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Natural cosmetic ingredients

Benefits (and risks) of natural ingredients

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First published: 23.Oct.2018

Natural ingredients have been used for thousands of years. They form part of traditional medicines and topical skin or hair preparations in cultures all across the world.

Some of them have proven antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties and can help treat skin conditions. Others are used as moisturizers, softeners, or conditioners.

But the fact that they are "natural" does not mean that they are harmless: learn about their risks and hazards and try some of the recipes we have included in today's article.

Olive oil, a natural ingredient in cosmetics.
Oregon State University

Natural ingredients: tradition and science

Human beings have been using natural ingredients since the dawn of time. Botanicals and phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants), clays, and animal fats have been tested by trial and error over countless generations.

Traditional medicines have accumulated empirical knowledge about their effectiveness and more recently science has taken interest in them.

The complexity of natural biochemicals and their potential uses in medicine and cosmetology has led scientists to study them with more interest over the last 30 years, conducting clinical studies, laboratory trials, and tests.

Several botanical ingredients have been found effective for skincare, or for treating skin conditions:

  • Psoriasis: colloidal oatmeal (1).
  • Atopic dermatitis: aloe vera
  • Acne and rosacea: green tea, niacinamide, and feverfew.
  • Hyperpigmentation and antioxidative capabilities: licorice, green tea, arbutin, soy, acai berry, turmeric, and pomegranate.

Botanical compounds considered effective for treating skin conditions include, among others: olive oil, chamomile, colloidal oatmeal, oat kernel extract, feverfew, acai berry, coffee berry, curcumin, green tea, pomegranate, licorice, paper mulberry, arbutin, and soy. (Baumann, 2009) (2).

Consumers also have turned toward "natural" products, wary of the increasing presence of man-made chemicals in their lives. And, many patients frequently turn to herbal ingredients to relieve persistent symptoms when they find their prescription therapies ineffective.

But "natural" does not necessarily mean good, better, or harmless. Physicians and dermatologists must inform and advise their patients about the benefits and also the potential adverse effects of these "natural" ingredients.

In this article we will look into a few "natural" ingredients and their proven uses:

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Honey is a sweet sugary product made by honey bees (and some other insect species) from the sucrose they gather from flower nectar. The process involves the action of an enzyme secreted by the bees (invertase) and maturation in the honeycomb's cells. The final product combines the sugars glucose and fructose.

Honey's safety risks and health concerns

As it is a natural product, harvested under natural conditions it can become contaminated with microbes, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and heavy metals. It can also be adulterated. Raw honey can harbor botulism and ingestion may even lead to death. Always use honey from a reliable source to avoid health hazards.

Al-Waili (2012) (3) described the risks, contamination, and adulteration in detail.

Some cosmetic recipes using honey

Ediriweera and Premarathna (2012) (4) disclosed several cosmetics that act as softeners, moisturizers, or have medicinal applications:

Face wash

Add a small amount of lemon juice into 1 tsp (5 ml) of honey and apply on the face before washing.

Facial cleansing scrub

Combine 1 tsp (5 g) of almond seed powder into 1 tsp (5ml) of honey. Scrub face softly and then wash off.

Facial to improve smoothness

Whisk the white of one egg and add 1 Tbsp. of honey, 1 tsp. of glycerin and 1 ⁄ 4 cup of flour.

This is a firming mask, apply onto face, leave on for 15 minutes, and rinse with warm water.

Facial to improve softness

Add 1 or 2 Tbsp., of honey into 1 ⁄ 3 cup of finely ground oatmeal. Incorporate 1 tsp of rose water.

Clean the face and spread the facial mixture evenly onto the face. Leave on for 10 to 90 minutes -depending on how much time you have. Remove with a soft washcloth and rinse with cold water.

Facial moisturizing pack

Combine 2 Tbsp. of honey with 2 tsp. of whole milk. Apply and leave on for 15 minutes. Rinse with warm water and again with cold water.

Dry Skin Lotion

Mix 1 tsp. of honey, 1 tsp. of olive oil and 1 ⁄ 2 tsp. of lemon juice. Apply on skin and rinse after 15 minutes.

natural cosmetic ingredients, pestle and mortar
Prepare your own homemade cosmetics.

Hair Conditioner

Mix 1 tsp. of honey with 2 tsp. of olive oil. Apply on hair and wash off after 15 minutes.

Hair Rinse

Combine 1 tsp. of honey with 4 cups of warm water. Use as a hair rinse.

