5 Skincare Ingredients That Aren’t as Sustainable as You Think

Written by Heather Irvine for Apoterra Skincare

“Natural!” This concept alone seduces. If we choose this beauty product we are doing good for our body and skin, and also for the planet. We may even feel the quiet pleasure of knowing that this product will eventually surpass the benefits of more commonplace skincare products based on synthetic, processed, or unnatural ingredients. Hold that thought, because we think so too! If you have arrived at using Apoterra Skincare, you are probably a savvy person who realizes every natural product purchase is not an uncomplicated act. There is really a lot to know about natural products and sustainability, many factors to consider when studying ingredients, or learning about a natural skincare company’s environmental stewardship practices. 

You may already be hip to avoiding mineral oil, paraffin, petroleum products, and a long list of other ingredients. But the truth is that natural skincare isn’t necessarily sustainable skincare, or even eco friendly skincare. 

Much has been written, blogged about, and huddled over in health and beauty aisles, about some of the most common fillers, oils, and additives, synthetic and natural alike. 

Let’s move into some advanced and nuanced territory, on the subject of when natural and even plant based isn’t necessarily sustainable skincare.  We will be focusing on five botanicals - a few that are very commonly used in skincare, body care, and home care products, plus a few that are newer on the scene - that may not be sustainable skincare ingredients, even though they are natural and otherwise intriguing!  

2 Skincare Ingredients That Are Over-harvested 

Apoterra Skincare Sustainable Ingredients

Babchi (and Bakuchiol) Sustainability 

Bakuchiol is an ingredient derived from the leaves and seeds of the babchi plant (Psoralea coryifolia), which is also called Kushtanashini. Endemic to Central and Eastern India, it is known to be endangered but that did not protect it from receiving buzz as potentially comparable to retinol, and a rapid spike in over-harvesting followed. 

Though traditional use is common where it is endemic, it was not until 2018 that the rest of the world suddenly demanded babchi for bakuchiol as a skincare ingredient. Babchi is a small annual herb-like plant. Think soft, fragile, green throughout, not woody, and must regenerate by seed per year. Unlike common herbs that may come to mind it only grows in very limited habitats, and the seed has a very low germination rate. Despite the spike in commercial interest, at least as of 2019 it had not been cultivated at commercial scale anywhere. A full 95% of babchi in commercial use was taken from wild populations. (Montemayor, 2020)

We think that babchi, and the ingredient bakuchiol are skincare ingredients we can do without if we want to practice sustainable and eco friendly skincare.  

A More Sustainable Alternative to Babchi (and Bakuchiol)

In the case of babchi the plant, and its natural constituent bakuchiol, natural may not always be sustainable skincare. Sources, such as Cristina Montemayor’s deep dive into bakuchiol suggest that compared to bakuchiol, vitamin A derivatives like retinoids, are more ecofriendly than using this endangered, short lived, and vulnerable plant (Montemayor, 2020).  It should be noted that bakuchiol is not a vitamin A derivative, but has shown to help prevent fine lines and wrinkles, and to help with pigmentation, elasticity, and firmness, which is why it is often compared to retinol. Other, more sustainable options to address those skin concerns include vitamin C, niacinamide, coQ10, and some plant oils like rosehip, pomegranate, and sea buckthorn (among others!). 

Hawaiian Sandalwood Sustainability  

Sandalwood, an evergreen tree, with aromatic wood and oil, has been wildly popular through all eras, garnering widespread use along the way. Santalaceae family species occur naturally in limited habitats in Southern India, South Africa, parts of the East Coast of southern Africa, Indonesia, Australia, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, and Hawaii. In every culture that shares a native land with a sandalwood species the aromatic wood, oil, and symbolism of the plant is revered in rituals, and considered medicinal and sacred. The oil distilled from the wood is used as a skincare ingredient for perfumes, soaps, serums, and a variety of products. Natural sandalwood populations are under pressure by commercial demand from nearly all regions of the world. 

Sandalwood sustainability is a hot topic, and it’s no surprise. We know that the scent, and even the memories of and associations we make with sandalwood feel both bohemian and luxurious at once, hitting the sweet spot in many of our desires, and appealing to many sensibilities. Sandalwood is one of the most expensive woods in the world, with limited habitat, and species generally grow slowly or are difficult to cultivate for many reasons. Perhaps most nuanced and mysterious of all is the association of the various sandalwoods with other species in their environment. Sandalwoods form either mutualistic or partially parasitic associations with other species endemic to the same habitats. This may be a significant aspect to why sandalwoods seem to need a specific natural or natural-like habitat in order to grow. Sandalwood sustainability is dependent on natural associations in the specific habitats to which each species is endemic. (United Plant Savers, 2021a) 

Because sandalwood is rare, highly valued, slow growing, and difficult to cultivate, poaching and unsustainable harvesting have been common in many of the places where sandalwood grows. All Santalum species have been listed as either endangered by official regulatory organisations, or “at risk” (by the organisation United Plant Savers) based on limited habitat range and commercial demand. 

