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Natural vs synthetic: what do these terms really mean and which is better for our skin?

Everything you'd need to know to decide.

23 Aug 2019

Is anyone else confused by natural and synthetic skincare? It seems we’re all trying to be more conscious about what we buy and make informed choices around what we’re sticking on our face. But everywhere you look, advice between the two camps: scientific and lab-based (i.e chemical) or eco-friendly and plant-based (aka natural), seems to pinball in different directions.

“Chemicals are bad for us,” “natural skincare is ineffectual,” “synthetic products are causing sensitivity,” “essential oils can lead to inflammation.” With such divisive opinions, what should we believe? And where should we be investing our skincare budget?

We asked experts from across the industry their thoughts to help decode the difference.

What do you think is meant by natural skincare?

“Technically there’s no set definition,” says consultant dermatologist, Dr Anjali Mahto. “One of the problems is that natural means different things to different people.” However, “generally, it implies that the products are formulated with ingredients found in nature, often from plants, such as botanical oils,” explains Dr Alexis Granite, consulting dermatologist at Kiehl’s. “Or, it could indicate products lacking synthetic preservatives such as parabens,” adds Dr Anjali.

“The best way to ensure a product is genuinely natural is to look for an official certification mark,” says Sarah Brown, founder of Pai skincare. “The main certifying body for natural and organic beauty products in the UK is Soil Association/COSMOS (the two standards are merging). It’s a very strict standard which ensures ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides and solvents and are suitably cultivated and harvested,” she adds.

What do you think is meant by synthetic skincare?

“Synthetic skincare means products incorporate laboratory and scientifically derived ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid,” says Dr Alexis. “The formulas are made using chemical copies of natural ingredients,” explains Anna-Marie Solowij beauty journalist and co-founder of the British Beauty Council.

What do you think has led to claims that natural products are ineffectual and synthetic products are bad for us?

“There are so many skincare products on the market and so many claims being made that it can be quite difficult for the consumer to make sense of it all,” says Dr Alexis. “The natural versus synthetic camps have polarised the industry a bit as some claim natural products are not effective and others that synthetic products are harmful. Likely the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Naturally derived products can be highly effective when formulated properly. However natural does not necessarily mean better – poison ivy is natural too. Synthetic products are not inherently dangerous because they are created in a laboratory, and many may actually be bioavailable,” she adds.

Historically, natural alternatives have struggled to keep up with lab-grown chemicals in terms of performance and efficacy, but that's changed says Sarah. “Formulating with natural ingredients has come a long way. When I first started Pai, natural beauty products were nowhere near as sophisticated or high tech as they are now. It’s why natural traditionally had a reputation for not being high performance, but there are some extraordinary natural ingredients available now.”

As for the widespread suspicion around the chemicals used in our products, that's the result of “chemophobia” says Dr Anjali. “I think part of the problem comes from an inherent fear of what we don’t know, especially as long chemical names on product labels can be confusing,” she says.

What are the problems that face products labelled as “natural”, what are the regulations around products that claim to be natural?

“Unlike the food industry, there is no regulation in the beauty industry controlling the use of the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’,” says Sarah. In fact, there are lots of companies using this terminology to describe their products whose ingredients lists do not stand up to scrutiny,” she adds.

For example, “if the original ingredient is natural to begin with – for example extracted from a flower or fruit – but chemical processing changes it to something different. Is it then still natural?” asks Dr Anjali. Some brands would claim so. “It’s why independent certification is so important as a kitemark of authenticity,” adds Sarah.

“The biggest mistake is to think that natural skincare is somehow safer than products that don’t have the label, but this is not necessarily true,” says Anjali. "The fact is, just as synthetic ingredients can be harmful, there are lots of natural ingredients to be found in organic products that are harmful to the skin," explains Alicia Jackman, founder of Holy Grail Beauty. "Just because an ingredient is natural does not necessarily mean it is better and just because an ingredient is made in a lab, does not make it toxic," she says.

Finally, when it comes to natural formulas, “there is no such thing as "chemical-free," says Alicia, “water is a chemical, so is oxygen and so are the essentials oils in your products." “On its most fundamental level, everything is a chemical. We are a walking, talking mish-mash of chemicals,” agrees Dr Anjali.

Ingredients like essential oils have divided the industry. What are your thoughts?

Some experts say they’re responsible for causing sensitivity and aren’t compatible with many skin types. Others say they’re one of the major sources of antioxidants and are nourishing skin food, which means it's difficult to know which way to go.

“I am not a huge fan of skin oils in general,” says Dr Alexis. “I find they tend to cause issues with sensitivity and breakouts in many users. Essential oils are highly concentrated and may therefore be more likely to cause skin reactions. Some such as bergamot and citrus may also interact with sun exposure leading to rashes and pigmentation. Diluting essential oils may help minimize irritation when applied to the skin. In general, I prefer essential oils for aromatherapy rather than for use in skincare products,” she adds.

“Unless you have dry to very dry skin types, I would suggest you stay away from these altogether as many can be "comedogenic" or have the ability to block pores leading to spots,” agrees Dr Anjali. “Botanicals, herbs and essential oils can cause irritation and allergies and these are commonly documented in scientific literature,” she adds.

