These days, ‘natural beauty’ and ‘clean beauty’ have seen growth in popularity with consumers. Based on the Daily Vanity Consumer Behaviour Report 2019, 37% of beauty consumers in Singapore said that a product being natural would encourage them to purchase it.
It is little wonder then that beauty brands have all been cashing in on this trend – for instance, it was reported that there was a 13% rise in certified natural beauty products in the UK in 2016, and sales soared to £61.2 million in the same year.
However, consumers are actually using more synthetic ingredients than ever at the same time, with SPF, retinol, and acid peels now a crucial part of many people’s skincare regime. That appears to contradict the trend of using natural ingredients in our beauty products – could that mean we as consumers are unaware of what really goes into our beauty products?
At Daily Vanity, we will explain what natural and synthetic ingredients are, whether natural ingredients are as good as the beauty brands say, and how we as consumers can make more informed choices when making purchase decisions.
What is the difference between natural and synthetic ingredients in skincare?
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First and foremost, it is important to understand what ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ ingredients refer to when they are used by beauty brands in their labels.
Dr SK Tan, founder and medical director of IDS Skincare, is a firm believer that the terms ‘synthetic’ and ‘naturally’ have been “misunderstood, misused and abused” in the beauty industry.
‘Synthetic ingredient’ generally means that a ‘naturally-derived’ ingredient, such as Vitamin A, which is found in animal and plant sources, has been molecularly replicated in the lab to produce similar, or even better, result. Some examples which are commonly used in skincare products include:
- Retinol: synthetic Vitamin A that helps reduce the appearance of wrinkles, dark spots, and signs of aging
- Hyaluronic Acid: recreated from skin tissue to hydrate skin
- Salicylic Acid: occurs naturally in plants, but increasingly reproduced synthetically for effective exfoliation
On the other hand, the term ‘natural’ simply means that none of the ingredients in the product were made in the laboratory.
Dr Tan also points out that certain brands use terms such as ‘chemical-free’ to describe their natural beauty products. This is inaccurate, as everything is a chemical – water, for example, is a chemical composed of 2 molecules of hydrogen and a molecule of oxygen (H2O). Therefore, chemical-free products do not exist!
Are natural ingredients better than synthetic ones?
We know a lot of brands sell the story that their products are formulated with natural ingredients which are supposedly better for your skin, but how much truth is there to such a claim?
The truth is, natural ingredients are not always good for our skin – there are numerous ‘natural’ ingredients which are irritant or even toxic. There are some things grown naturally that are toxic, like heroin that comes from poppies, arsenic that comes from natural sources, or even poison ivy!
Consumers may also want to take note that that naturally products do not necessarily mean that they are good for the earth either. One good example is mineral oil, or petroleum – it is a naturally-derived ingredient that is commonly used as moisturiser in skin and hair products, but extracting mineral oil has a devastating impact on wildlife that we would rather avoid.
Another disadvantage of using natural beauty products is the inconsistency of the concentration of active ingredients. According to Dr Tan, even though the ‘active’ ingredients in your product may be natural, they could actually be formulated with other ingredients that are synthetic, hence your beauty product is not quite as ‘natural’ as you think it is.
Is ‘natural beauty’ just a marketing tactic?
Contrary to popular belief, there is a lack of regulation in the industry, which is why there is confusion among consumers. The terms “clean” and “natural” are often used interchangeably and are the most common; you’ll also see “safe,” “green,” and “nontoxic.” The terminology isn’t regulated by an agency or governing body, so they are all essentially meaningless words when they appear on your beauty products.
Dr Tan opines that ‘natural beauty’ and ‘natural ingredients’ are nothing more than hype in the beauty industry. He adds on that the term ‘natural’ is often used by marketing people to suggest that the ingredient is ‘safe’ and ‘better’, but this is not often the case.
He agrees with the fact that a product is natural may give consumers a bit of comfort, but he warns that we should be careful and check if the product was farmed without synthetic pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.
That’s not to say that all synthetic ingredients are good
A quick search on the Internet throws up some synthetic ingredients that are labelled as harmful and unsafe. These include:
- Parabens (methylparaben, proplyparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben): preservatives that can lead to hormonal imbalances and possibly breast cancer
- Artificial fragrance/parfumes: potentially cocktail of carcinogens, allergens, endocrine disruptors, and irritants
- Toluene: commonly found in nail polish and hair dyes, can be toxic to immune system and cause birth defects
- Formaldehyde: preservative and carcinogen
However, Dr Tan assures us that dangerous synthetic ingredients, by their very nature, are already excluded from cosmetics. Other ingredients, which are often described as ‘dangerous’, but which are still found in skincare and cosmetics, are often maligned and not as dangerous as they are made out to be. As Dr. Cutis Klaaseen, a famous toxicologist explains, “If you give enough of any chemical, it will produce harm.”
That being said, there is still a difference in the types of chemicals deemed unsafe across different countries: there are over 1,300 chemicals banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union; in comparison, the U.S. has only banned 11.
How can we make an informed choice about skincare ingredients and products consumed?
The advice given by most skincare experts is this: Look at the ingredients used, and know which work and which don’t for you and your skin alone. We shouldn’t be looking at beauty from the binary perspective of synthetic vs natural ingredients either: it is more important to look out for the best in each of these categories, and avoid the ones that don’t work for your skin.
That being said, it does not mean that we as consumers have to try everything out and suffering from health problems before figuring out what is bad for us. The EWG published its first Skin Deep cosmetics database – this contains more than 73,000 products and ingredients, giving them a rating for their potential hazards based on a complicated set of data and methodology. You may check a product’s rating on this database first before making your purchase.
Lastly, keep in mind that beauty is very personal, so it is important to trust your own preferences, do your research, and don’t take a brand’s word for it. Don’t avoid products with synthetic chemicals because you’ve been fed misinformation from brands!
What are some beauty brands that advocate for using synthetic ingredients in their products?
The Ordinary uses synthetically derived ingredients in many of their products, and prides itself on it. They are very transparent with all the ingredients that are used and formulated in their products, so every product name will highlight the key ingredient used. e.g Retinol 0.5% in Squalane, Lactic Acid 5% + HA.
If you are concerned about whether their products are cruelty-free and vegan, you’ll be happy to know that they tick all those boxes—at a more affordable price point than that of luxury brands!
This local brand doesn’t believe in shying away from using synthetic ingredients in beauty products – in fact, they have developed an ingredient called Neulastin, which is a unique formulation and blend of highly-active ingredients that stimulate elastin and collagen production. This aids effective skin repair, as well as enhances absorption and delivery of active ingredients into the skin.
You can shop for IDS Skincare products on the brand’s website, as well as at their counters.