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Natural vs. “chemical” skincare: an irrelevant debate?

Natasha Dauncey

I regularly see references to the need to avoid all “chemicals” / synthetics and “toxins” in skincare as a basis for selling some green beauty brands (N.B. not all natural brands sell in this way!). The discourse around chemicals in cosmetics these days has become so negative and surrounded in fear. As a brand owner, it’s something I feel really uncomfortable about. Although my brand is formulated with mostly natural ingredients that I’ve found effective for my skin and that I enjoy using, I’m not averse to synthetic ingredients where they provide a benefit/fulfil a need. I think that the natural vs. chemical debate is a gross oversimplification of how we should choose skincare products and I don’t see why we have to pick one over the other.

Admittedly, I have in the past been heavily swayed by the scaremongering about certain ingredients, especially when mentioned in the same sentence as “endocrine disruptors” and “cancer”. I’ve spent time trying to understand more about ingredients used topically and this in itself is a huge challenge based on the misinformation available online. Whilst I’ve come across some synthetic formulations / ingredients that don’t agree with my skin, there are others that I use that I really enjoy. I’ve also found natural ingredients that don’t agree with my skin. So can you see why it’s not as simple as natural = good, synthetic / chemical = bad?! Skin irritants can be natural or synthetic so avoiding all synthetic ingredients in favour of natural ones won’t necessarily reduce the risk of irritation. But it’s claims regarding cancer that I find troubling because this scaremongering is having negative consequences for cosmetics, and unfortunately even more so for natural products. I fear a potential backlash against green beauty as a whole (in some cases it’s already happening on social media).

 Are all chemicals bad?

NO! Everything is made up of chemicals, even natural ingredients, so chemicals aren’t always synthetic! Somehow the word “chemical” has become synonymous with synthetic toxin. Of course, there are chemicals that are toxic to humans but that doesn’t mean that all synthetic chemicals are. Cosmetic regulations impose maximum use limits on most ingredients and really harmful ones won’t be found in your cosmetics. The problem with the blanket labelling of all chemicals as toxins is that it makes consumers wary of anything that is synthetic. One of the biggest implications this has had for cosmetics is on attitudes towards preservatives in skincare – with some people believing that preservatives shouldn’t be used in cosmetics (or using ingredients with preservative properties that are ineffective at the levels used): I have a detailed blog post about preservatives coming up soon!

A good broad-spectrum preservative is absolutely critical to any water-containing product. Without it and a solid preservation strategy in general, products are susceptible to growth of bacteria, mould and yeast and no one wants these on their skin, especially if you have a compromised immune system. Unfortunately, as soon as a preservative gets a bad name, it falls out of favour and it becomes difficult for a manufacturer to use that preservative even if it’s not considered toxic at the maximum use safe limits by authorities.

Take parabens for example. Some people have linked them to endocrine disruption and cancer, and for this reason many people have started to avoid them, though the EU Safety Committee have extensively reviewed them and consider them safe for use based on maximum permitted levels. Keep in mind that the EU tend to err on the side of caution with their recommendations and the reason I pay attention to what they say is that they are completely independent and have no hidden agenda, unlike other bodies that have managed to gain so much traction. That said, parabens can be allergenic (as can other preservatives) and for this reason it’s sensible for those with sensitive skin to avoid them. Unfortunately, many natural skincare brands choose not to use a suitable preservative system in their formulations which either leads to products failing microbial challenge tests (required by EU cosmetic regulation to sell any water-containing product) or worse still, the risk that products are being sold without challenge tests even taking place to check the effectiveness of a preservative.

Are all natural ingredients good?

NO! Whilst there are some wonderful natural ingredients out there, just because it’s natural it doesn’t mean it’s safe. There are numerous natural toxins out there (foxglove or botulinum toxin anyone?) – in some cases deadly, in others, allergenic or irritant. It’s possible to be allergic to almost anything regardless of whether it’s natural or synthetic. Did you know that some people have an intolerance / allergy to aloe vera?! Or that witch hazel is potentially irritating? Like many others, I really enjoy using essential oils in my skincare and I personally don’t have any issues with them, but it’s a fact that a minority of people are sensitive to them. Again, this relates to the dose used, the duration of exposure, as well the specific essential oil (some are far more sensitising than others). This is pure speculation on my part but I wonder whether the overuse of essential oils, perhaps because they’re seen as “natural and therefore safe”, may be responsible for the increasing sensitivity to essential oils that we see in some people. Essential oils are extremely potent and should be used responsibly at the right concentrations (i.e. very low concentrations); some essential oils shouldn’t be used on the skin at all (for accurate information on essential oil safety I recommend checking out Robert Tisserand’s page) and for those sensitive to them, it is wise to avoid using them (as with any other ingredient that someone is sensitive to!). For those with no known sensitivity to a particular ingredient, EU cosmetic regulations provide assurance for safe limits of ingredients. So as long as you’re using a product that’s been assessed in the EU, you can be confident that the formulation has been reviewed. I should add that this is not always a requirement for products made outside of the EU, and even within the EU you should always check a brand has the appropriate assessments completed as unfortunately, this is not always the case.

The difference between topical application and ingestion / inhalation

You may have come across the myth that “60% of what we put on our skin is absorbed into our bloodstream”. This is often used as a basis upon which the idea of “toxin-free” cosmetics are sold. But if this statement were true, pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t have such a hard time developing trans epidermal patches for delivering medication through the skin. (@labmuffinbeautyscience wrote an interesting post about skin absorption recently!). The skin, when functioning as it should, is actually a very effective barrier which has been designed to stop a lot getting past it – this is one of the reasons why a lot of skincare products can’t live up to their claims, as they can’t get where they’re needed! That said, absorption rates vary for different parts of the body and it’s possible for smaller chemicals to pass through the skin barrier – though that’s not necessarily a bad thing if they need to get to where they can be effective (think that’s a whole other blog post!). One word of caution though, bear in mind that if your skin barrier (or maybe your immune system?) is compromised, this could adversely affect what passes through the skin, thus leading to further irritation. This points to a need for ensuring your skincare routine is geared towards protecting your skin barrier.  Whilst our skin is a good defence against things we don’t want inside our bodies, we should give more thought what we eat and what we inhale – natural and synthetic chemicals can find their way into our bodies a lot more easily through these routes, though what happens once they’re inside the body is still hotly debated (this article on natural vs synthetic chemicals in the diet made for very interesting reading if you’re interested to know more: https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cpdb/pdfs/FoodQuality.pdf).

So what?

My key take homes are:

  • Chemicals can be natural or synthetic – we are exposed to hundreds of natural chemicals in everyday life without even realising it!
  • How a chemical behaves is based on its structure rather than whether it’s natural or synthetic
  • The safety of any ingredient (natural or synthetic) depends on its structure, how much is used and for how long
  • A fully functioning skin barrier makes it difficult for many chemicals (natural or synthetic) to be absorbed
  • Skin irritation and allergies can be caused by synthetic or natural ingredients

I don’t know about you but rather than worrying about whether I use natural or synthetic ingredients, I’m more concerned with finding ingredients that are effective in formulations that I enjoy using.

Natural vs synthetic skincare mythbusting



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