white, and/or very thick, says Griffiths. We say it’s worth the trouble of finding a mineral sunscreen you like since it provides superior UV protection, but if you can’t get past the texture or color, your best solution to stay natural is to opt for a moisturizing product with chemical SPF 15 in a natural base and reapply frequently.
Here’s something we bet you’ve never thought about: What is glitter made of? That shiny stuff is mostly derived from plastic, and when it ends up in the ocean after going down your sink drain it causes microscopic damage. It is possible to manufacture biodegradable glitter from seaweed, which is exactly what you see here.
Top Natural Pick:
Lush Wonder Woohoo Bubble Bar, $7 (limited edition for Mother’s Day)