It’s the hottest debate in skincare, but there’s no simple answer to the question of whether either attribute is better.
The terms natural and synthetic are often pitted against each other in the beauty world – one lauded as a panacea, one demonised as hazardous. The reality is far more nuanced, and an understanding of the debate is important for skincare professionals seeking to create the best regimes and provide the best advice to curious clients.
Natural should not automatically be considered a byword for safe and effective, and synthetic or chemical should not be considered dangerous or damaging – what matters is proven, evidenced efficacy and safety.
In recent years, use of the term “natural” has exploded in the beauty world, but there are no concrete regulations over exactly what the term describes, and some marketing departments use the term irresponsibly. Skincare professionals must use their knowledge of skin, ingredients and science to understand the individual benefits and attributes of products above and beyond their origins.
What is natural anyway?
As consumers become increasingly aware of the provenance and formulations of their beauty products, “natural” is used to market products on the notion that they are minimally processed, safer and better for wellbeing. Brands perpetuate the idea that unprocessed, straight-from-the-plant style “natural” ingredients are unquestionably safe and effective.
With no official UK regulations on classification, many so-called “natural” products are not as close to nature as they seem. One study in the International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology notes that products utilising bioactive compounds from nature combine raw materials with other substances, such as emulsifiers or pigments (either plant-based or synthetic) to stabilise them.
Raw, natural ingredients undergo high levels of processing before they end up in products, meaning that the idea of natural products as more “pure” or less processed is often a myth. Without this processing many natural products would not be fit for use: if natural raw materials are not stabilised or purified then products are vulnerable to contamination and spoiling.
"If the opposite of natural is manmade or synthetic, then every cream, gel, oil and serum you put on your face is synthetic."
Dr Des Fernandes
Environ® founder Dr Des Fernandes explains that no skincare can be “natural” in the way many labels may imply. “If the opposite of natural is manmade or synthetic, then every cream, gel, oil and serum you put on your face is synthetic unless you actually scoop honey out of a jar,” he says
He adds that man cannot make anything that does not come from nature, meaning there is no such thing as man-made. “Synthetic means to ‘place together’ or to mix in a manufacturing process. Once mixed, those chemicals react to each other, separate and recombine,” he says. “All cosmetics are a mix of different chemicals. We have to dump the idea that natural is good and man-made or processed is bad.”
“Every substance on earth is a chemical and every chemical, in and of itself, is natural,” he adds. “Everything, including water, oxygen, crude oil and even honey.”
Inspired by nature
While the term natural can be controversial, nature itself is a phenomenal resource for health and wellbeing. “Natural’s” benefit does not come from a lack of processing, but from the astonishing diversity of properties originating in the natural world.
When it comes to health, wellbeing and skin benefits, safety and results are delivered by precision. To ensure accuracy in dose and quality, “nature identical” ingredients deliver benefits found in nature in formulations that are familiar to the body but are produced in carefully controlled environments.
“If you are looking for results you need precise control over the nutrients in a product."
“If you are looking for results you need precise control over the nutrients in a product,” explains Lorraine Perretta, head of nutrition at the Advanced Nutrition Programme. “Nature knows best, and that is why we use nature identical, synthetic ingredients in some of our products. The body does not recognise these as any different to what is found in nature, and it means we can be extremely precise with our doses as we know exactly what amount of nutrients are in the ingredients we use.”
Perretta also explains that when extracts are taken directly from plants, they are closely scrutinised to ensure consistent levels of nutrients. Green tea, for example, is extremely high in polyphenols, and is used in antioxidant formulations such as Skin Antioxidant. Before the ingredient is used in supplements, it is standardised to maintain a specific percentage of polyphenols within each dose.
In any skin or health care product, precision and accuracy are crucial for delivering safety and efficacy.
Natural ≠ safe
A common assumption from consumers searching for products that will do them good is that natural ingredients are safer or gentler on the body than synthetic alternatives.
This is not always the case. A recent study analysed 1,358 natural substances in the European International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI list or Common Ingredients Glossary) and found that 369 substances are classified as hazardous, of which 226 are specifically classified as hazardous due to their negative effects on skin and eyes.
These substances include certain botanical extracts, for example, which have been shown to trigger allergic reactions and contact dermatitis at a higher rate than synthetic alternatives.
In a separate study, researchers analysed the ingredients lists of 100 personal care products sold in the EU claiming to be “natural” and discovered that every single product tested contained ingredients classified as hazardous. The authors of the study stressed the urgent need for increased clarity over what the term “natural” truly means.
Dr Des stresses that the wrong dose of anything – even water or oxygen – would be toxic and that there is no toxic substance only a toxic dose. Almost 500 years ago the alchemist, physician and Philosopher Paracelsus wrote: “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.”
"Nothing is completely safe and nothing is completely dangerous."
Dr Des Fernandes
“There is no lazy or convenient way to categorise chemicals into boxes such as natural and not natural. Each chemical has to be analysed separately for its safety and efficacy,” he explains. “We have to look not only at the substance but also at its dose, treating every chemical on a case-by-case basis. Nothing is completely safe and nothing is completely dangerous.”
Regulations and certifications
Rather than using the term natural as an indicator of a safe and clean product, there are a growing number of independent certifications and accreditation marks that evidence a product’s claims. ECOCERT, Soil Association Organic, PETA Approved, Vegan Society, EPAX and the Leaping Bunny are some examples of signs that independently attest to brand’s claims of eco-friendly, ethical or skin-safe origins.
Additionally, many brands now provide robust evidence of rigorous efficacy and safety testing – to prove the claims that they are making for their products and ensure the ingredients are carefully selected. Comprehensive case studies and transparent details of testing processes can be crucial to this. For example, the Advanced Nutrition Programme™ shares the detailed results from case study testing online, to demonstrate efficacy and triple tests all ingredients to ensure purity and potency of ingredients.
READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE MAY 2021 EDITION OF THE BULLETIN
- Clean beauty 2020: Two-thirds of women worldwide want greater label transparency, finds survey; Cosmetics Design Europe; June 2020; https://www.cosmeticsdesign-europe.com/Article/2020/06/10/Clean-beauty-labels-lack-transparency-say-consumers-in-Bazaarvoice-Influenster-survey
- Emerald, Mila et al. “Perspective of Natural Products in Skincare.” Pharmacy & Pharmacology International Journal 4 (2016): n. pag.
- Fernandes, Dr Des. Eiselen, Dr Ernst. Monroe, Jennifer; Skin Care Ingredients; London, Fernro Publishing, 2020.
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- Kiken, David A, and David E Cohen. “Contact dermatitis to botanical extracts.” American journal of contact dermatitis : official journal of the American Contact Dermatitis Society vol. 13,3 (2002): 148-52.
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