Dear Paula: With more medicines being prescribed in transdermal form, it is apparent that the skin is an amazingly absorptive organ. I am worried about the things we slather on our bodies in the name of beauty, and I find myself on a quest to purchase the most "natural," perhaps nutritional-grade skin treatments with minimal preservatives or no preservatives other than those occurring in the natural world, such as vitamin E. Will you please comment? - Helen, via e-mail
Dear Helen: I have written extensively on this issue, but unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer. In the world of skin care and makeup, the claims about natural products are either exaggerated (because the products are laden with lots of unnatural ingredients) or the natural ingredients they contain are problematic for skin. Simply because an ingredient grows from the ground or is found in nature doesn't make it automatically good for skin; the reverse also is true - just because it is synthetic doesn't make it bad.
Food-grade ingredients are not necessarily the best for skin, either, because often some fraction of the plant that has the most benefit for skin or is the most stable must be synthetically derived or extracted.
Another difficultly is that natural or plant-based preservatives have extremely poor antimicrobial or anti-fungal properties. Complications for skin that result from using a product that's contaminated are serious considerations when it comes to how a product is preserved.
"Natural" doesn't guarantee you're getting the truth about what a product really contains.
Paula Begoun is the author of don't go to the cosmetics counter without me (6th Edition) (Beginning Press, $27.95). Write to her at 13075 Gateway Drive, Suite 160, Seattle, WA 98168 or visit www.cosmeticscop.com.