Is natural skincare better than synthetic or chemical?

There's currently a trend for 'natural' skincare, and with this trend has come a couple of myths:

Skincare myth 1: Chemical ingredients are synthetic or man-made.

Skincare myth 2: Natural ingredients are not chemicals.

Skincare myth 3: Natural ingredients are better than chemical/synthetic ones.

Let's start with some facts:  

  •  There is no such thing as 'chemical-free beauty' - ask any scientist and the answer will be the same. Everything is a chemical and has a chemical composition. Even oxygen (O2) and water (H2O).
  • Essential Oils are active chemicals, even though they are natural. Despite being natural, there are many skin allergies, sensitivities and reactions to essential oils.
  • Synthetic does not = bad. Many synthetic ingredients are based on natural compounds, but by synthesising them in a lab they can sometimes be made more effective, as well as having a consistent composition e.g. they are exactly the same, every time.
  • As synthetic/human-made ingredients are consistent in their composition, they are less likely to cause a reaction/sensitivity. Natural ingredients may well have subtle differences due to where it was grown, when it was harvested etc and therefore effecting it's composition. You can get standardised extracts in some cases.
  • Remember that before any natural ingredient gets into your moisturiser, it has to be scientifically processed, to make it usable for human consumption and to get the dosage right.
  • The term 'organic' refers to an agricultural standard, not efficacy. Therefore, a lavender that is organic, is not necessarily more effective at calming than a non-organic source however, some would have you believe that the effect is better because it was grown organically.
  • There is no global standard for 'organic' products. No minimum concentration, no agreement on what can be included. The associations that accredit cosmetic brands, are often food agencies and do not have common global standards.

I am not saying synthetic is good and natural is bad, or vice versa. I am saying that if you want results, evidence-based ingredients are the only proven way to go. Evidence-based applies to all ingredients that have been clinically tested, regardless of their source; earth, sea, mineral, laboratory. It simply means that there have been robust, scientific clinical trials that determine how, why and what concentration is needed to get X result.

So, what has caused the confusion? In my opinion much of it is down to fear-mongering in order to drive sales:

  • Greenwashing. Some companies prey on people's fears that their faces might drop off if they use 'chemicals' on their skin. Marketing campaigns re-enforce that fear, while apparently offering the 'perfect' solution.
  • Encouraging the belief that because Mother Earth made it, it must be pure and safe. There are plenty of examples of natural compounds that are toxic, just as there are plenty of synthetic compounds that are toxic. Natural doesn't necessarily = better/safer.
  • Encouraging the belief that no preservatives = better. Failure to include the correct preservatives can lead to the product going 'off' much quicker, making it less effective and potentially unsafe to use.
  • Encouraging the belief that ingredients with long, complicated names are bad for you. Exhibit A: Ascorbyl Glucoside sounds very scientific, but is actually stabilised, natural Vitamin C.

Let's just go back a few decades and look at the evolution of ingredients:

  • 70's - we were still using animal ingredients in beauty products (and some still do)
  • 80's - animals ingredients = bad. Let's use synthetic
  • 90's - synthetic = bad. Let's use natural
  • 90's/00's - natural not enough, must be organic

The future of cosmetic ingredients? Evidence-based. 

MERUMAYA® combines all the knowledge we have accumulated, and uses the most effective, result-giving active ingredients from all sources. Our actives are largely from natural sources, but if a synthetic ingredient performs better, we will use that one instead. In addition, our actives are always used at the same concentration that they were clinically tested in, to provide the same, effective results. We want to talk about what's in the product and how it gives results, rather than what is not in the product, which serves to encourage fear and diverts attention away from what is in it

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