Ethique; Why natural does not mean safe

Tuesday 25th Aug 2020 |

When it comes to ‘natural’ beauty products, there is an overwhelming amount of information out there and plenty of misconceptions!

Brianne West

Biochemist and CEO & Founder of EthiqueBrianne West sheds light on the most common misconceptions around natural ingredients in beauty products and how this does not necessarily mean they are safe.

“There is huge misunderstanding around the idea that ‘natural means safe’ and conversely, anything that is developed in a lab is not. Why is it when we see the word “natural” on a product, we automatically assume it is safer and superior? I suppose on the face of it, the idea that nature knows best makes sense and is a romantic notion. But let’s not forget nature is full of exotic poisons, diseases and deadly compounds, so on closer examination, this idea just doesn’t hold water. 

Natural beauty is bit of a buzz word in the beauty industry – people get swept up in the excitement around new and ‘fashionable’ ingredients but rarely do their research. In fact, natural ingredients can often be worse for those with sensitive skin or allergies.

Mercury, arsenic, lead and lavender oil are all technically natural ingredients but there’s no way you’d want them in your skin or haircare products. Some of the most poisonous things known to man are completely natural, for example botulinum toxin (which is used to smooth fine line and wrinkles under the name, botox.  You can market snake venom as ‘natural’ but that doesn’t mean you should drink it or put it on your skin! 


Not only are natural beauty products rinsing people’s wallets, they’re also feeding into fear and uncertainty around the idea of ‘chemicals.’ Chemicals are often considered the enemy because people tend to fear the unknown. Everything is made up of chemicals, from water to a pencil, the air your breathe to the cells in your body. Chemicals are by virtue therefore not good or bad, they just are.

So personally, I get quite suspicious when I see the term ‘chemical-free skincare.’ It says to me that the people behind it, have no idea what they are doing, or are deliberately misleading and capitalising on people’s fear. Either way, I wouldn’t want to buy from them. As for synthetics, or chemical compounds made in a lab,  people tend to be suspicious as they don’t understand  the processes that go into this. But just because something is made in a lab or at scale in a factory it does not mean that it is unsafe or bad for you. In fact, synthetics are usually after as they have testing and safety standards they have to adhere to. Whereas a lot of natural ingredients don’t. 

Castor oil is one of my favourite oils, I use it in a lot of Ethique’s face cleansing products as it helps dissolve sebum. However, it is derived from castor beans, from which the poison ricin is made. Nnot something to be trifled with!. 


Some of the most well-known natural ingredients are essential oils, which are highly concentrated plant extracts. They are very strong and not to be messed with, but there is an enormous (and pretty unregulated) industry built around these oils purporting to prevent all sorts of illnesses from stomach upsets to cancer. There is very little robust science around essential oils (and certainly none at all to suggest their use in cancer patients), though there is some proof that lavender oil for example may be an excellent anti-anxiety medication. But they  are one of the most common allergens and cause allergic reactions. Essential oils should never be used neat on the skin and almost no situation calls for them to be ingested. Please be careful with these oils. They are strong chemicals. . Many people are sensitive to these and they can cause rashes, hives and even allergic reactions that can be life threatening.

Two very common essential oils recommended for babies and people with skin issues are lavender and chamomile, which interestingly both contain common allergens. Lavender (like other essential oils) is also under review by scientists to see if it requires a warning label. 

I think the main message is to keep in mind that scientists spend countless hours in labs to ensure products do what they claim to and that they are safe to use by the end consumer. Just because an ingredient is natural it does not necessarily mean it is the safest or best thing to use on your skin. We would be naive to think that rubbing random fruits on our faces (just because they’re natural!) is better than a properly formulated skincare product just because it may have spent some time in a lab!”

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