When I first started writing about ethical beauty, the pervasive idea was “NATURAL IS ALWAYS BETTER AND ANYTHING SYNTHETIC IS CLEARLY EVIL.” But, I’m here to tell you, that’s not always the case. We’re taking a deeper look at the naturals vs. synthetics debate—and why sustainability, personal choice and lack of information may play into how we evaluate products.
By: Emily Barth Isler
IN THIS POST:
- Naturals vs. synthetics: what to consider
- When synthetics could be better: color cosmetics
- When naturals could be better: transparency
- When it depends: safety
- When naturals could be better: consumer empowerment
- When synthetics could be better: sustainability
- Trusted ethical beauty resources
I think a lot of us who started as journalists, bloggers and beauty writers in the ethical beauty space back in the early 2000s felt like the easiest way to determine what was “safer” was to avoid all synthetics. It was the Wild West—there was so much we didn’t know, and it was easiest to draw some clear lines: natural ingredients only; synthetics are bad.
But, our evolving understanding of ingredients in skincare and health, and in “wellness” in general, means that we can no longer live in a black and white world. We need to accept some nuance and make peace with that grey space. The dogmatic, there-is-only-one-right-way way of thinking is no longer helpful. Just look at the discrepancy in beauty certifications, which illustrates exactly what we are talking about.
This means that it’s up to each of us, as consumers, humans and/or parents, to decide what safety standards make each of us comfortable. No one can tell us 100% what to choose regarding the ingredients in our products.
I know, it’d be easier if I could tell you that there is a right or wrong choice for every category, but that’s not the case. The only answer is educating yourself and making your own best decision with the information available to you! Here are the things I personally like to consider when evaluating what is important around the use of natural ingredients vs. synthetic ingredients in the beauty/self care products I choose to use.
RELATED: Want to know how TNK chooses the products we recommend? Read our The New Knew Beauty Credo.
Naturals vs. synthetics: what to consider
When synthetics could be better: color cosmetics
My first question for all the experts I interviewed was: Is there ever a case where a synthetic is safer/healthier than a natural ingredient? The answer from everyone: Absolutely.
“Take iron oxide colorant pigments used in many natural color cosmetic products,” Sarah Biggers-Stewart, founder and CEO of CLOVE + HALLOW and Clover by CLOVE + HALLOW, told me. “These are heralded as ‘natural dyes,’ but they’re not—they’re actually required by law to be created in a lab. This is because iron oxides in their natural form contain far more heavy metals and contaminants, and each batch is hard to standardize. With synthetic iron oxides, you can control the impurity profile with more accuracy. And it’s better for the environment.”
Along the same lines, some ingredients, especially in the color cosmetics category, can’t be “natural” and reap the rewards consumers want. Colorant pigments, which are such a hot issue among green beauty fans, brands, and retailers, are a great example. So how do brands address this synthetics colorings convo? Like rms Beauty, a brand that uses some synthetic pigments in a select few of their products. They disclose and explain their “why” on their website’s FAQs:
“In the interest of full disclosure, we want you to know that all of our colors are created using natural minerals except: Luminizer X Quad in Luminizer Nude, Lip2Cheek color in Smile and Beloved and Lip Shine in Sacred and Content, which could not be created without the use of the tiniest bit of FDA approved, food-grade, synthetic color. … If your goal is to avoid all synthetic pigments, please choose from any of the other products in the rms beauty line. As science advances, we will continue to reformulate until we find a natural source for those colors.”
The standout here is that they’re being both transparent and offering multiple options. Again, it comes down to what you feel comfortable using, but they’re giving you the information you might need to help make your informed decision.
When naturals could be better: transparency
Mystery is not a good thing when it comes to ingredients—which is why “fragrance” is problematic. “As a long-time migraine sufferer, I have learned that I need to avoid products that list ‘fragrance’ in the ingredients because of the chemicals that can be hidden under that umbrella term,” says Christine Cunningham, owner of 28 Litsea, one of my favorite small-batch, handmade bodycare companies.
It’s true: Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the FDA does not require companies to disclose “trade secrets,” which include fragrance and flavor combinations. That means a product can simply call any number of ingredients “fragrance” and not have to list what, exactly, they are.
Similarly, this idea of not wanting mysteries in your products is another reason why a lot of people prefer natural ingredients over synthetics. “Simplicity is often a key value-add,” says Sarah. “People can recognize ‘sunflower oil’ and know whether their skin tolerates it or if it fits into the spectrum of ingredients they’re comfortable using. There are lots of synthetic ingredients like polymers and elastomers and such that require more background information in order to understand their origin and feel comfortable using them.”
Another tip to avoid mystery: Look further than just your personal care products when evaluating synthetics vs naturals. “We often talk about reading the labels on our skincare products,” says Christine, “but it is just as important to be aware of synthetic fragrance in household items like candles, air fresheners and cleaning products that can trigger migraines, irritation or allergic reactions.”
When it depends: safety
A well-known example of the lack of inherent safety of natural ingredients is poison ivy. Even if it is grown organically, on the most sustainable farm, with filtered water, and it’s hand-harvested, poison ivy is always going to be an undesirable skincare ingredient.
