Now that the beauty market is bombarded with ‘natural’ products we keep getting more and more questions about which products are natural and which ones are synthetic. This is a difficult question to answer because the answer isn’t black and white. What is the definition of natural and are natural products better than synthetic ones? We wanted to address this issue as clear as possible so we decided to dedicate a blog post to it.
What is a ‘natural’ product?
The problem with the question ‘which products are natural?’ is that the term ‘natural’ hasn’t been defined yet. The FDA has not established a regulatory definition for this term in cosmetic labeling. Companies are free to define ‘natural’ as they like and market products as natural if they fit their definition. Some companies consider non-GMO plants as natural ingredients and other companies take a standard cosmetic and add a little plant extract and market it as ‘natural’.
Cosmetic marketers love to brand their products as ‘natural’ to appeal to consumers. For this reason several organizations have come up with their own natural standards that cosmetics companies can use to get officially certified and get a stamp of approval to label their products.
The most notable standard organizations include:
NSF- The Public and Safety Organization
NPA- Natural Standard for Personal Care Products
Each have a slightly different definition of natural but all of them allow some chemical modification of natural ingredients. These seals may let you know that a product contains more ingredients of natural origin than ones that don’t have the seal, but none of them require a product to be a 100% natural with absolutely zero synthetics. So even if you're using products that are sealed with a 'natural' stamp, there's always a certain amount of synthetics present. Also, when using such products, please be aware that a natural seal does not equal proof of efficacy or safety! Grass may be sealed ‘natural’, but it’s not safe or nutritious to eat.
Are natural ingredients better than synthetic ones?
Many people are convinced that natural ingredients are better for the skin, but this belief has no scientific legitimacy. Don’t get me wrong, there is a range of natural ingredients that are beneficial for your skin, but the idea that they are ‘better’ or ‘safer’ than synthetic versions is simply not true.
First of all, the synthetic version of a natural ingredient is just as effective and just as safe. The body cannot tell whether an ingredient is of a natural source or chemically synthesized. For example, a vitamin C molecule from an orange will be chemically identical to a vitamin C molecule synthesized in a lab, and when applied on the skin, both will have the same exact effect.
Second, the notion that natural=good for you and synthetics=bad is not only false, but also concerning. There are a lot of skin-aggravating ingredients being put in products under the pretense that they’re ‘natural’ and therefore good for the skin. Please be wary of such claims. There are lots of natural ingredients that are bad for your skin. Alcohol is one such ingredient. Alcohol is, believe it or not, a natural ingredient and yet notorious for it's skin drying properties. The fact that it's natural doesn't make it less harmful. Skin irritants, be it synthetic or natural, break down the skin and interrupt the skin’s ability to protect itself from environmental damage. Just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean it’s beneficial for your skin, and the opposite is true as well, just because an ingredient is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s bad for your skin. There’s beneficial and problematic ingredients in both groups. You should always do a quick Google search on the ingredients you’re putting on your face. Paula Begoun has a very helpful and informative Ingredient Dictionary on her website where you can check out ingredients used in skincare and make sure you're not putting anything harmful on your skin.
In conclusion, it is far more important for a product to be non-toxic and safe than 100% all natural. Natural products are not necessarily good for the skin and in some cases can be less effective or less safe than synthetic alternatives. Please educate yourself as much as possible so you don’t fall prey to marketers’ false claims or scare tactics. A product’s merits depend on whether its ingredients are proven safe and effective by extensive research and whether the concentration and delivery of the ingredients are appropriate. Not by the mere fact that they’re natural or synthetic.