In recent years it seems the term "organic" has gained a cult following. Enthusiasts for organics abound in selected food aisles in grocery stores and at spas offering organic skin care, where these chemical-free, natural alternatives stand out among the parabens and artificial ingredients. But with every product claiming "all natural" and "no harsh chemicals," it's hard to know what's the real deal and what's hype. We talked to Kylee Nguyen, owner of Organic Spa Houston, and Dr. Christine Schaffner, owner of Bella Fiore Med Spa, to find out what organic really means.
What is organic skin care?
There are a few ways to define organic skin care. The FDA defines it as products that contain FDA-certified organic ingredients. This means that chemicals get the boot and the organic skin care ingredient is qualified to help with specific skin problems, Nguyen says. An ingredient such as aloe vera soothes the skin and—if grown on a certified organic farm—would be considered organic.
While Schaffner says that while the FDA refers only to ingredients that are derived from nature and that are not processed using excess synthetics or harmful chemicals, she doesn't think the FDA best defines organic skin care. Since their regulations on the field are open, it's better to trust wildcrafted ingredients, she says. These ingredients are not "FDA organic," but they're taken from nature and processed into skin care products. "From my perspective, wildcrafted supersedes 'organic,'" Schaffner says.
Why it works
"Most people think they have sensitive skin when they don't. People are reacting to the long-term use of synthetic ingredients," Schaffner says. Once her clients go organic, they don't go back. "Their skin is happier; it's less inflamed, less irritated, less sensitive," she says.
Nguyen also says she notices a difference when clients use professional organic skin care products rather than the lower-grade alternatives. "They [the products] tend to be more concentrated where most over-the-counter products tend to be more water- or oil-based," Nguyen says. "Think of it as over-the-counter compared to prescription medication—it's really obvious that there will be a different strength or potency. It's worth the investment."
What to look for
It's important to remember the FDA is an American-specific organization, meaning imported products take a bit more research. When it comes to American-specific brands, Nguyen recommends Ormedic and Source Vital. But if you're looking for an overseas product, she suggests shopping Germany's lines, because their skin care standards are unparalleled. "German skin care products are highly recommended in the professional industry," Nguyen says. Dr. Grandel and Dr. Schrammek are her go-to German labels.
What to avoid
There are a few ingredients that Schaffner warns against. If the product contains paraben or fragrance, it's probably not truly organic. "Fragrance can be a blanket term," she says. This means companies don't have to disclose the ingredients, and the term "fragrance" could encompass up to 500 unspecified ingredients. If the product is truly organic, the label will disclaim that the fragrance has organic essential oils. She also suggests shoppers scan the label for anything starting with PEG. PEGs are typically petrochemically derived (meaning derived from petroleum or natural gas) or propylene glycol, which dries out the skin. If these are on the ingredient list, the product isn't organic.
What to try now
In the past there was a tendency for organic skin care adherents, especially those with oily skin, to stay away from oil, but, Schaffner says, "our skin needs oil to stay hydrated." Since most people who overproduce oil have dehydrated skin, Schaffner suggests using jojoba oil for the face and coconut oil on the body. The nutrients our skin needs are often fat-soluble, and oils are a great way for those nutrients to reach deep into pores.
"You get mixed results when it comes to oil cleansing," Nguyen says. Instead of using oil alone, she suggests pre-cleansing with the product to draw out dirt and makeup, then washing with your favorite cleanser (her favorite is the Ormedic balancing facial cleanser). She says this is great for keeping the skin glowing between spa visits or as a general cleaning method.
Nguyen says that while there are tons of DIY skin care alternatives online (thanks, Pinterest!), what really gets results is consulting with a skin care professional. Your esthetician will be able to make skin-type–specific recommendations, and then you can find the organic skin care recipes that work best. Nguyen suggests, "Find out what your skin type is; then find the products suitable for your skin type." It's not about the trendy or new, she says. It's all about targeting your skin type.
If you prefer to go it alone, Schaffner suggests making a mask out of high-quality honey. Honey is a natural antibacterial, plus it hydrates and calms the skin. This one-ingredient mask may be the easiest organic option.