Reactions to Plant Extracts in Cosmetics

This is what a patch test looks like.

Should you use natural products if you have sensitive skin?

There is an argument that you shouldn’t.  The problem is that an allergic reaction is caused by your immune system reacting to something that it encounters and identifies as a threat.  Natural products contain a wider diversity of ingredients so you have a bigger chance of one of them being something that will give you a problem.

That is the theory at any rate.  Theories are fun, but it is what actually happens that matters.  There is no evidence I can find that natural products are any more likely to cause allergic reactions than ones made of mainly synthetic products.  This might be partly because most natural products are formulated by the same chemists who do the regular ones. A lot of the stuff on the natural shelves simply isn’t all that natural anyway.

But while reactions to natural products seem to be as rare as reactions to normal ones, they do happen. I was reminded about this by a recent paper looking directly at allergic contact dermatitis to plant extracts in cosmetics.

The worst offenders were not the ones I would have guessed.  Particularly bad were the Compositae family of plants, which includes  chamomile.  Essential oils were represented by tea tree oil, peppermint and lavender.   Lichens are up there too, as is the one that perhaps is to be expected, henna.

The paper has some quite scary pictures and some quite scary statistics.  In a survey of 400 patients 6.22% reported an unpleasant skin reaction to a botanical product.  As skin reactions tend to look pretty gruesome there is the makings of a great story here for the kind of journalist who likes to run with that sort of thing.  Just find a few sufferers to give it a human interest angle, preferably including a child.  You’ll need a villain too so find a natural product company to point the finger at and you are away.

But despite the problems for the sufferers themselves being very real, this is something that affects a very small number of people.  The 400 people surveyed were dermatology and allergy patients.  They already have problems of one kind or another with their skins.  What happens to them is unlikely to happen to the overwhelming bulk of the population.  For comparison, in a similar population the synthetic preservative methylparaben would probably score about 2%.  But you aren’t comparing like for like there, because the botanical extracts have a lot of different chemicals in them, so you’d expect the figure to be higher.

Allergic reactions are simply an inevitable feature of the way humans have evolved.  If you have never suffered  from one yourself, count yourself lucky.   Remember it could happen tomorrow.  And it could happen with just about anything.  You might react to something you have eaten like a peanut or a prawn, or a metal like nickel (many people cannot wear jewellery that contains nickel).   When it comes to cosmetic products the most likely culprit is the preservative.   But a botanical extract containing shampoo in a green bottle with an organic label is quite likely to be a problem too.


Semin Cutan Med Surg 32:140-146 Allergic Contact Dermatitis to Plant Extracts in Cosmetics Alexander R. Jack, MD, Patricia L. Norris, MD, and Frances J. Storrs, MD

4 thoughts on “Reactions to Plant Extracts in Cosmetics”

  1. This was interesting. My skin has been acting like a little b**** lately, and it seems to react to EVERYTHING! I am having breakouts all over.

  2. Hello Colin, do you know who funded this study? It is always interesting to see the initial objectivity behind these studies.
    In part, it makes me smile. When we think of the deadly allergic reactions that can be caused by (for example) PPD in hair dyes, chemicals that are patented and bring in untold revenues for large corporations, you have to question who is concerned about an un-patentable plant oil!

    1. Hello Sam, cynicism is appropriate a lot of the time in skincare but I think you may be overdoing it a little here. Skin reactions do occur to natural oils and scientists ought to be documenting and quantifying them. Allergic reactions to both the synthetic and the natural components of personal care products are very low amongst the population as a whole. If one is higher than the other it is only really useful as a debating point, it doesn’t have much practical significance. Hair dyes are the worst category for provoking reactions. But even here I don’t know whether henna is more likely to give me a problem than PPD. I don’t think anyone has done a survey to find out. I should also point out that lots of companies that make natural products are large corporations with big revenues. They are quite prepared to use that power to promote their own agenda. I know of scientists who are obliged to keep their views to themselves for fear of offending big clients who don’t like their scaremongering stories being challenged.

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