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Ingredient Wars: Synthetic vs. Natural

There was a time when conventional synthetic, chemically-laden products were the go-to for most of us. But due to the current climate of being more conscious of our environment and our health, there has been a shift in trends, as brands are finding more sustainable and ethical ways to formulate products. Products that contain less chemicals and more natural ingredients, and are safer and better for our health.

 

The Age-Old Question.

When we buy products we want them to tick all of the boxes. Your boxes might look something like this:

  • Is it affordable?
  • Is it in eco-friendly packaging?
  • Are the ingredients sustainably sourced?
  • Are ingredients cruelty-free?
  • Is it carcinogen-free?
  • Does the product work?

Even chemically-laden products can be ineffective at what they are designed to do. So does that mean natural products are even less likely to be effective?

 

Clean, But Not Sterile.

When it comes to cleaning products, for example, you may have tried alternatives and found that the results were not as good, which can be the case with some natural ingredients. It can also take a little more elbow grease to get the desired results from natural products, as natural ingredients are typically not as caustic.

The problem with cleaning products is, we’re so used to having that cleaner-than-clean home, but studies show that we don’t really need our homes to be sterile. Having some germs is actually good for our immune system, plus we aren’t performing open-heart surgery in our kitchen - well… I hope not, anyway.

Our obsession with using powerful, harsh chemicals has caused our environment some severe damage over the decades. I’m not just talking about household cleaning products, either.

The Harsh Reality.

I’m sure many of you have tried Proactiv, or some other abrasive and aggressive skincare product that promises big results. Consumers want instant gratification when they buy a product that claims to do something. We want results fast. This is partly where this trend of using harsh ingredients has come from. But these chemicals can wreak havoc on our waterways, and it can do some real damage to our skin.

Take skin stripping, for example. This is a real issue as it destroys our skin’s microbiome, it can cause premature aging, and it leaves our skin open to free radical damage. But more on that later.

Natural ingredients are essentially substances that are derived from the earth. The common misconception around natural products is that they are not as effective as synthetically-made alternatives.

While there may have been some less effective natural products on the market that claimed to do something, but ended up being a complete waste of money, it's not always the case. As time has gone by, chemists have learnt more about organic ingredients and how we can leverage their power. Science has come a long way in a very short amount of time, and the products we can get on the market today are miles ahead of the products we could get even just 5-10 years ago.

Ancient Science.

Traditional cultures have used organic and botanical ingredients in medicine and skincare for centuries. One of the most well-known traditions is Ayurveda. In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “The Science of Life.” Ayurvedic knowledge originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is often called the “Mother of All Healing”. You may have noticed Ayurveda being used in modern settings. While many scientists and doctors disapprove of its teachings, there is centuries of evidence that shows it has worked. Perhaps not for everyone or for every ailment, but there is a large consensus of people who find it beneficial to their lives.

There are also thousands of botanical and herbal ingredients out there, and many of them are extremely effective, some of them even more beneficial than synthetic versions. 

For example, coconut oil can be formulated into a gentle foaming agent for cleansers. When compared to the harsh irritants of foaming sodium lauryl sulphate, coconut oil is definitely a better choice. 

Carnauba wax can be used as an emulsifier to improve the consistency of balms and creams. Again, sulphates are the synthetic version, and are much harsher, and create far more irritation on the skin. Natural versions are just as effective, and they are kinder on skin.

Glycerin is found in plants and animals, and is a sustainable humectant that attracts water into the skin. Synthetic alternatives exist, but are unsustainable and the production of these ingredients are more harmful to our environment.

There are so many synthetic ingredients that have been formulated to mimic organic versions for a fraction of the cost, which is why corporations have always opted for synthetic to save a pretty penny. But how many pennies is our planet worth, now?

Natural Actives.

When we look at natural actives, there are so many ingredients that have proven to be just as effective as synthetic ingredients. Let’s take a look at a few below:

Fruit Enzymes: These work similarly to alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA’s) to reduce dead skin build-up and improve your complexion. These can be less irritating on the skin. If you’ve never tried fruit enzymes before, try M.S.Skincare’s Jaipur Brightening Enzyme Mask. It’s made with pumpkin enzymes, and is an effective but gentle exfoliant - it's truly divine!

Glycerin: This can be sourced from plants or animals. It works by retaining moisture in the skin; giving the skin a protective barrier; it helps with product penetration; and makes skin feel ahhh-mazing! There’s a reason why it’s used in so many skincare products. While it is also made synthetically from petroleum (ick!), this is an incredibly unsustainable option, so always check the label to ensure you’re getting plant-based glycerin. Try our favorite, Fait avec Coeur’s Hyaluronic Acid Intense Soothing Serum.

