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Natural vs. Organic

By: Carl Thornfeldt, MD
Posted: January 30, 2009, from the February 2009 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

There is a new fad in skin care these days. Everywhere you look there are advertisements touting yet another new organic line. As concerns regarding the health of the environment continue to take center stage in the global conversation, these new lines are linking into this messaging, asking the consumer to believe organic products are not only safer to use than non-organics, but directly correlated to saving the environment.

While environmental stewardship is important, it is equally important to understand that organic product lines are not mutually exclusive to helping preserve the environment, nor are these lines always what you, as a skin care professional, should be recommending to your clients. To help keep your spa well-informed and getting the most out of your environmentally friendly practices, explore the background of formulating with botanical ingredients, what organic versus natural ingredients means at a biological level, and how you can thoughtfully make choices that will benefit your business and your clients.

Rare resources

Both natural and organic products incorporate botanical or herbal ingredients into their formulations. Usually these ingredients are purported to be the main therapeutic components. However, skin care practitioners should be careful to select botanical ingredients for their specific, desired beneficial effect based on scientific research and traditional medical knowledge founded on ethnobotany. A number of resources exist that can assist you in determining what activities the primary ingredients may have, such as the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.

Also, know some ingredients are obtained by wildcrafting, which is harvesting wild plants for commercial use. Unfortunately, this activity has brought certain plant species, such as American ginseng, to the brink of becoming endangered due to unregulated over-harvesting.1,2 Thus, skin care professionals should only support products that have renewable ingredients with sustained harvesting. A listing of these can be found with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora at

Safe standards

Botanical extracts are also much more susceptible to quality variations than synthetic products due to more factors affecting solubility, stability, pharmacokinetics, pharmacology and toxicity of the active ingredients. Some of these factors include:

  • growing conditions of the plant,
  • harvesting time, and care of botanical products during transport and storage,
  • method of processing the plant for extraction of active ingredients, and
  • in order to be of the highest quality, a plant must be healthy and disease-free.3