Pimples and cracked lips

Apply pure honey directly.

Honey's therapeutic properties for skin disorders

McLoone (2016) (5) reviewed scientific studies on the therapeutic properties of honey concerning skin disorders and reported that:

  • Honey has some remarkable scientific properties that, plausibly, could promote the healing of wounds.
  • The antioxidant content of honey and its antimicrobial and immunomodulatory properties positively encourage the wound healing process in burn wounds.
  • Acacia honey and Brazilian green propolis (BPE) have been effective in the treatment of tinea infections.
  • Kanuka honey from New Zealand was efficacious in the treatment of rosacea.
  • Herpes simplex outbreaks on the lips: healing time were similar for honey and acyclovir.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is produced by cold pressing crushed olives to extract the oil from the pulp.

This mechanical method does not use heat, cooking, or chemical solvents to extract the oil. The words "Extra Virgin" or "First Cold Pressed" reflect this process.

Other oils such as corn, soybean, sunflower, and canola are extracted using solvents distilled from mineral oil such as hexane, a relative of gasoline. This process leaves hexane residues in the vegetable oil in very small proportions: less than 5 parts per million.

Olive oil has been used for centuries in cosmetic and medicinal preparations as a vehicle and a lubricant. Some of its properties according to Zhaoyang (2015) (6) are:

  • Antioxidant activity due to its phenolics content: hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleuropein.
  • Antimicrobial effects against bacteria involved in respiratory and intestinal infections due to the presence of hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleuropein.
  • Apart from oleic acid, it contains squalene which is an antioxidant, moisturizer and is used as a treatment for seborrheic dermatitis, acne, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis.

Topical cream recipe with olive oil

Al-Waili (2005) (7) reported that a mixture of honey, olive oil, and beeswax is an effective treatment for diaper dermatitis, psoriasis, and eczema. It acts by inhibiting the growth of microbes such as Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans.

The proportions are 1 part each of honey, beeswax, and olive oil (volume⁄volume).

Olive oil health risks

Danby (2013) (8) studied the effect of olive oil applied topically on the skin and compared it to sunflower seed oil. Six drops of oil were applied on the forearm, twice a day, for 4 and 5 weeks.

  • Olive oil-induced reddening of the skin (erythema) and affected the integrity of the skin's outer barrier (stratum corneum), damaging the skin barrier.
  • Sunflower seed oil preserved the stratum corneum integrity, did not cause erythema. and improved hydration.

Danby cautioned that "...olive oil ... therefore has the potential to promote the development of, and exacerbate existing, atopic dermatitis. The use of olive oil for the treatment of dry skin and infant massage should therefore be discouraged," concluding that "these findings challenge the unfounded belief that all natural oils are beneficial for the skin and highlight the need for further research."

Coconut Oil

Coconut Oil is a natural plant oil extracted from the "meat" of mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm. It has a high saturated fat content (saturated fats lack double carbon-carbon bonds and are in a way less reactive than unsaturated fats -such as olive, sunflower, or canola oils).

Being saturated makes it more resistant to oxidization in contact with the air.

Cosmetic uses of coconut oil

1. As a hair combing "cream"

Rele and Mohile (2003) (9) studied its application as a treatment to prevent combing damage to the hair and compared it with mineral oil, and sunflower oil:

  • Coconut Oil reduced protein loss remarkably for damaged and undamaged hair when used as a pre-wash and post-wash product.
  • Mineral oil and sunflower oil didn't prevent protein loss.

The authors believed that the low molecular weight of coconut oil allows it to penetrate the hair shaft, its linear-shaped molecule (as opposed to the bulky chain of unsaturated linoleic acid present in sunflower oil) make penetration easier.

2. Dry Skin Treatment

Agero and Verallo-Rowell (2004) (10) compared coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for xerosis, a common condition whose symptoms are dry, scaly, itchy, and rough skin. They found that the effects and safety of both oils were similar and that the "xerosis.... showed a general trend toward better... improvement with coconut oil than with mineral oil."

Coconut oil's antimicrobial properties

Recently, the oil also has been shown to have antiseptic effects: Peedikayil (2016) (11) found it effective against Streptococcus mutans and Shilling (2013) (12) against Clostridium difficile.

Coconut oil risk: allergy

Anagnostou (2017) (13) reported a case of coconut allergy in a child that was previously tolerant to coconut and regularly exposed via both the skin and gastrointestinal route.

