When it comes to clean beauty, “natural” isn’t always best. Here’s what’s safe and beneficial, and what’s best to avoid.

When Kristen Fanarakis emerged from a facial at an all-natural salon in Atlanta, her face did not have the fresh, glossy glow she had hoped for.

“My face was basically falling off,” she said, noting that the result was closer to what happens after a Fraxel laser treatment, which can leaves patients with red, shedding skin for days. “I looked Frankenstein-ish.”

It wasn’t a normal reaction for Ms. Fanarakis, the 44-year-old founder of a clothing brand. She has what she describes as “strong Greek skin” that can withstand regular chemical peels and ample retinol usage. What her skin apparently couldn’t withstand was the papaya and pumpkin essential oils used during the facial.

“Skin care is a science, so assuming that something ‘natural’ is better is risky,” she said. “There are plenty of compounds out in nature that are bad for us.”

That sentiment is growing amid an unregulated “clean” beauty boom in which many new brands position themselves as better for skin simply on the basis of their natural, nontoxic ingredients. Essential oils, often added to products for fragrance or for their antibacterial properties, have become particularly controversial as they’ve grown in popularity, with companies like doTerra and Young Living raking in billions of dollars on sales of the oils.

Dermatologists have long argued that essential oils are risky for skin, but customers are starting to catch on in the wake of unexpected and sometimes painful skin reactions. Last March, an article on the satirical website Reductress, titled “Essential Oils to Cure Your Rash From That Other Essential Oil,” offered a succinct summary of the backlash.

Dr. Annie Gonzalez, a dermatologist in Miami, has seen an uptick in essential oil reactions, calling them one of the leading causes of allergic contact dermatitis. The situation has worsened during the pandemic, she said, because people are experimenting with essential oil remedies while stuck at home.

“It’s becoming more problematic because people are using undiluted forms of these oils to make their own product,” Dr. Gonzalez said.


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