If there is one buzz word in the skincare industry that gets immediate attention from consumers, it’s “natural.” Most people logically reason that it’s best to use natural substances on the skin that humans have been exposed to for countless generations instead of artificial synthetics that have only existed for a few decades. This has been additionally fueled by the rising public awareness that many man-made chemicals that humans are exposed to can cause cancer and other diseases, thus leading ever-increasing numbers of consumers back to natural therapies. The underlying premise, of course, is that these therapies are viewed as more “safe.”
But in reality, as far as cosmetics and skincare are concerned, the definition of the term "natural" is quite hazy. It’s actually not even regulated, so any company can use it to mean whatever they want. "If a company wants to call their products natural, it can, and it doesn't matter what they contain. [The] FDA has tried to establish official definitions for the use of certain terms such as “natural” but its regulations were overturned in court. So companies can use them on cosmetic labels to mean anything or nothing at all." (FDA Consumer Magazine, August 2000).
This has led a large number of skincare companies to abuse the term, claiming their formulas are “all-natural” despite containing several synthetic ingredients. These companies often make products they want you to believe are all-natural but in reality contain a vast array of synthetic ingredients veiled to look natural. This is a word game that is being used more and more as consumers become educated on how to judge products based on their government-mandated ingredient lists. Some companies try to use this to their advantage by listing a natural-sounding ingredient description in parentheses next to a more technical-sounding ingredient on their label. Although this appears to be helpful information, it can lead the consumer in the wrong direction in certain cases.
What Exactly Is "Natural" Skincare?
For example, ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laurel sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate are detergent cleansing agents that a number of studies have shown to be potentially carcinogenic (cancer causing) and are listed on some shampoo bottle labels as being “derived from coconut oil.” While that makes the ingredient sound more “safe” and “natural,” what the label doesn’t explain is what the coconut oil has to go through to become these compounds. Ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laural sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate are the salts of a sulfuric acid compounds that can be derived from isolated factions of coconut oil, and then neutralized with the artificial chemical triethanolamine to create a stripping detergent. So in essence it is merely an isolated faction of a natural extract that is combined together with a completely synthetic chemical to create a larger synthetic compound. That is the more accurate description and it is quite removed from anything that could be considered “natural.” These compounds in their final form are not at all similar in structure to how they began, though putting “derived from coconut oil” by the ingredient would certainly lead one to believe it is.
In skincare, there is actually a large gray area where the line is blurred between natural and synthetic. The case with ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laurel sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate shows how a natural ingredient can be adulterated enough by combining it with completely unnatural ingredients to yield something almost completely artificial. However, it is a more blatant example. There are many other instances where very beneficial compounds come out of combining certain natural extracts together with other natural extracts to form a novel complex compound. These are more difficult to define as simply “natural” or “synthetic” because of the way they come together.
A prime example of this would be the relatively new polypeptide/amino-peptide active ingredients that have been gaining tremendous positive attention in recent years. There are many kinds of polypeptides, and some of the most effective ones are those composed of the same amino acid chains that the skin’s collagen proteins are made up of combined with palmitic acid (usually extracted from palm oil) to stabilize and enhance their structure for use on the skin. Both the amino acids and the palmitic acids are found readily in nature (so neither is artificial), however, they are combined together in the laboratory to create a compound that technically would not be found in nature in this final form. Should they be considered natural because they are two naturally occurring compounds brought together to make a larger compound? Or should they be considered synthetic because the resulting compound, even if compromised of two natural substances, is not technically found in this final form in nature? This is where the line blurs.
However, dividing all skincare ingredients into just two categories, natural and synthetic, says nothing about how these ingredients actually interact with the skin. The idea that “natural” ingredients are always better than “synthetic” ingredients carries with it certain assumptions that must be addressed. Just because a compound is synthetic doesn’t automatically make it problematic (in some case, such as the polypeptide example above, it can actually be of great benefit to your skin, if you could consider bringing two natural ingredients together as synthetic), and just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean it is safe. Poison Ivy is natural, and no one would argue that it is safe on human skin. Many natural ingredients can cause allergies, irritation, and skin sensitivities. There are a number of individuals that have a hay fever response to certain plants, some of which are included in popular cosmetic products. The label might list natural ingredients, but unless they’ve been very judicious with their selections and have thoroughly researched these extracts, you could be buying an irritating product that ends up doing more harm than good.
Our position in this debate between natural vs. synthetic ingredients is overall a fairly moderate one. We strongly support the use of completely natural ingredients, and we do firmly believe that many synthetic ingredients are harmful to the skin, but we do not support the misinformation by some other companies and individuals suggesting that every synthetic ingredient is harmful or that every natural extract is beneficial/safe. The extracts included in our products are those with not only extensive clinical research behind them but also those with a long history of use by many cultures for their medicinal, healing, soothing, and anti-aging properties. When we claim our products use natural ingredients we are referring to both natural plant extracts and the skin-enhancing compounds that are combinations of natural compounds, such as our anti-aging polypeptides/amino-peptides with numerous clinical studies that prove their precise effectiveness in the skin. When we speak against the use of artificial ingredients we are referring to very specific chemicals that research has shown to be harmful to the skin, and are not condemning all synthetic ingredients as a whole, though in many cases there are natural ingredients offering comparable or superior benefits to their synthetic alternatives. We strongly encourage you to inspect the ingredient lists of our products and read their descriptions to discover how each can benefit your skin.