It is a very rare event. learn more about coconut allergy.

Coconut cracked open displaying its meat

More Natural Cosmetic Ingredients

Canola - Rapeseed oil

Loden and Andersson (1996) (14) found that canola is effective against skin irritation, caused by Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS).

They compared hydrocortisone, petrolatum, fish oil, borage oil, sunflower seed oil, shea butter, and canola oil and found that the visible signs of irritation were less pronounced when using canola oil.

They used SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) which is widely used in many personal hygiene products such as toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwash, body wash, soap, and detergents. SLS is a surfactant that makes these products more effective as cleaners, but it also irritates the skin of sensitive individuals.

Tea Tree Oil

Tea Tree Oil is extracted from a tree that is native to Australia, Melaleuca alternifolia contains over 100 compounds, most of them are plant terpenes and alcohols that have antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.

Carson et al. (2006) (15) reviewed its uses in different treatments and cosmetics, and its use in treating acne, compared to benzoyl peroxide.

Risks of Tea Tree Oil

It can be toxic if ingested. There have been reports of oral poisoning in children and adults.

It can cause irritation and allergic reactions (dermal toxicity), and the degradation products of monoterpenes in tea tree oil are sensitizing agents.


Tea (Camellia sinensis), apart from being a great infusion, is effective as a topical lotion for treating acne (Sharquie, 2006) (16). The lotion was prepared as follows:

  • 35 g (1.25 oz.) of tea with 100 ml (3.4 fl. oz) of boiling water. Steep for 30 minutes and cool.
  • Boil again until two-thirds of the water has evaporated. This results in a 3% tea extract concentration.
  • Dilute by adding 3 parts of this 3% extract to 1 part of pure alcohol (alcohol acts as a preservative).

The study found that after 2 months of therapy, it was effective in 88% of those treated, with 64% showing "good results".

Pine Resin Salve

This is a traditional recipe from Scandinavia, where resin salve made from Norway spruce (Picea abies) has been used for centuries to treat skin ulcers and infected wounds.

Rautio (2007) (17) studied its antimicrobial properties finding that it had a "bacteriostatic effect against all tested Gram-positive bacteria but only against Proteus vulgaris of the Gram-negative bacteria. Interestingly, the resin inhibited the growth of bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE)."

The resin's wound healing, skin regeneration, and antimicrobial properties derive from the specific acids it contains pimaric, abietic, neoabietic, levopimaric, palustric) and its lignans (such as p-hydroxycinnamic acid).

Sipponen (2013) (18) found it effective as an "antifungal against the most common dermatophytes, and against the Candida albicans yeast."

Pine Resin Salve Recipe

The resin salve was prepared by boiling the resin with animal fat or butter. Sipponen prepared it according to the traditional method:

1 part of raw coniferous resin was mixed and boiled with 3 parts of salt-free ordinary butter (weight⁄weight), cooled at room temperature, and placed in glass tubes.

The resin from any conifer can be used to prepare the salve. It can be purchased online, at natural products stores, or harvested directly in a forest. Use only what you need, don't remove the fresh resin from wounds -resin protects the tree- only harvest the drips. The sap is more abundant in spring and dries by fall.

Pine resin health risks

Just because it is natural and comes from a pine tree does not mean that it is harmless: all natural ingredients involve certain health risks.

In the case of pine resin, read the CDC hazard information sheet for resin. It specifically mentions skin sensitization and strongly recommends that anyone who has shown symptoms of asthma due to this substance should avoid all further contact with this substance.



Carica papaya is a tropical fruit that has been traditionally used in African medicine to treat burns. Starley (1999) (19) disclosed how it was used at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Gambia for treating pediatric burns: mashed papaya pulp is applied on burns. The papaya pulp prevents wound infection, removes necrotic tissue, and displays antimicrobial activity.

Epsom Salts

Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) MgSO4 is the main ingredient in bath scrubs and salts.

Its benefits as an anti-inflammatory, as a treatment for diabetes and heart disease, when taken as a supplement, or when it is present in mineral or natural tap water are well known:

Read more about Magnesium's benefits.

But it can also be absorbed through the skin by bathing in Epsom salts (Waring, 2015) (20): "Bathing in Epsom salts is a safe and easy way to increase sulfate and magnesium levels in the body."

There is some anecdotal evidence of improved skin inflammation after the application of magnesium to the skin. Chandrasekaran (2016 ) (21) studied this possibility and found that "hair follicles make a significant contribution to magnesium penetration."