However, since everyone’s skin reacts differently to various ingredients, it’s a matter of personal preference. If you’ve been using and enjoying essential oils for a long time without irritation, chances are, you’re fine to keep using them.

“When it comes to essential oils, it’s all about the concentration,” says Sarah. “The EU regulation has a strict criteria on declaration of allergens on the label. If the leave-on products have allergens >0.001% and rinse-off products have allergens concentration >0.01% these have to be declared. We use them very cautiously harnessing the oils’ aromatherapy benefits without compromising the health of the skin. What’s more, they can help in product preservation up to a certain extent because they happen to have antimicrobial properties,” she says.

When it comes to ingredients like SPF, retinol and hyaluronic acid which is better, natural or chemical?

“SPF can be either physical ('natural') or chemical ('synthetic') in composition. There is no right or wrong choice for sunscreen, much of this comes down to personal preference,” says Dr Alexis. “Physical sunscreens are derived from the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and are more inert than chemical sunscreens, so may be a better choice for those with sensitive skin,” she adds.

Chemical sunscreens are usually credited for their ability to sink in quick, feel lightweight and not leave behind a white caste, but physical sunscreen also offers environmental benefits, since there is growing evidence that two of the major sunscreens used in chemical SPFs – oxybenzone and octinoxate – are toxic to coral reefs when washed off in the sea. Essentially, there are pros and cons to both.

As for how synthetic ingredients are made, “synthetic ingredients are generally formed in a laboratory and this process varies depending on the compound being made,” explains Dr Alexis. “There is no ‘natural’ retinol or hyaluronic acid available for topical use. In these cases, synthetic versions are formulated from compounds that naturally occur in plants or animals and are replicated using laboratory techniques.” What this means, is that synthetics are necessary to create many of the ingredients we love most today.

Other synthetic ingredients like SLS, mineral oil and preservatives have developed a bad reputation, why is this?

“We are seeing a rise in skin allergies and atopic dermatitis and ingredients such as SLS, mineral oil and preservatives may be implicated in some cases,” explains Dr Alexis. “SLS is a detergent that strips away the skin’s natural protective oils, leaving it exposed and prone to reaction. It is also very alkaline, so it disrupts the skin’s pH balance and important acid mantle. It’s the main reason people get that feeling of tightness after washing their face,” says Sarah.

“Mineral oil has good and bad things about it. It’s occlusive meaning that it sits on top of skin creating a barrier. It means that the water in skin cannot evaporate away. However it doesn’t benefit the structure of the skin itself,” explains Sarah.

“The rise though is complicated and multifactorial and these ingredients have many benefits as well,” says Dr Alexis. “We need preservatives in our skincare products otherwise their shelf life would be extremely limited. And cleansers rely on ingredients such as SLS and related compounds to actually remove dirt, debris and oil from the skin. As we get better and better at skincare formulation we will continue to develop synthetic solutions that cause minimal irritation while still maintaining efficacy,” she says.

Even so, Sarah favours natural plant and vegetable oils over mineral oil alternatives since they “have a natural affinity with the skin, and so are recognised and absorbed. This is particularly relevant for dry skins where essential fatty acids are depleted. The natural vegetable or plant oil will replenish the skin with those fatty acids, improving the condition of skin at a deeper level. Plus natural plant and vegetable oils incorporate antioxidants, which are of huge benefit to the skin,” she adds.

Overall, is either natural or synthetic skincare better than the other?

Sarah is firmly behind natural formulations. “Natural wins every day for me,” she says. “We choose to invest in certified organic ingredients because of their remedial properties which we feel makes them the best choice for sensitive skin. It makes the products harder to formulate and more costly to produce (a certified organic oil could be as much as 100% more expensive than a non organic version), but we choose not to compromise on this. Things are changing, and consumers are demanding authentic natural credentials from brands now,” she adds.

For the others, the answer lies somewhere in between. “It should be noted that both all-natural brands and brands producing synthetic products can be involved in unethical sourcing and manufacturing practices,” warns Alicia. On a purely environmental level, “my argument in favour of synthetic skincare would be that synthetic is preferable if the plant is rare, threatened (unsustainable), expensive to process, wasteful with only a tiny part being used and the rest thrown away, toxic to process, expensive to transport or damaging to the economy or health of the community that grows it,” says Anna-Marie. “In such cases, surely it’s better to chemically replicate the relevant part of plant and use that?” Of course, “the ideal scenario would be to only buy from a brand such that uses natural, organic ingredients and works closely and sustainably with their suppliers to avoid the issues described above,” she says, citing Weleda as a prime example. “Their Union for Ethical Biotrade accreditation is a globally recognised standard for sustainable sourcing.”

On a personal level, “both natural and synthetic skincare have their benefits and much of comes down to your own preference,” says Dr Alexis. “If you find something that works for you, be it synthetic or natural, then by all means stick with it. It is also fine to mix and match products. You may find synthetic serums with active ingredients work more effectively, but that you like to follow your serum with a naturally derived emollient,” she says. “Just be mindful of packing when shopping for naturally-derived products as repeated exposure to air, light and/or heat may degrade certain ingredients. Opaque packing in pumps rather than jars will help minimize exposure to the elements and preserve potency,” she says.

“Or, you could simply look out for brands who combine the best aspects of both,” says Alicia.