The Environmental Working Group has identified a number of common artificial ingredients used in cosmetics, including artificial fragrance, preservatives and sulfates, as potential irritants and hazards to some aspects of your health. So it's hardly surprising that "natural" skin care products have become a mainstay of the cosmetics industry.
However, many of the face cleansers branded as natural aren't as green as they seem. Often, one or more of those Dirty Dozen ingredients are still lurking in the background. (Artificial fragrance, which can irritate sensitive skin, is by far the most pervasive.) So before you jump at a facial cleanser because it says "natural" on the front, turn it over and look at the list of ingredients on the back -- you might be surprised.
We weren't able to find a truly 100 percent natural facial cleanser that also performs as well as more traditional products, but Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser (Est. $9 for 6 oz.) comes very close at 98 percent natural. It has a small amount of artificial fragrance, which users generally say is pleasant, but is free of parabens, phthalates and the common irritant sodium laureth sulfate.
And better yet, it works -- albeit gently. "It doesn't exactly strip away dirt like some powerful stuff, but it is really gentle and works well around my eyes which are extremely sensitive," explains a reviewer at Amazon.com. The editors of Allure magazine also select Yes to Cucumbers gentle milk cleanser as a top performer in their 2012 Beauty Awards, saying that it gently soothes as it cleanses your skin; almost all user reviewers agree, and say it won't dry your skin with regular use.
If you need a strong cleanser to remove tough makeup, Basis Cleaner Clean Face Wash (Est. $4.50 for 6 oz.) and Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser (Est. $7 for 6 oz.) do a good job of removing stubborn makeup without stripping your skin's natural moisture, although the Basis cleaner is a little bit more likely to dry truly sensitive skin with regular use.
Each of the just-mentioned products has its green side. Basis Cleaner Clean is oil-free, soap-free and rich in botanicals including mint, lemongrass and chamomile. Users love its fragrance, saying it's, "Refreshing -- not flowery or powdery, just clean." But that fragrance is, at least in part, artificial; and users are sometimes surprised to find that this "natural" product contains sodium laureth sulfate and methyldibromo glutaronitrile, a potentially toxic preservative that gets a 7-out-of-10 hazard rating from the Environmental Working Group.
Basis Cleaner Clean definitely works and leaves your face feeling smooth and clean afterward -- just make sure you understand the ingredients you're getting.
Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser is marketed as having 90 percent "naturally derived" ingredients, but skin care expert Paula Begoun warns that processing turns many ingredients that started out natural into something else by the time they show up in your cleanser. At least, she says, Neutrogena is more forthcoming than many of its competitors in explaining what that "naturally derived" label means.
Neutrogena Naturals also won a 2012 Eco Beauty award from Cosmetic Executive Women for its dedication to eco-friendly production processes -- and again the product works, cleansing even tough makeup away without stripping your skin of its natural oils. However, the artificial fragrance may irritate sensitive skin, and there are some mixed reviews about breakouts -- presumably caused by that irritant.
Still, Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser is the only other natural cleanser we've seen that receives the same hazard rating from the Environmental Working Group as our Best Reviewed pick, Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser. (Both are rated 3 out of 10, or just at the lowest end of "moderate" hazard.)