A decade ago, the notion of natural beauty skin care products was still primarily confined to two arenas: high-end spas with products from Europe or local farmers’ markets featuring homegrown, artisan products at relatively low cost. It was inevitable that these two vastly different ends of the spectrum would eventually come to meet in the middle; that is where we find ourselves now. Just as the farm-to-table movement revolutionized taste buds and menu planning at restaurants, now estheticians and consumers have a plethora of options when it comes to readily available natural skin care products. With the increasing choices comes some real confusion: what to buy and from whom? Are natural artisan products truly better than naturally-derived synthetic versions created and tested in a lab? It turns out the answer to that may be more complicated than we would think, depending on who is asked and who ultimately will be using the product.

Natural vs. Synthetic

“Synthetics are copies of the natural product that are produced in a controlled environment,” explains Sheryl Stroud, esthetician and lead instructor for the esthetics program at Ridley-Lowell Business & Technical Institute in Danbury. “Natural things can be very effective, but also can cause more reactions because they have very active, concentrated ingredients. Synthetically-derived products tend to provoke less reaction.”

Stroud, who practices at JHouse Spa at the JHouse Hotel in Greenwich, uses Eminence products as well as Natura Bisse and Dermalogica; these are a mix of natural and synthetic product lines that she has found fulfill most clients’ needs. “Every esthetician has to have good product knowledge, but more importantly they need to know the individual client,” she says. Stroud uses a two-page intake form with her clients and teaches Ridley-Lowell students to do the same. “As a practitioner and a teacher, the choice of product is always based on the individual’s needs and the lines available for use.”

She cites examples where natural and seemingly innocuous ingredients—like blueberry—in a natural skin care line wound up causing a strong reaction in a client with a sensitivity. “The reality is that most products with active ingredients are put on the skin to stimulate it,” Stroud explains. “The question is the degree of reaction; that is sometimes easier to predict with the synthetics.”

Hilda Demirjian, a laser and skin care expert for more than 20 years, agrees with Stroud that the trend toward slapping natural products on the body without education or research first is a dangerous one. “People must do their research and find out what herbs or fruits are being used and what effects they may have at different levels,” she says. “Strawberries are delicious to eat but are frequently contaminated and should never be placed on the face.” She knows this first-hand; her mother was on medication for six months to heal a strong immune system reaction triggered by a homemade strawberry facial mask.

Demirjian has spas in White Plains and Manhattan, New York, with plans to open one in Connecticut in the near future. In her spas, she uses a private-label line of skin care products along with a proprietary formula collagen product made with green apple stem cells. The products include natural and synthetic ingredients, which Demirjian is comfortable with because she has familiarized herself with the products over the years and knows what to expect from them. “Botanicals are very concentrated,” she explains. “So you really only need a drop or two. Often people use way too much and accidentally create skin reactions. Using more of a product is not always better.”

Easton-based herbalist Alexandra Leigh agrees to a point; she says a large part of her work these days is educating people about misconceptions about herbal medicine, including the reasons plant medicine is so beneficial. “Plant medicine is gentle and wonderful because our bodies’ cell receptors are designed to accept them when the whole plant is used in a thoughtful and intentional recipe,” she explains. The more volatile essential oils are the ones she worries about people using indiscriminately.

Stroud tends to be wary of homespun products because of the potential for inconsistency or even potentially dangerous effects. “How much training has someone had in creating the products,” she asks. “Do they really know how much active ingredient to put in before it could potentially become damaging or throw off the chemical balance?”

“Sure, these things work. But when you get into home-brewed products, there is a question about the research and development behind the products,” Stroud continues.

Leigh, creator of her Triple Goddess Remedies line of artisan herbal skin care products, agrees. “There is a high degree of self-responsibility required of both the producer and the buyer,” she explains. “When you make a product for someone, you are intending to interact with their physical being. I take that very seriously. I have to be spot on with my recipes or risk adversely affecting someone’s health. It requires a lot of knowledge, preparation and research to provide nurturing, gentle products. ”

All three agree that when selecting skin care products, the mantra should always be “buyer beware”. Read the fine print, they say. Stroud says the top five to 10 ingredients should be the most active, meaning they should be the ones to create the effect you desire.

Cottage Industry Crackdown

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA do not currently regulate skin care products or the claims made about their efficacy. This does not mean, however, that there is a free-for-all in Connecticut when it comes to the cottage industry of skin care product creation and marketing. In fact, the current environment is just the opposite. Sandi Coppola of East Haven-based Sperry Naturals, along with approximately 150 other artisan skin care product producers in the state, recently learned this. In June, they received notification from the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection about an apparent new need to apply for certification with the department. The certification requires a $285 fee and a scheduled visit day from an inspector if they want to create and sell at markets any products applied to the body; soap is the one exemption to the policy. This is apparently a new measure, which has thrown Coppola’s business plans into confusion during what is usually her busiest time of year.

“For the past three years, until last Saturday, I sold everything at farmers’ markets,” she says. “But now I’m being told I can only sell soaps and herbal teas, even though I have all the licenses and permits and everything I was told I needed before now and nothing’s changed in the way I’m producing my products. I dreamed of doing this for years and I did everything I was supposed to do. It’s frustrating.”

Coppola, a retired chef who began her organic, artisan skin care product line after years of planning and development, has 22 products in total (all are currently sold on her Etsy site). The medicinal herbs and flowers in the products are grown on her three-acre organic farm of raised beds. “I plant it, I pick it, and I process it in a completely natural way without any chemicals,” she says. “Mother Earth didn’t mean things to be complicated; I try to follow her lead.”

While disappointed by the recent turn of events limiting her farmers’ market exposure, especially at New Haven’s CitySeed, Coppola is going to focus on developing more soaps and creating more DIY—make it yourself and leave with your own product—events at the farm in the coming months. Beginning in August, the planned Thursdays at the Farm series of events will begin with a fire cider workshop.

Folk herbalist Leigh’s product line includes organic plant-based and sustainably crafted skincare and first aid. “My remedies are handmade with love from my homegrown plants and local ingredients,” she says. “I felt a calling to make it easier for people to take better care of themselves and Earth by providing products that are created mindfully and holistically as well as connect people with the spirits of plants and nature in the tradition of our ancestors.”

In the past, Leigh has sold her products at local markets—including farmers’ markets and pop-up shops throughout the region—but like Coppola, she is moving more toward educational classes for consumers, concerned with what she calls grave misconceptions about herbal medicine and natural products. “People don’t understand the difference between essential oils and infused oils,” she says. “That is a big problem in a time when we’re hyper-regulating things. We all need to put our best foot forward and support the natural evolution that is occurring.”

“As we are re-awakened to the natural world, this explosion of interest in farm to skin products was bound to happen,” Leigh says. “And that is a good thing as long as the producers and the consumers take a high degree of responsibility for what they are creating and what they are choosing to use.”

Ridley-Lowell Business & Technical Institute will be offering free esthetic services with senior students from July 13 – Sept 13,  Thursday and Fridays only, from 9am to 1pm. Email SStroud@Ridley.edu for an appointment.

Nicole Miale is publisher of Natural Awakenings Fairfield County/Housatonic Valley, CT. Connect with her at NicoleM@NaturalAwakeningsmag.com.