However, Gröber (2017) (22) found no proof of its absorption through the skin.

Below is Chowdhury's (23) recipe for an Epsom Bath Salt:

Bath Salt

Mix 1 ⁄ 2 cup of pickling salt (or sea salt) and 1 ⁄ 2 cup of Epsom salt. Mix in 1 tsp. of baking soda.

Optional: Add a few drops of food coloring to the mix or dried flowers (pulverize them first).

If you want to add essential oils (or EO) to the mix, such as lavender or spearmint you must consider that salt is not a carrier for essential oils, it will dilute in the water and the oily essential oil will float on the water in tiny droplets and may cause irritation. To work around this, dilute your essential oils with a vegetable oil and then add to the salt to create a "wet" mixture. The vegetable carrier oil will dilute the EO.

Store in a dry, dark sealed container. Use 2 cups of Bath Salt in one standard-size bathtub.

Hazardous Substances in Natural Cosmetics

Klaschka (2016) (24) sampled natural cosmetics manufactured in the European Union, which enforces strict regulations regarding labeling, formulation, and information disclosure for cosmetics.

The study found that "Most natural personal care products contain natural hazardous substances."

Klashka added that:

"Dangerous natural substances are listed in most ingredient lists...
Four creams in this study contained peanut oil (Arachis hypogaea oil) without special information about peanut allergy...
The vast majority of the products contain allergenic fragrance ingredients...but they are not disclosed by name in the ingredient lists...
Consumers should be informed that many natural substances used in personal care products are classified as dangerous substances, most of them being hazardous for skin and eyes. Consumers should also be informed that the vast majority of natural cosmetic products contain allergenic fragrance compounds, either as single compounds added or as natural constituents of various natural substances.

What is a Natural Cosmetic?

There is a legal void in both the US and the EU: the FDA specifically prohibits or restricts only 11 ingredients from cosmetics formulations (25); the EU has a long list of banned or restricted substances (26).

But neither the US nor the EU defines what "natural" or "organic" means when applied to personal care products. To fill this void private organizations have stepped in and created voluntary seals: Natural Products Association with its "Natural Seal" in the US (27), or Cosmos and NaTrue in the EU (28).

These organizations assess the natural and renewable sources of cosmetic ingredients and the absence of human health risks among other criteria.

Taking Action

As a consumer, you can read the list of ingredients printed on the products that you use and check their health hazards on the Environmental Working Group website:

Search ingredient here

The ingredients are rated with a scale from 1 to 10, where: 1-2 are a low hazard, 3-6 are moderate hazards and 7-10 are high hazard ingredients.

Closing Comments

Natural ingredients offer a therapeutic alternative for treating skin disorders based on the antimicrobial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties of botanicals.

They also provide antioxidants and biologically produced chemicals (phytochemicals, made by plants) which are less aggressive on the environment than industrial chemicals. However, they do pose risks such as allergies, dermatitis, irritation, and poisoning.

Last but not least, as a consumer, you should verify the ingredients listed on the products you purchase and use, check if they are really "natural", seek assurance in seals that validate the natural origin of their ingredients, and keep up to date on the health benefits and risks of natural ingredients.

References and Further Reading

(1) Fowler JF Jr et al. (2010). Innovations in natural ingredients and their use in skin care. J Drugs Dermatol. 2010 Jun;9(6 Suppl):S72-81; quiz s82-3

(2) Baumann L, Woolery-Lloyd H, Friedman A. (2009). Natural" ingredients in cosmetic dermatology. J Drugs Dermatol. 2009 Jun;8(6 Suppl):s5-9

(3) Noori Al-Waili, (2012)Antibiotic, Pesticide, and Microbial Contaminants of Honey: Human Health Hazards. ScientificWorldJournal. 2012; 2012: 930849. 2012 Oct 14. doi: 10.1100/2012/930849

(4) E. Ediriweera and N. Premarathna, (2012). Medicinal and cosmetic uses of Bee's Honey - A review. Ayu. 2012 Apr-Jun; 33(2): 178-182. doi: 10.4103/0974-8520.105233

(5) Pauline McLoone et al., (2016). Honey: A Therapeutic Agent for Disorders of the Skin. Cent Asian J Glob Health. 2016; 5(1): 241. 2016 Aug 4. doi: 10.5195/cajgh.2016.241

