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Synthetic vs. Natural ingredients: Does it matter?
Beauty may be skin deep, but the beauty products that you use tend to go far deeper. If you're like the average person, you use about a dozen different products on your skin each day -- up to 60% of which your skin absorbs into the bloodstream and tissues deeper inside. Seen this way, your skin is more an absorbent sponge covering your body, than the protective barrier that many assume it to be. If you believe that it's important to be careful about what you take into your body through the mouth and to keep chemicals and synthetic substances off your plate, you should think about the beauty products that you use, too. They enter your body as your food does, only, they take a different path. Chemically formulated cosmetics have only been tested on humans for a few decades, and are often suspected to be responsible for unacceptable long-term effects such as allergies, and even some cancers.
So, do you simply shop for natural beauty products?
Consumers are increasingly aware of how skincare products of natural origin are safer for health than conventional products, and, they care about seeking out such products when they shop. It isn't often easy to make out what exactly is clean and natural, however. The European Union makes the distinction somewhat possible for consumers by publishing lists of 1,300 banned synthetic chemicals in cosmetics and hundreds more that manufacturers are encouraged to avoid.
Manufacturers of conventional cosmetics jump on the clean bandwagon, as well, and often advertise how their products are free of aluminium, or free of parabens, coaxing consumers to believe that these products are close to natural. In reality, however, manufacturers who sacrifice a few chemicals for a natural halo are nowhere near creating products that are truly natural.
Considering the popularity of natural cosmetics, it is often tempting for manufacturers to use the terms natural or all-natural on their labelling even when natural ingredients make up only a small proportion of their products. For consumers who care about only putting safe substances on their skin, then, it makes sense to look for products whose labels specify what percentage of their contents are natural. In general, experts tend to be of the opinion that the label natural should be reserved for products that are at least 80 percent natural. Even in these cases, it's important to keep in mind that the remainder may include ingredients that are synthetic.
One way to make informed buying choices is to consult the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database maintained by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org/skindeep). It rates different commonly available cosmetics for natural safety.
Why are natural beauty products more expensive?
It's easy to assume that natural beauty products are simply priced to appeal to the luxury market segment, but that isn't usually the case.
Synthetic cosmetics, ones that are formulated from chemicals, have been preferred by the conventional cosmetics industry for the simple reason that these ingredients tend to be inexpensive, and the desired effects are usually easier to achieve on an industrial scale.
When chemicals are acceptable, the research that goes into creating products that work, ones that have a long shelf life, ones that look, feel, and smell good, tends to be readily achievable. These goals tend to be much harder to attain with all-natural ingredients.
For instance, creating a natural product to help heal skin damaged by UV exposure requires natural vitamin C as an ingredient. Vitamin C tends to be unstable on its own; research has found, however, that a plant-based compound called ferulic acid, in combination with vitamin E, can work together with vitamin C to help strengthen its effect and extend its shelf life. Hyaluronic acid, a powerful hydrator, is another natural substance that tends to be challenging to include in skin products. Unless it is formulated in special ways, it tends to be ineffective in products or to deactivate other active ingredients. It takes an in-depth knowledge of the way hyaluronic acid works, to be able to include it in cosmetics. These types of insights can take expensive research to uncover, but many brands have put in the work needed, and created high-performance natural alternatives.
Obtaining pure, natural ingredients in substantial quantities for commercial production can be a costly business, as well. Nature doesn’t tend to easily generate natural ingredients of consistent quality at industrial scale. A pound of the essential oil of rose, for instance, takes thousands of pounds of rose petals to make and can be expensive to reliably source.
Natural beauty products aren't just formulated to be safe for consumers. They tend to be packaged in ways that are safe for the environment, as well, so that the empty containers, when they are discarded, don't end up harming the environment. Glass containers, which are heavy, and about 10 times more expensive to manufacture than plastic, are one alternative in regular use in natural skincare products. Other brands research and go with unconventional packaging choices. Some sell their products in solid form, for instance, rather than a gel or liquid form, to improve shelf-life. These new choices can be costly to research and implement.
Natural products are better for the environment on their own, too
Synthetic skincare products contain chemicals that may not be harmful to the skin in small quantities, but they are potentially worrisome over long periods of repeated use. With millions of people using these products on their skin over years, and washing them off each day, these chemicals also make their way into the environment. Phthalates, that have been linked to different kinds of cancers, triclosan, that is suspected to contribute to antibiotic resistance in microbes, microbeads, that contaminate aquatic environments -- are all substances that environmental experts work to free the environment of. Using all-natural skincare products helps make this happen.
It's important to understand that natural skincare products are the only sustainable alternative. They are safe for the health of users, and for the health of the environment. Staying away from toxic substances in skincare is the only prudent choice before consumers, any way you look at it.