Are Natural Skincare Ingredients Safe? –

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Are Natural Skincare Ingredients Safe?

It’s monarch season so we thought we’d talk about these beautiful creatures. 

monarch caterpillar crawling on a milkweed stem   monarch chrysalis green with gold foil  monarch butterfly on milkweed

Why do monarch caterpillars feast solely on milkweed?

Milkweed contains a class of compounds known as glycosides, which are poisonous to many animals.  The monarch caterpillar sequesters (a fancy way of saying harvests and stores/builds up) these glycosides as a defense mechanism against predators.  So, when some poor unsuspecting bird or lizard comes along and eats the caterpillar (or butterfly), then it will get very, very sick.

Monarchs aren’t the only species to use naturally occurring compounds as a defense mechanism.  Various species of sea sponges, sea cucumbers, and even plants (milkweed, foxglove, etc.) either make or sequester incredibly toxic compounds to ward off animals that may try to eat them.

Believe it or not, many anti-cancer drugs were originally found in plants and invertebrates.  Just take a look at the figure below to see some of the compounds which exhibit anti-cancer activity.  ALL of these compounds were originally isolated from plants or animals, which means they’re all naturally occurring.

Even though these compounds kill cancer cells, normal cells often get harmed or destroyed as well by these toxic compounds (come on, none of us actually believe chemo is healthy for us, right?  Just because chemotherapy drugs kill cancerous cells doesn’t mean they don’t harm us in the process).

Natural products with anti-cancer activity isolated from plants and animals since the 1960s

Extracts from Clavellina sp, a type of sea squirt or tunicate, are being studied for their potential to kill cancer cells. (Credit: National Cancer Institute)

Hopefully, I’ve made this point:  nature is a battlefield.

While we’ve been conditioned to believe that natural ingredients in skincare are synonymous with healthy ingredients to put on our skin (and in our bodies), that simply isn’t wholly true.

Let’s take a closer look starting with a big one.

Essential Oils

Many essential oils contain phototoxic or photosensitizing compounds (aka constituents).  The compound, furanocoumarin (also written as furocoumarin, these terms are synonymous), is the most well-known of the potential phototoxic compounds found in some essential oils.  Indeed, bergamot is typically processed further to remove furanocoumarins and then sold as Bergamot FCF (furanocoumarin free) essential oil.  

How an essential oil is processed (steam distilled as in image below vs. cold pressed)

essential oil distillation process

AND also which part of the plant is used to harvest the essential oil (for example leaf vs. blossom vs. fruit vs. peel) can also determine whether the essential oil contains any photosensitizing compounds.  For example, most cold pressed citrus essential oils are photosensitizing, BUT those same citrus oils, when processed by steam distillation are NOT photosensitizing.  Here’s a table to help show the difference.

Photosensitizing and/or Phototoxic

Not Photosensitizing or Phototoxic

Angelica Root (Angelica archangelica)


Bergamot (Citrus bergamia, Citrus aurantium)

Bergamot FCF (furanocoumarin free)

Grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi) – from peel, cold pressed


Lemon – cold pressed (Citrus x limon, Citrus limonum)


Lime – cold pressed (Citrus x aurantifolia, Citrus x latifolia)

Steam-distilled Lime Essential Oil (Citrus aurantifolia)


Mandarin leaf (distilled) Citrus reticulata (Blanco) (mandarin leaf has a very low level of furocoumarins and IFRA does not give maximum use levels.)

Orange, Bitter (Citrus aurantium) – fruit peel – different species than sweet orange

Orange (Sweet) Essential Oil (Citrus sinensis) – fruit peel, different species than bitter orange

Rue* (Ruta graveolens, Ruta montana)


Okay, so we’ve made our point with essential oils, but what other natural ingredients commonly used in skincare products are bad for us?


Natural, but all too often contaminated with asbestos, also natural, a HUGE turnoff for us

Petroleum, mineral oil, etc.

Yeah, we’re going to keep moving.  But, these ARE natural!

PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid)

Do you remember this once common sunscreen ingredient?  Sorry millennials, I doubt if you do (yep, get ready for it… you’re too young 😊), but ask your parents, they’ll know.  Well, PABA is naturally occurring.  It has fallen out of favor because quite a number of people are allergic to it, it tends to be photosensitizing, and it’s been shown to penetrate the outer layer of skin – exactly what you want from ingredients like Vitamin C, resveratrol, peptides, and other actives, but not ideal for this particular ingredient.

You’re absolutely right!  SO many amazing skincare ingredients ARE naturally occurring:

·       Resveratrol

·       Argan Oil

·       Coenzyme Q10

·       Olive Oil

·       Vitamin C

·       Meadowfoam Seed Oil

·       Vitamin E

·       Hyaluronic Acid

·       Azulene and Bisabolol (both anti-inflammatory compounds found in blue chamomile essential oil)

However, the challenge is in retraining our brains to second guess whether a product or ingredient advertised as natural IS actually healthy for our skin.  That’s where Return to Eden Cosmetics can help!  We’ve done the research for EVERY single ingredient we use (whether it occurs naturally or is a spin on a natural compound – think peptides shown to protect skin from sun damage or reverse the depth of wrinkles) to assess its safety so you can feel confident that you’re doing something good for your skin when you use our products.

So, go ahead and apply some more Shade in a Bottle for an extra dose of protection against nature (read: sun 😊) before heading outside today!


1 Lichota and K. Gwozdzinski. Review Article: Anticancer Activity of Natural Compounds from Plant and Marine Environment.  International Journal of Molecular Sciences.  Published:  09Nov18.





6 M.F. Gurish, et al.  The Effect of Various Sunscreen Agents on Skin Damage and the Induction of Tumor Susceptibility in Mice Subjected to UV Irradiation.  Journal of Investigative Dermatology.  Vol. 76 (No. 4).  1981.


Brandy Searcy sitting with her dog Abe in her lap in a backyard in Loveland CO during the summertime.  A raised bed of blooming columbines and fuschia colored ice plant is in the background 

Brandy Searcy is a pharmaceutical formulation development scientist with over a decade experience in skincare product development.  With a B.S. in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech, she is self taught in many fields most notably skin anatomy and physiology and immune modulation (although she has formal education and on the job training as well and was also raised by a registered nurse). 

When she's not at her day job formulating pharmaceuticals, she's researching immunology to learn more about her own diagnosis with Hashimoto's, developing new skincare formulations, or spending time with her husband and two rescues in Southern California.

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