Bakuchiol: Extracted from seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia plant, this ingredient works just like retinol, targeting fine lines and signs of aging. Why would anyone choose bakuchiol over retinols? Well, it doesn’t irritate the skin like retinols can, which is great for those with sensitive skin. Check out Honua Skincare’s Aloha Youth Serum.

Zinc Oxide: This is a naturally occurring substance that is used in mineral skincare, like sunscreen. Make sure you choose non-nano zinc oxide products, as this means the particles are larger and not able to penetrate the skin. Try Earthwise’s Farizad’s Veil Sun Reflector to boost your favorite moisturizer.


So we know that synthetic ingredients can sometimes be harmful to us and the environment. But what about natural ingredients? Are they safer than synthetics?

Short answer: no. Here are some examples:

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance. You can find it in nail polishes, hair gels, and other cosmetic and building products. It’s also used to embalm dead bodies because of its ability to preserve them, and it is also incredibly toxic. 

Talc is another naturally occurring substance. It was used for 150 years in baby powder until it started causing ovarian cancer.

Fruit enzymes, although are less likely to cause irritation, some people do get a reaction from these ingredients, which can damage the skin on a surface level.

So it all just depends - no matter if they are organic or synthetic.

Hard to Regulate.

Something else to consider is the fact that natural ingredients can be difficult to regulate. The beauty industry is still learning about natural ingredients’ benefits, and it can be more difficult for a chemist to change or maintain the formulation or potency of an organic compound over a synthetic compound. 

Another thing to think about is, when it comes to more sustainable and ethical options, sometimes synthetic is more viable. Take Āthr Beauty’s palettes, for example.

They obtain their ingredients from only the most sustainable and ethical sources they can find. When trying to source mica for their makeup palettes, Āthr Beauty decided to go with a combination of synthetically-made and US-mined mica. This is because the conditions that workers were under in overseas mines were completely unacceptable. They are subjected to exploitation and child labor. So Āthr Beauty made the conscious decision to use a combination of natural and synthetic mica.

The bottom line is, anything can be effective, or toxic - whether it be synthetic or organic. Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s better or safer. So always read the label to be sure that what you’re using is in fact safe. 


Back to Skin Stripping.

Skin stripping is caused by either using the wrong products for your skin, or over-use of the right products. (R.Day, 2019).

Are you using, or have you ever used a cleanser for your face that takes away all of the oil and dirt from your skin, leaving your skin feeling literally “squeaky clean”, and kind of tight? That is a telltale sign that you have stripped the skin.

Other ways can be by using face wipes - these often have harsh ingredients to remove makeup; by over-exfoliating, or just from treating the skin with the wrong products. This can happen with natural and synthetic ingredients.

Main Ingredients to Avoid

Overuse of any cleansing-type product can cause skin stripping, but there are five common ingredients that you should avoid altogether. 

Benzoyl Peroxide (synthetic)

This is a common ingredient used to treat acne-prone skin. For spot treatments it can be very effective, but a lot of brands use this as their main ingredient in things like cleansers as an aggressive acne treatment (*ahem* Proactiv®). As a teenage acne sufferer, I can tell you that it was so tempting to use these types of products to remove that bacteria, and give my skin a real deep clean. But using them can cause premature aging and destroy the skin’s microbiome, which we need to maintain skin health.

Sulfates (synthetic)

Sodium Lauryl and Sodium Laurel Sulphates were once the main ingredient after water in almost every product on the market. They are a cheap chemical that makes a product “foaming”. Luckily we are seeing less of these ingredients in products, as they are known skin irritants, and in one fell swoop they strip our skin of its protective barrier.


Alcohol (natural + synthetic)

Alcohol is used in many products, either as an astringent or as an emollient. Denatured alcohol (Alcohol Denat) is one to avoid, as it is used purposely to remove oils from the skin to make way for other products to absorb. Why is this a problem? Well as stated before, it can destroy the skin’s microbiome, which is what we want to avoid.

Fragrance (synthetic)

The fragrance industry is highly unregulated. This means that brands do not need to disclose any information about the ingredients of the fragrance they add to their products. Fragrance serves literally no skin benefit. But fragrance can contain skin irritants that strip the skin, and many other nasty things, like hormone disruptors, so opt for essential oils rather than fragrance, if you really want your skincare to smell good.

Artificial Dyes (synthetic)

Again, these serve ZERO purpose in skincare. But they do strip our skin’s microbiome. Choose uncolored, or naturally colored products.

 

The bottom line: always read the label of everything. It pays to be curious! The most effective products are normally those that have been formulated using a combination of the best, most sustainable natural and synthetic ingredients. In the words of Jack Johnson, “it's always better when we're together”.


All of the brands Fait avec Coeur promote are vegan and cruelty-free, sustainably and ethically sourced and made, and are manufactured using low-waste or plastic-free packaging.

Written by Emma Masotti. Emma is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.