Increasing numbers of health-conscious consumers are interested in the sources and reasoning behind skincare ingredients, including why they’re present in products and what they actually do.
While choosing natural ingredients can be a healthful choice, it’s also important to know which synthetic ingredients are safe, and often very beneficial, in skincare products.
“Natural” isn’t a term that’s regulated by the FDA—and as a result, it’s often used (and frequently misused) by skincare brands that are trying to represent themselves as safe to consumers. Some brands even go so far as to claim they sell “chemical-free” beauty products, when in reality even water is a chemical and has a chemical composition!
In short, terms such as these are often meaningless, and it’s only when you closely examine all of the ingredients on the bottle that the truth starts to be revealed.
As a general definition, the term “natural” represents skincare ingredients that are directly derived from nature and not created in a laboratory environment. Many natural ingredients, like natural butters and plant derivatives (cocoa butter, shea butter, coconut oil, clay, ceramides, green tea, walnuts, olive leaf, some tree barks, and rosehip seed oil are just a few examples) can have immense benefits for skin.
On the other hand, simply because an ingredient is derived from nature doesn’t make it automatically safe. There are plenty of “natural” ingredients that you definitely wouldn’t want in your skincare - arsenic, for example, occurs naturally in many minerals, but is also severely toxic and poisonous.
Similarly, peach pits contain cyanide - another extremely dangerous and lethal poison. Poison ivy is natural, but you absolutely wouldn’t want to rub it on your skin!
In fact, of the most commonly known human carcinogens, the majority are found in nature without human intervention. For this reason, it’s extraordinarily important that all ingredients in skincare are carefully vetted for their efficacy and safety, whether they’re considered “natural” or not.
Synthetic ingredients are created by humans and not directly derived from nature. While we might instinctively assume that natural ingredients are superior to lab-created synthetic ingredients, that’s not always the case.
Many skincare companies turn to synthetic versions of certain ingredients, which are often identical to natural versions on a molecular level, as a method of maintaining the safety and purity of their products.
Hyaluronic acid, for example, is synthesized in a laboratory for skincare products (mimicking the exact molecular formula found in the human body) and is one of the most moisturizing, skin-beneficial ingredients that exists. Hyaluronic acid used to be derived from animal sources by many skincare companies, but laboratory synthesis has allowed us to no longer need to exploit animals for that purpose.
Another important consideration is consistency. When purchasing a skincare product, you want the ingredients to be the same every time, something that can be almost impossible outside of a laboratory setting.
Natural ingredients can be hard to standardize, as differences in plant health, the time of year harvested, and other factors can dramatically change the chemical compositions of the ingredients that are derived.
Pricing might also fluctuate for the ingredient if it is grown in only one season or in only one region of the world, or if the natural source suffers from pests and diseases - which would then affect the customer as the company would have to price an item higher to account for the lack of accessibility to the ingredient.
Synthetic, human-made ingredients can be standardized much more easily, guaranteeing a safe product that is always effective and identical.
As the natural skincare movement has gained momentum, the demand for natural ingredients has increased dramatically, putting more pressure on farmers to increase growth. While more agricultural production isn’t always a negative, it can be if not done sustainably.
Most big companies want to source ingredients quickly and inexpensively, leaving the door open for increased uses of pesticides, exploitation of workers, and over-harvesting.
Palm oil, for example, is the world’s most commonly produced vegetable oil, and is found in many “natural” cosmetic and skincare products. Palm oil plantations now cover more than 27 million hectares of the earth’s surface, and often result in the mass deforestation of rainforests and the destruction of habitats.
Indigenous people and small landowners are often driven from their land and subject to human rights violations. Products containing palm oil are often considered natural and organic, but at what cost?
It’s difficult to argue that a synthetic ingredient, safely processed in a laboratory with no agricultural requirements, isn’t more beneficial than a natural ingredient that is unsustainably sourced!