Hawaiian sandalwood is limited by the relatively small and specific range of the species that only occur on Hawaiian Islands. 

The species Santalum ellipticum, S. freycinetianum, S. haleakalae, S. involute, and S. paniculatum are endemic to Hawaiian islands. These also go by many common names including: sandalwood (‘Iliahi), coastal sandalwood, haleakala sandalwood, mountain sandalwood, involute sandalwood, and other Hawaiian, folk, and botanical names. (United Plant Savers, 2021a; Hawaiian Sandalwood, n.d.; Native Plants Hawaii, 2009)  

Hawaiian sandalwoods are very limited in the particular range they will grow in, adapted to very particular conditions of the island or islands on which they grow, and are slow growing. All the usual sustainability issues related to slow growing plants with a limited growing range apply. There is the issue of the longevity of populations of these plants if harvesting surpasses renewal, or if a human-reduced or affected populations are impacted by natural events, and are therefore less resilient to regenerate. Additionally, Hawaiian sandalwood sustainability is affected by inherent qualities of the Hawaiian sandalwood species. The seed of the Hawaiian sandalwood is short lived.  Whereas most seeds are adapted to sustain viability for a long time, sandalwood seed viability is more fragile, adding to the reasons why sandalwoods populations, natural or cultivated are more fragile to short or long term pressures, human, or environmental. 

For all of these reasons, limited suitable habitat, natural associations with wild organisms, slow growth, and the short viability of the seed, cultivation is  challenging and limited. Particularly in Hawaii there are many limitations to supply meeting demand. 

In getting savvy about sandalwood you might also want to know that there are Hawaiian sandalwoods and Indian sandalwoods. Indian sandalwoods being endemic to Southeast Asia; China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and also Australia. One of the Indian species, Santalum album has also been cultivated to an extent, in Hawaii. (United Plant Savers, 2021a) 

Until recently there were no significant official sustainability parameters drawn around harvest of Indian sandalwood populations where they are endemic, only those taken by those who choose to steward populations based on traditional practice or their own volition. Supporting sandalwood growers who can demonstrate the most sustainable practices, in any place it is sourced from, whether Hawaii, India, Vanuatu, or Australia, or another region, may be the best way forward for sandalwood use. Learn more about Indian sandalwood sustainability

All Santalum species have been listed as either endangered by official regulatory organisations, or “at risk” (by the organisation United Plant Savers) based on limited habitat range and commercial demand. 

You might also need to know that there are other genera of sandalwood. One is red sandalwood; Pterocarpus santalinus, prized for the rich red color of the wood, scent, and cultural reverence for the plant where it is endemic, Southeast India, specifically the Southern part of the Eastern Ghats mountain range, Andhra Pradesh. While this is not the same as the Santalum genus, it shares a common name sandalwood, uses overlap, and there are similar concerns about overharvesting, slow regeneration and illegal harvest. This species has been recognized as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and has further protection by the Andra Pradesh Preservation of Private Forest Rules. (Arunkumar & Joshi, 2014)  

More Sustainable Alternatives to Wild Hawaiian Sandalwood 

Did you have your heart set on sandalwood, only to learn in disappointment the truth about Hawaiian sandalwood sustainability? 

If you do use sandalwood, from any source, find out more about whether it is cultivated, if it is sustainably cultivated and how cultivation practices affect local flora, fauna, and communities.  

There are Hawaiian growers who are using more sustainable practices and cultivating sandalwood. Learn more about Hawaiian sandalwood sustainability, and Hawaiian sandalwood cultivation in United Plant Savers Hawaiian Sandalwood Video Project.  

Among Indian sandalwood sources, it seems that some companies' practices are more sustainable than others. If using products with Indian sandalwood, look for those sourcing from growers that can demonstrate sustainable growing practices rather than wild harvesting. 

Vanuatu has also produced small crops of cultivated sandalwood (Santalum austrocalendonicum) however again there is limited landmass and habitat. 

Australian sandalwood is another option. With greater land mass, there is more possibility for sustainable production. Look for sources that can demonstrate cultivation using more sustainable practices rather than wild harvesting or practices that may displace sustenance farming or rare plants and wildlife. (Tisserand, n.d.)

Alternate plants are a great option. There are often more sustainable skincare ingredients to choose from with similar benefits for more eco friendly skincare.  