It would be shortsighted to claim that anything that comes from nature in its unadulterated form is inherently safe. Sarah elaborates about this nuance: “Additionally, naturals can have a high sensitization profile due to improper use under the guise of ‘it’s natural so it’s got to be safe!’ For example, essential oils are often utilized in natural beauty products instead of synthetic fragrance, but essential oils contain many of the same raw scent components as ‘clean’ synthetic fragrances anyways and can be MORE irritating to the skin.”
Allergies and irritations can occur with both kinds of ingredients. “I think it is very important to note that no matter how natural an ingredient is, there can still be risk of irritation or allergy. Just because a product is touted as all natural, as consumers we need to do our research on what’s inside and do patch tests to determine how these products interact with our own skin,” adds Christine.
When naturals could be better: consumer empowerment
Just because an ingredient is synthetically derived doesn’t automatically make it bad; but it might make it harder for the average consumer to evaluate.
Many of us were initially drawn to natural products for the, I can pronounce/recognize all the ingredients ease, and there is a lot to be said for that. Sarah sums it up well: “There are far more synthetic ingredients used in cosmetics than naturals, and each synthetic ingredient has less sourcing/safety information that would make sense to the average person without a science background.”
She continues: “This is not ideal for consumer empowerment; how can you evaluate whether or not you want to use an ingredient if there is so little information on it out there? Additionally, the more reactions or refinements a synthetic raw material undergoes, the more of a chance exists that a contaminant finds its way into the finished raw material. You have to be on top of things when evaluating safety data sheets and also do your own safety testing.”
We can all agree that not all synthetics are created equally. There are some synthetics that have been shown to be harmful, like phthalates, which are chemicals used in some beauty products to help retain longevity of scents, and which have been linked to reproductive issues and endocrine disruption in animals, according to the CDC.
According to their website, “Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system in animals… More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.”
But, these findings are enough to make experts like Russ Hauser, Frederick Lee Hisaw Professor of Reproductive Physiology Environmental Health at Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, write articles like “Why phthalates should be restricted or banned from consumer products.” Based on a paper he co-authored with colleagues from Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), the article outlines the health dangers of chemicals called ortho-phthalates and calls for their elimination in consumer products.
Fortunately, both consumers and brands are becoming much more aware of these issues and some formulators are making conscious efforts to avoid using these types of ingredients.
When synthetics could be better: sustainability
Many people tend to focus on health and safety issues when deciding what ingredients they are comfortable using. However, there is another issue to consider, which is, of course, sustainability.
Just because an ingredient grows in nature, that doesn’t mean that harvesting or using it is without impact. Says Sarah, “While naturals tend to be better for the environment when used or disposed of, sourcing and synthesizing natural ingredients can have a negative net impact on the environment, particularly with organics. You have to really pay attention to circular, regenerative agriculture to avoid depleting natural resources.”
Sandalwood trees are a great example of this sustainability angle. They’re slow-growing, and have been over-harvested in the past. Many brands make decisions about ingredients like sandalwood, weighing the pros and cons: if the brand can create or source a safe sandalwood scent synthetically, is that preferable to chopping down a sandalwood forest?
Another example of a natural ingredient that is not sustainable is that of palm oil. While the oil itself is technically safe and natural, and is used in things from peanut butter to lipstick, harvesting it endangers animals, sometimes violates human rights, and is a major source of deforestation and climate change. Lipstick brand Axiology is a leader in the movement to stop using palm oil, and is also a great source of information about why (read more here to learn about palm oil and how the ingredients in the products we buy have massive, global implications).
Trusted ethical beauty resources
If all of these pros and cons leave your head spinning, you’re not alone. There is a lot to take in and weigh in this conversation. If you’re looking for a “bottom line” or a “TLDR” on the whole naturals vs. synthetics conversation, my advice always comes back to choosing brands and retailers you trust. Those of us who are not scientists have to rely on the people who are, or the brands who consult scientists when formulating their products. To some degree, we have to put ourselves in their hands, as we don’t have all the research, nuance, and context at our fingertips.
Part of why we do what we do is to help you figure out where to place your trust without having to go back to school for a chemistry or microbiology degree (ain’t nobody got time for that!). Everything we test and recommend at TNK is vetted by us, meaning we’ve done the due diligence to consider everything from integrity and efficacy to environmental impact (we break down all our values + how we evaluate products here, ICYMI).
Other ethical beauty resources
Looking for more guidance on label reading, ingredient hacking and how to figure out what you think about synthetics vs. naturals? Here are a few blogs to bookmark:
- The New Knew’s Beauty Standards
- How to Read Skincare + Makeup Labels
- How to Read Sunscreen Labels
- How to Decipher Beauty + Personal Care Certifications
- 90+ Black-Owned Clean Skincare Brands
- How Do Brands Choose Their Beauty Certifications?
- How TNK Uses Beauty Certifications
- Organic Hair Dye: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
- A Look at Retinol in Organic Beauty
- Safe, Non-toxic and Organic Candles
- Clean Beauty at Target Buying Guide
What’s most important to you when it comes to ingredient lists? Are you team synthetics or team naturals or both?
TNK Team Note: This article contains affiliate links. TNK uses affiliate links as a source for revenue to fund operations of the business and to be less dependent on branded content. TNK stands behind all product recommendations. Still have questions about these links or our process? Feel free to email us.