When it comes to skincare products, there are many options to choose from. It can get overwhelming and confusing for consumers who are mindful about the products they want to put on their faces.
However, there are opposing views on what kind of skincare products are the best: chemically synthetic products or natural, plant-based products. Chemically synthetic products contain laboratory and scientifically derived ingredients. In other words, scientists prepare and replicate compounds found in plants or animals. On the other hand, natural products are purely plant-based, sustainable, zero-waste in packaging, vegan and cruelty-free.
Are natural ingredients safe to use on the skin? Does the all-natural industry vilify safe synthetic ingredients? Which type of ingredient is better? In short, neither type is fully better or worse than the other.
Natural versus clean skincare
What is considered natural? Some people might confuse natural skincare products with clean beauty products. In this video, Susan Yara, a skin-thusiast YouTuber from Mixed Makeup, breaks down the differences between clean beauty and natural beauty skincare.
Both clean beauty and natural products are eco-friendly, sustainable and cruelty-free, and their makers tend to be overly safe with choosing which ingredients are beneficial.
However, clean beauty products may contain synthetic or natural ingredients, all of which are tested and proven to be safe, and they don’t contain toxins or any harmful ingredients. The term “clean” isn’t regulated, so it varies on what beauty brands qualify as clean.
The clean beauty industry also tries to avoid ingredients like chemical preservatives, parabens, essential oils, some natural extracts, sodium lauryl sulfate, glycol, phthalates, petrolatum, mineral oil, silicones, drying alcohols, fragrances and dyes. Not all of these ingredients are harmful to the skin.
On the other hand, natural products are pure, non-synthetic and contain plant-based ingredients that aren’t subject to any lab time, except for safety testing purposes. Thus, the all-natural industry praises ingredients found in nature, like essential oils, water-based extracts, alcohol-based tinctures, CO2 extracts, citrus-based extracts, plant-based extracts, glycerites and so on.
Usually, consumers who follow a strict plant-based skincare routine avoid all man-made products that contain synthetic chemicals. In other words, they claim natural products with pure plant-based ingredients are healthier because they’re “nontoxic” to the skin, unlike chemicals. However, not all chemicals are terrible for the skin.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of plant-based skincare?
Just because a product is natural or nature-derived doesn’t mean it’s safe or sustainable. For instance, poison ivy is natural yet harmful to the skin. Even products with natural extracts can cause sensitivity and irritation — citrus-based extracts like lemon and orange are very irritating, especially for sensitive skin types. Due to the high acidity of lemon extract, it can cause damage when used regularly over time in the sun.
Some natural ingredients can be too heavy and clog pores, while others can strip the skin of its natural oils, leaving it dehydrated. For example, pure coconut oil is extremely thick compared to other oils, which makes it harder to absorb. Thus, it can lay, without penetrating, on top of the skin and clog up pores as it is massaged with dirt and bacteria. The coconut oil then traps the dirt and bacteria underneath, creating acne.
However, there are many great, plant-based natural skincare products available too. Honey, chamomile, green tea, licorice extract, oats and turmeric have proven benefits for the skin. A few of the beneficial properties within these natural extracts include antioxidant compounds, reparation of free radical damage and so on. It’s important to know that not all naturally extracted ingredients are sensitizing to the skin.
Why do plant-based consumers fear synthetic products?
Moreover, plant-based fanatics’ main goal is to stay away from synthetic chemicals because they view them as dangerous for the skin. Many consumers believe that natural equals safe, meaning that if a product has all-natural ingredients, it must be better for the skin. However, that is not always the case.
Yes, some chemically synthetic ingredients can be irritating for the skin, but many of these ingredients are safe when formed in a laboratory.
Most consumers fear the unknown, like the long chemical ingredient names on product labels. Therefore, those who favor all-natural products associate chemicals with toxins and tend to ignore high-quality, chemically synthesized ingredients such as AHAs, PHAs, ectoin, triethoxycaprylylsilane, glycosphingolipid, decarboxy carnosine HCL, magnesium sulfate, niacinamide and retinol. These consumers might not even realize they’re missing out on quality, chemically synthesized ingredients. They are “brainwashed” by natural skincare companies. This leads consumers away from looking at scientific facts that back up the long-term benefits of some synthetic ingredients.
Why is some natural DIY skincare ineffective?
DIY skincare contains natural ingredients found in most people’s fridges or pantries. Although DIY skincare makes practicing self-care more enjoyable, not all natural remedies are as effective as manufactured products, and sometimes, they are not effective at all. Not to mention, these remedies can get extremely messy.
One of the problems with DIY skincare is the concentration of beneficial ingredients. For example, when a person picks out pure aloe vera from a plant in the yard or from the supermarket and they make a mask with it, they don’t know the environmental factors that contributed to the growth of the plant or the concentration of the ingredients in the plant. If the plant grew in a polluted area, it could potentially irritate a consumer’s skin. Likewise, the concentration of the beneficial ingredients in the plant could be a risk to the skin. Buying a skincare product with aloe vera extract is much safer because it has been refined, purified and concentrated at a level more effective to combat impurities in the skin.
Another problem with DIY skincare is the non-lasting effectiveness. Reusing a DIY skincare product at home is not a good idea. The efficacy of the beneficial extracts will diminish the longer the product is exposed to air, light and bacteria. Not to mention, the natural ingredients can spoil faster the longer it’s unused, which will cause more harm. People are wasting their ingredients by only getting limited uses out of the products, whereas a synthetically made product can be used for a long time. Therefore, purchasing a new skincare product will be more effective and last longer than a homemade product.
So, are natural skincare products safe? Not all natural skincare products are better, but it depends on the formula in each product. There are good and bad chemical ingredients, just like there are good and bad natural ones. Naturally derived products can be beneficial and effective if formulated carefully and thoroughly. However, chemically synthesized products are lab-based, and thus, more scientifically analyzed.
It’s important to check with a dermatologist or esthetician about any skin concerns or changes, and seek unbiased scientific research journals about skincare ingredients. Some great websites that give informative details about the effects of each ingredient include Paula’s Choice Ingredient Dictionary and INCIDecoder. And beware of any scamming skincare companies — natural or regular — that try to sell “amazing” products.