 Amyris balsamifera is a tropical evergreen of the citrus family used similarly to sandalwood. Balsam torchwood is another common name for it though as a more eco-friendly skincare ingredient you will more often see it listed as Amyris balsamifera, or “West Indian Sandalwood”. For similar aromatherapy, gently moving, and antimicrobial benefits of sandalwood you seek, you may find it to be a pleasing more eco friendly skincare ingredient.    

3 Botanical Herbs To Spare From Sustainable Skincare  

Apoterra Skincare Sustainable Skincare Ingredients

Sometimes herbal medicine can make such a difference to someone’s health.  But when these medicinal plants are rare or not able to be produced commercially, it's best to only use them for the more dire cases. It’s infuriating when these ingredients are added to skincare products for buzz factor or to offer a property that can be had with a more sustainably harvested option. Two that are top of mind include ginseng and chaga. These can be very supportive for someone needing a lot of support from the use of these herbs internally. There are others that have topical uses which are very beneficial when most needed, arnica is the number one, but we may be able to spare these from use in beauty products and instead choose products with botanicals whose use will have similar effects, plants that are either more common, or that are more commonly sustainably cultivated, therefore having less impact on wild plant populations. 

Arnica Sustainability 

Arnica, mainly as the species Arnica montana or Arnica chamissonis are two of the most popular herbs worldwide for application on bruises, and common aches and pains. Arnica is another plant which has limited habitats, and there is also great commercial demand. Though it can occur in broad swaths or seem common if you are in just the right alpine environment, no species is especially productive per plant compared to the demand and amount used in topical products. The flower is the primary part used, and each plant may produce just one or a few flowers, typically one flower for A. montana, or several smaller flowers for A. chamissonis. Though some is grown, wild populations are still the source for much of the arnica in commerce, according to an American Botanical Council source (Engels, 2015). 

Arnica is believed to be useful topically as a first aid application on unbroken skin after injuries, or to support for those with arthritis, and could be spared for these uses. Though arnica likely does produce benefits for the skin, there are similar more sustainable skincare ingredients that work as well or even better to elicit the same results; anti-inflammatory, moving, soothing, and gently improving circulation. Therefore we might choose skincare products with botanical ingredients that have similar actions and results. 

More Sustainable Alternatives to Arnica 

Many plant oils produce similar actions to arnica. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a skin friendly and widespread more sustainable skincare ingredient that is also grown. Some use goldenrod (Solidago spp.) an incredibly widespread plant interchangeably. Chamomile and immortelle are also excellent sustainable skincare ingredients which are as good as or better for the skin than arnica, each with anti-inflammatory action, and similar botanical or phytochemical traits. Green tea is another great botanical circulation enhancer and anti-inflammatory. Chamomile, immortelle and green tea are three of our favorite skincare ingredients.  Find the chamomile and immortelle essential oils as well as whole chamomile and green tea oil infusions in our facial oils and balm, immortelle hydrosol and green tea in our Neroli Clarifying Complexion Mist, and whole chamomile in our masks.

Ginseng Sustainability 

Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, P. ginseng, and several other species) can go by many names, and there are several species. No matter which species or range true ginsengs are either rare or even extirpated from their native ranges in the wild. Cultivation of ginseng is a unique industry that when done sustainably we would like to see supported. However even with ginseng cultivation there is not enough supply of grown ginseng to meet demand. This is similar to sandalwood, and other slow, rare, and sought after plants that grow best in wild-like conditions, and which may be cultivated to an extent in the most rural communities.

Not all need or should use ginseng, but ginseng can be very helpful for those who are weak, convalescent, or simply experiencing a ricochet of health challenges associated with advanced age. When it is indicated some do benefit greatly from use of ginseng internally, and each species has reverence in various cultures, based on long history of ritual and health supportive uses. While ginseng may have some benefit used externally (it does contain saponins and antioxidants afterall) many strongly urge that this is not a plant that belongs in beauty products, particularly not widely distributed topical products. 

Supporting small scale woodland production of ginseng is a positive act we can do for the preservation of this species. We can probably live without the roots and leaves of this slow growing, rare, and fussy and challenging to grow plant in creams and serums.   

Sustainable Alternatives to Ginseng Topically

Rather than name specific substitutes for ginseng in sustainable skincare products, we would suggest looking for any product that suits your needs that does not contain any ginseng. Ginseng, whatever the species, in topical products may be more of an attention grabbing flashy ingredient than a must have skincare ingredient.  

Chaga Sustainability

It used to be that everyone had heard of ginseng but few had heard of chaga (Inonotus obliquus). Chaga is a hard-bodied mushroom that grows very slowly and rarely on certain trees. There is some debate about which particular species, but generally it is limited to temperate climates, especially northern forests, and the majority are on birch trees of a certain maturity, and climate. Chaga is yet another species that seems to need all conditions to be optimal, and chaga is extremely slow growing, taking perhaps decades to reach an appreciable size. Though we generally think of mushrooms as naturally replenishing, prolific, and unharmed by harvesting of the fruiting body -  this is not the case with chaga. It is far slower to replenish. 

