If you have even a passing interest in skin care, you’ve probably heard of botanical skin care. It’s as opaque as it is ubiquitous, with its enticing promise of plant-based formulations and “all-natural” ingredients. There’s a large and growing universe of products that use plant-derived ingredients, often in the form of oils or extracts, to deliver results free of the harmful toxins that supposedly lurk beneath the surface of their synthetic counterparts.
According to True Botanicals founder Hillary Peterson, the hype is real. Peterson launched her brand after finding herself dissatisfied with the efficacy of the clean beauty options on the market. A cancer diagnosis following the birth of twins underscored the importance of the goods in her regimen, and the natural products she came across simply weren’t up to snuff. The experience led to an epiphany. “If I, a young cancer survivor who wants to be pursuing every single possible way to be healthier, don’t want to use clean, natural skin care”, Peterson remembers thinking, “why would anyone else?”
Every True Botanicals product is certified by MADE SAFE, a nonprofit organization that specializes in comprehensive safety standards backed by a mix of scientists, skin care professionals, and heavily-credentialed PhDs. Peterson points to the MADE SAFE seal as a serious differentiator in an increasingly crowded market, one that pushes the brand to innovate and develop ever more effective formulas.
But not all brands are as rigorous in their R&D, even if their marketing proudly touts the same sort of results. That grey area can lead to confusion, and sometimes, intentional obfuscation. There’s a healthy amount of skepticism surrounding botanicals and their ability to work as effectively as their less natural counterparts—and whether they’re entirely natural to begin with. That skepticism is partially rooted in reality, says Michelle Wong, a Sydney-based skin care expert with a PhD in chemistry and a YouTube channel where she deftly explains—and often debunks—common beauty industry myths in a simple, straightforward manner. “Some botanical ingredients can be very effective,” Wong notes, “but you’re limited to what already exists in nature, and plants didn’t evolve just to give us nice skin.”
Peterson attributes botanical skin care’s popularity to a growing appreciation that “nature knows best.” But does it? Over the years, skin care brands have used synthetic chemistry to tweak natural ingredients to make them more effective; Wong points to breakthroughs in medicine along with beauty aisle staples like retinoids and stabilized vitamin C derivatives as proof. “Natural”, Wong says, is also poorly defined. “Most natural certifications allow and don’t allow certain chemical transformations and ingredients in a somewhat arbitrary way.” Assuming that all naturally-formulated products are better for the environment or your health isn’t always accurate—and brands that claim otherwise may not have your skin’s best interests at heart.
Ultimately, experts might find themselves arguing two sides of the same coin. Both Wong and Peterson stress the importance of a third-party certification in assessing a product’s veracity. They are, first and foremost, proponents of educating yourself and steering clear of any brands that haven’t put in the appropriate amount of homework. (Peterson cites competitors who market their products as natural but include ingredients that prevent plant actives and nourishing botanicals from properly absorbing into the skin.) And Wong is far from resistant to the power of a botanically-enhanced product or two. (She uses cold pressed rosehip oil to moisturize, and centella asiatica extracts for when her skin feels particularly sensitive.) Of course, what for works Jerry inevitably doesn’t work for George. The only way to really find out is to try yourself.
5 Botanical Skin Care Products Worth Trying
To Reverse the Clock
True Botanicals’ signature formula employs a potent combination of antioxidants to help you vanish fine lines and wrinkles— or prevent ’em from popping up in the first place.
For Extra Glow
This one calls on a mix of ingredients—including seed oils and algae extract—to plump skin and leave your face with a telltale dewy glow.
The Moisturizing Pick
The Ordinary isn’t a strictly botanical brand, but its deeply hydrating pure rosa canina seed oil certainly counts. Slot it into your normal routine—after cleansing, before moisturizer—and don’t be put off by the natural scent.
For Sensitive Skin
This serum isn’t entirely plant-based, but still uses green tea and centella asiatica extracts for a gentle upgrade to any skin car routine. Dab on 2 or 3 drops a day and watch it work its magic.
The Full-Body Pick
Peet Rivko’s deeply hydrating blend of botanical oils features ingredients you’ve heard of—jojoba, avacodo—and a few that might be new to your regimen, like baobab.