“Natural” vs “Synthetic/Chemical” Cosmetics

As natural and organic products have become increasingly popular due to consumer awareness, it seems that the word “synthetic,” has developed a bad reputation, regardless of whether a product is safe or not. We are bombarded with advertisements dedicated to making us believe that “man-made is bad and natural is good”.

“Natural” can be defined as arising from a state produced by nature (plant, mineral, marine, animal origin) without interference of humankind. Consumers often believe that using products with natural ingredients are better for their skin. However, in reality, it is often the synthetically derived ingredients that increase the efficacy (effectiveness) of natural ingredients. For example, a product with vitamin C will contain ascorbic acid, the technical name for vitamin C. The molecular structure of ascorbic acid is the same as its natural counterpart, regardless of it being naturally derived or produced synthetically in a laboratory. A formulator might choose to use synthetic vitamin C over the natural version because it is more readily available, more pure and potentially more functional. Some natural ingredients such as lavender and bergamot oil may increase sensitivity to sunlight. For some people, coconut oil (a very popular natural ingredient can be drying or clog pores). While essential oils do have benefits (they are routinely used in natural skin care products), they can be irritating for some sensitive skin types. Sometimes it is necessary to use a non-toxic synthetic ingredient (s) when no equivalent can be found in nature.

If you walk into any health store and you will see multiple skincare products claiming be “all natural” and” free of chemicals”, but in reality, these products do in fact contain chemicals. All products are made of chemicals. Life is chemistry and everything, natural or synthetic is composed of chemicals. Sodium chloride is just sea salt, for example, and citric acid is a compound found in lemons and other citrus fruits. It is important to know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not regulate the use of the term “organic” or “natural” on products, therefore any formula can call itself “organic” or “natural” without penalty or proof. It’s likely that many products claiming to be “organic” or “natural” are using it as a marketing tool, and not based on scientific fact. Often you will find products with a handful of botanical ingredients mixed in with many synthetic ingredients.

Natural can be both good and bad. Similarly, synthetic things can be both good and bad. Many people also do not realize that synthetic and natural ingredients must co-exist to make the other effective. “Synthetic” ingredients are human-made substances. In fact, synthetic ingredients are often more functional than their natural counterpart. Since they are created in a lab, these ingredients will deliver consistent results and high quality every time, assuring control over the reliability of the ingredient. While it is true that many natural ingredients are used in cosmetic products, all natural products must undergo chemical processing to be purified, modified, concentrated and preserved to make them more functional and viable over time. For example, an orange extract cannot exist in skincare products without being treated first, but a chemically synthesized extract of an orange can.

While the idea of using 100% all natural products may seem appealing, it does not necessarily mean they are safe. In fact, failure to include effective preservatives in a product can lead to health problems, such as skin infection. All cosmetics must contain a preservative system to protect the formula from oxidation or spoilage despite the manufacturers claims to the contrary. It would be easy to make a safe, preservative-free body wash if you knew the consumer was going to refrigerate and microwave it before it was applied to the body. But the reality is that this item will be left in a hot steamy shower with the cap open, the perfect environment for E. coli. So the role of preservatives is a key part in keeping people safe. When natural cosmetic companies choose to leave preservative ingredients out, it can put their customers at risk. Some companies use a combination of essential oils, but research indicates that in order for essential oils to be effective as a standalone preservative, they would need to be used at unsafe levels. While it is sometimes apparent that a product has gone “bad,” (e.g. visible mold spores or product separation), bacteria may not always be visible to the naked eye. So, in reality you may be using a product, which may look fine, when in fact it isn’t. From my perspective, it is more important for a product to be safe and non-toxic rather than “all-natural”.

Photo Credit: Debraspence

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