Canadian mycologist, forager, and chaga expert Hugues Massicotte, of Northern British Columbia, emphasized in an interview with the CBC News: “We can’t really grow that mushroom at all. It might take several decades before you replenish a landscape with chaga.” (Laskowski, 2019)    

Many benefits are ascribed to it, including antioxidants, and some of these actions have preliminary research suggesting potential usefulness for issues in which hardly anything else provides much in the way of support. However, even with a myriad of possible topical uses that have been suggested due to the popularity of this mushroom, this is another species that may be best saved for those in the most dire need of it, for internal use, and sadly, not to be used in topical preparations to enhance our own natural loveliness. 

Sustainable Alternatives to Chaga Topically

Instead of chaga,  the slow growing, rare, north woods mushroom - look to richly antioxidant botanical ingredients that are more widely grown.  Try rose and rosehip oil, both an excellent choice for many reasons, or other antioxidant-rich botanical ingredients. Similar to ginseng, there are far more botanical and other natural ingredients that can take its place as sustainable skincare ingredients than there are which cannot.    


There are far more botanicals, fungi, and additional natural skincare ingredients to choose from that boast wonderful benefits, which are not as rare, or environmentally impactful as those we have visited. 

Here at Apoterra, we practice and support sustainable practices by sourcing and packaging sustainably- at the core of our mission since launching in 2012! Apoterra also recognizes that what is sustainable, and what we know about sustainability changes often, and we are always learning, and adjusting to be as sustainable as can be! We review ingredients, sourcing, and use a batch number system which allows customers to find out not only when their product was made, but where each and every ingredient was sourced from, and which organizations certified each ingredient as sustainable, fair trade, eco-friendly, and organic!   

We also believe in giving back which is why we partnered with Trees for the Future to plant 1 tree for every product sold.  You can learn more about our environmental commitment here and find more tips on how to incorporate sustainable and regenerative practices into your skincare ritual through our blog and by following us on Instagram.  




Sources Cited 

Arunkumar, A. &  Joshi, G. (2014).  Pterocarpus santalinus (red sanders) an endemic, endangered tree of India: current status, improvement and the future. 

Journal of Tropical Forestry and Environment, (4). doi: 10.31357/jtfe.v4i2.2063  

CPL Aromas. (2021). A new sustainable sandalwood. Retrieved from: https://www.cplaromas.com/fragrance-trends/a-new-sustainable-sandalwood/ 

Engels, G. (205). Arnica. HerbalGram, 107, 1-6. Retrieved from: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/107/table-of-contents/hg107-herbpro-arnica/  

Hawaiian Sandalwood. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://vterrain.org/Hawaii/Flora/sandalwood.html#:~:text=Santalum%20sp.%2C%20Santalaceae%2C%20sandalwood,construction%20of%20chests%20and%20boxes 

Montemayor, C. (2020). The clean beauty movement is killing the environment. Lady Science. Retrieved from:     https://www.ladyscience.com/essays/clean-beauty-movement-is-killing-the-environment   

Native Plants Hawaii. (2009). Retrieved from: http://nativeplants.hawaii.edu/search/?query=Santalum

Laskowski, C. (2019). More than a mushroom. CBC Radio Canada. Transcript retrieved from: https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/chaga-mushroom 

Tisserand, R. (n.d.). Santalum album oil rejuvenated. 

Retrieved from: https://tisserandinstitute.org/santalum-album-oil-rejuvenated/

United Plant Savers. (2021). Sandalwood - santalum spp. Retrieved from: https://unitedplantsavers.org/species-at-risk-list/sandalwood-santalum-spp/ 

Further Reading 
United Plant Savers is a wonderful organization for n more nuanced information about At Risk plants, ecological concerns, and substitute plants and practices to reduce the pressure on At-Risk plants. Main website: https://unitedplantsavers.org/  

Select articles: 
United Plant Savers. (2011). UpS adds 6 species of native Hawaiian sandalwood to its ‘At-Risk’ list. Retrieved from: https://unitedplantsavers.org/ups-adds-6-species-of-native-hawaiian-sandalwood-to-its-at-risk-list/


Author bio
Heather Irvine has been working in sustainability and medicinal plants for twenty years. She has studied in and taught at many herbal programs and colleges and has been a small brand producer.  Heather will write about any botanical topic she is called to, from scientific, to a little bit sassy. Reach Heather at heatherirvine@gmail.com.

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