(6) Zhaoyang Cui, et al., (2015). Topical use of olive oil preparation to prevent radiodermatitis: results of a prospective study in nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients. Int J Clin Exp Med. 2015; 8(7): 11000-11006. 2015 Jul 15

(7) Al-Waili NS, (2005). Mixture of honey, beeswax and olive oil inhibits growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans. Arch Med Res. 2005 Jan-Feb;36(1):10-3

(8) Danby SG et al., (2013). Effect of olive and sunflower seed oil on the adult skin barrier: implications for neonatal skin care. Pediatr Dermatol. 2013 Jan-Feb;30(1):42-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1470.2012.01865.x. Epub 2012 Sep 20

(9) Rele AS, Mohile RB., (2003). Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. J Cosmet Sci. 2003 Mar-Apr;54(2):175-92

(10) Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM., (2004). A randomized double-blind controlled trial comparing extra virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for mild to moderate xerosis. Dermatitis. 2004 Sep;15(3):109-16

(11) F. Peedikayil, et al., (2016). Comparison of antibacterial efficacy of coconut oil and chlorhexidine on Streptococcus mutans: An in vivo study. J Int Soc Prev Community Dent. 2016 Sep-Oct; 6(5): 447-452. 2016 Oct 24. doi: 10.4103/2231-0762.192934

(12) Shilling M (2013). Antimicrobial effects of virgin coconut oil and its medium-chain fatty acids on Clostridium difficile. Antimicrobial effects of virgin coconut oil and its medium-chain fatty acids on Clostridium difficile

(13) Katherine Anagnostou (2017). Coconut Allergy Revisited. Children (Basel). 2017 Oct; 4(10): 85. 2017 Sep 29. doi: 10.3390/children4100085

(14) M. Loden and A.C. Anderson (1996). Effect of topically applied lipids on surfactant-irritated skin. February 1996

(15) C. F. Carson, K. A. Hammer, and T. V. Riley, (2006). Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: a Review of Antimicrobial and Other Medicinal Properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006 Jan; 19(1): 50-62. doi: 10.1128/CMR.19.1.50-62.2006

(16) Sharquie KE, Al-Turfi IA, Al-Shimary WM. (2006). Treatment of acne vulgaris with 2% topical tea lotion. Saudi Med J. 2006 Jan;27(1):83-

(17) Rautio M. et al., (2007). Antibacterial effects of home-made resin salve from Norway spruce (Picea abies). APMIS. 2007 Apr;115(4):335-40 doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0463.2007.apm_548.x

(18) Arno Sipponen (2013). Coniferous Resin Salve, ancient and effective treatment for chronic wounds - Laboratory and clinical studies. Academic dissertation Meilahti Hospital, Helsinki, on May 24th, 2013

(19) Starley IF, Mohammed P, Schneider G, Bickler SW. (1999). The treatment of paediatric burns using topical papaya. Burns. 1999 Nov;25(7):636-9

(20) RH Waring, (2015). Report on Absorption of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) across the skin. School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham. B15 2TT, U.K

(21) Chandrasekaran NC et al. (2016). Permeation of topically applied Magnesium ions through human skin is facilitated by hair follicles. Magnes Res. 2016 Jun 1;29(2):35-42. doi: 10.1684/mrh.2016.0402

(22) Gröber U, Werner T, Vormann J, Kisters K. (2017). Myth or Reality-Transdermal Magnesium?. Nutrients. 2017 Jul 28;9(8). pii: E813. doi: 10.3390/nu9080813

(23) Chowdhury S. Learn to make bath and body products. Udemy online course 2018

(24) Klaschka U (2016). Natural personal care products: analysis of ingredient lists and legal situation. Environ Sci Europe 28:8. doi: 10.1186/s12302-016-0076-7

(25) Silver Spring FDA. Prohibited & Restricted Ingredients. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (updated 26 January 2015)

(26) EU restrictions cosmetic ingredients. website accessed 09.26.2018

(27) Natural Products Association. website accessed 09.26.2018

(28) NaTrue. website accessed 09.26.2018

About this Article

Natural Ingredients in cosmetics, A. Whittall

©2018, 23.Oct.2018. Updated. 06.Dec.2020.

Tags: cosmetics, natural ingredients, botanicals, phytochemicals, moisturizers, skin complexion, psoriasis, acne, skincare.

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Subject: Natural Ingredients. The truth behind "natural" ingredients. Learn about the risks and benefits of the botanicals and phytochemicals used in cosmetics. Natural does not mean safe!

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