I have to start with my disclaimer; I’m totally on the organic bandwagon. Given the choice between teeny tiny, tart organic strawberries and juicy oversized, sweet, genetically modified strawberries I choose… hmmm. Okay. Well, I do opt for organic produce, fair trade coffee, organic and eco-friendly fabrics, clean beauty wherever possible.

A few definitions to throw out there – organic foods are grown sustainably with certain soil standards, and without artificial pesticides. Organic products come from materials sourced by organic agriculture. And of course, nature on its own produces organic products.

Buying organic feels good, right? When we purchase a product labeled “organic” or “all natural,” we practically feel mother nature smiling down upon us. Natural products just feel inherently safe, healthful, eco-friendly. But there’s a huge misconception floating around when it comes to skincare, as buying organic trends up in popularity and green beauty continues to storm the shelves of the cosmetic industry—

The words “all natural” and “organic” do not equate allergen free (or even safe).

I have to take pause here and mention a few naturally occurring, organic substances to prove my point:

– Botox: Yep, you read that right, botox! Step right into the MediSpa for your organic face! Well, not quite. But Clostridium botulinum is a bacterium found in soil- and this powerful little guy produces paralytic neurotoxins (we love this property in dermatology)- but the disease can also be lethal.

– Mercury: “Hg” on the periodic table, nickname “quicksilver”—although in nature it’s mostly mined as mercuric sulphide. I remember breaking a thermometer and playing with the alluring silvery substance as a kid—lucky for me, I obviously absorbed a non-lethal dosage of the element. But in all forms, mercury is toxic; the level varies with amount, form, and exposure.

-Poison Ivy: I have some organic poison ivy growing in my backyard (kidding, I think). Joking aside, this member of the Rhus species does occur organically in nature, and its oily resin called urushiol causes a nasty allergic contact dermatitis (from direct contact with skin, or contaminated clothing). Fun fact, its leaves of three turn a purplish-red hue in the fall (caution, not fun for leaf piles).

This list could go on forever. But allergenic substances are not always so obvious. As a provider, “rash” is a common reason for office visits. And while “rash” could turn out to be any one of roughly ten million diagnoses, it’s become increasingly common to sit down with someone and go down the list of household and personal care items, only to rule out seemingly every possible agent—only to land on the one product that it “could not possibly be” the offender, since it’s “organic,” or “all natural,” and therefore couldn’t possibly be to blame. But perhaps an individual has an allergy to jojoba oil; or after years of using a product containing tea tree, has developed an allergic contact dermatitis. Sometimes, the offender is not so easy to pin down, or an additive is suspect. For example, the green beauty industry has been moving away from parabens as preservatives, so you may find a methylisothiazolinone in your natural beauty product- which is actually more allergenic in nature.

So what’s the takeaway here? Maybe you’re one of those lucky individuals who can seem to use any product at any time- but other individuals are highly sensitive and may be more prone to skin issues. And bottom line, allergens can exist anywhere, and any person can develop an allergy at any point in life. But if you do have sensitive skin in particular, I usually recommend staying away from heavily fragranced products (botanical fragrances are a leading cause of allergic and contact dermatitis, and can even make you more sensitive to the sun). Testing a product on a small, inconspicuous area of skin is always a good idea, and talking to your dermatology provider for skincare recommendations is an even better one. As for organic—I’m still on the bandwagon, but I’ll always back my skincare with science.

Ruth Sager PA – C