Many natural ingredients can be made more safe and effective through scientific adjustments, and vitamin C is an excellent example. Synthetic ingredients help stabilize vitamin C and increase its efficacy, allowing it to be used safely in higher concentrations.
Salicylates, compounds found within willow bark, have been used for centuries to treat fever and inflammation, but it wasn’t until salicylate derivatives were synthesized in a laboratory that they were able to be mass-produced inexpensively, resulting in the drug we now know as aspirin.
Using aspirin allows treatment to be much safer than simply drinking tea from boiled willow bark, as each pill contains the same concentration of active ingredients every time.
Similarly, skincare ingredients synthesized in a laboratory can ensure that a product works effectively, and safely, every time.
While the term “preservative” has become something of a bad word in the skincare community, preservatives - when used safely - are absolutely essential in every skincare product.
In fact, failure to include proper preservatives in skincare products can result in growths of mold or bacteria, and can even result in serious skin infections. Even more disturbingly, it isn’t always obvious that a product without preservatives has gone “bad,” which can result in unwitting consumers rubbing dangerous bacteria on their faces.
Contrary to popular belief, there are multitudes of preservatives which are both nontoxic and noncarcinogenic, and are, in fact, completely safe for skin. Many, if not most, modern preservatives do not contain parabens or formaldehyde-releasing compounds, which have been the chief concerns regarding preservatives of the past.
From a health perspective, it is much more important that a product be non-toxic and safe from bacterial and fungal growth than for it to be 100% “natural.” One particularly disturbing bacterium is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (commonly called “staph” or MRSA), which can grow in un-preserved products and cause skin infections, abscesses, respiratory infections, pneumonia, meningitis, and many other serious conditions.
Our Mango & Green Tea Firming Eye Mask is an excellent example of how synthetic, scientific ingredients can compliment natural ones.
Here is a breakdown of the ingredient list:
You may note that many of these ingredients play vital roles in the formula, acting as antibacterials, antifungals, and preservatives/stabilizers. Without them, the product’s shelf life would be extremely short: mere days compared with a year, and every single one of those days would all need to be spent in the refrigerator or bacteria would invariably start to grow, rendering it too dangerous to use.
An overgrowth of staphylococcus aureus or another bacterium could result in a serious skin infection, and an overgrowth of fungus within a product could result in a trip to the doctor or dermatologist. Safe synthetic ingredients prevent all of those potential problems, allowing you to use your eye cream with confidence.
While there are plenty of safe synthetic ingredients currently available, there are others which should definitely be avoided.
Sulfates: this is a broader term for other synthetic sulfates, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These can be produced from palm oil (which we’ve already mentioned is controversial due to its impact on the environment and human right concerns) or petroleum distillates.
Sulfates are often utilized, particularly in hair care products and liquid soups, because they instantly produce a foamy lather which consumers have become accustomed to. They can be irritating to skin, eyes, and lungs, and can sometimes be contaminated with carcinogens during manufacturing.
Phthalates: this is a large class of chemicals, some of which have been linked to ADHD, asthma, breast cancer, diabetes, fertility problems, and more health concerns. Not all of the chemicals that fall under the class of phthalates have been studied in depth, but many experts advise avoiding products that contain them.
Parabens: parabens often act as preservatives in products, but some have been shown to disrupt hormone functions within the body, linking them to breast cancer, lowered sperm count, and early puberty.
Ethical, safe skincare companies won’t include any of the above in their products, and will only use ingredients that have a clinical reputation for safety.
Many of the terms used today in skincare marketing are intended to encourage consumers feel safer about the products they use, but the truth is that buzzwords like “natural” or “organic” don’t have clearly defined or regulated meanings. For this reason, it’s important to carefully research the companies from which you buy, and the ingredients that they choose to use.
When it comes to your health, you are your own best advocate! If you do your research, you’ll know what to look for when examining an ingredient list, and you’ll be able to identify the safe synthetics in natural skincare products.