Amongst the (bad) reasons for not switching to natural cosmetics, one you often hear is “I’d really like to, but they’re just not effective enough”. Untrue ! This is the result of all the adverts we see, showing serious looking chemical engineers in white coats, praising the latest synthetic product to come out of their laboratory, furthering the idea that technology is some all-powerful force. A comparison between natural and synthetic ingredients would quickly reveal that when it comes to cosmetics heavily processed doesn’t necessarily mean more effective. Let the games begin !
Natural or synthetic ingredients : what are we talking about ?
To begin with, let’s meet the teams.
To qualify as being natural, an ingredient must meet these two requirements :
- It must be plant or mineral based (it can also be animal based but at oOlution we don’t use any animal products)
- It cannot have undergone any heavy processing.
Natural ingredients can still be lightly modified or treated with green chemicals e.g. cold pressing, distillation, drying, grinding, maceration, oxidation or saponification. Only pure cold-pressed plant oils and vegetable butters, essential oils and other ingredients that have been extracted from plants that are also free from solvent or refining can be labelled natural. An organic label is also a plus, but some natural ingredients, such as water, can’t be labelled organic.
Synthetic ingredients cover pretty much everything else. They are heavily modified or made via complex and polluting processes, often produced in heavy chemistry using hydrocarbons. They may originate from a natural source but become so modified and denatured that labelling them natural would qualify as Greenwashing. Treated with solvants or other synthetic molecules, deodorized and irradiated, these ingredients are very (perhaps overly) present in conventional cosmetics. Examples include hydrogenated and esterified plant oils and silicones (made from natural sand) so it’s not enough for a product to have a label stating “from natural origin”.
Choosing natural cosmetics is to opt for ingredients that are biodegradable, non polluting and that, as long as they come from sustainable sources (organic agriculture, sustainable harvesting, palm oil free) do not destroy ecosystems. It’s also choosing the best option for your skin. We’ll show you why in 3 rounds.
Round 1 : how they work – excipients
The first test : effectiveness. In cosmetics, effectiveness is determined by excipients, which are the substances that help the absorption of the active ingredients into the skin.
In synthetic cosmetics, it’s often filtered water in aqueous products, and mostly mineral oils, paraffin, vaseline or petrochemical silicone in creams. These ingredients are used because they’re cheap, how easy they are to apply and how well they convey the illusion of effectiveness. Some synthetic creams give you soft skin from the first application – is it just the magic of science ? Unfortunately these effects are entirely superficial and completely short-lived. Their ingredients, which are difficult for the body to use and completely inert, don’t actually do anything to benefit the skin. They give the illusion of softness and glow by creating an artificial and waterproof film that eventually suffocates the skin. The result is a weakened epidermis that is severely undernourished along with a whole collection of spots and blackheads. Stop using petrochemical moisturizers : they leave your skin suffering and unable to manage itself, leaving you in need of even more cosmetics. A clever marketing concept, isn’t it ?
In natural products, hydrolats are used in liquid products, and plant-based oils and butters are used in creams. One advantage is that our body can absorb them very easily, notably oils and butters which have a real affinity for the constituents of our skin. The lipids in the fatty acids they contain are very similar to the ones in our body, so they can penetrate the skin and mix in with the lipids in the hydrolipidic film. They perhaps don’t show miracle results straightaway, but they do act deeply over a long period of time. This can be quite a difficult idea to accept in our culture of immediacy. Do remember that there is no such thing as a cream that can treat eczema or oily skin in only a matter of days 😉
Natural ingredients have an affinity for the skin and act deeply over a long period of time
Natural ingredients : 1 Synthetic ingredients : 0
Round 2 : Range of action – active ingredients
As well as the excipient, all cosmetics contain active ingredients, chosen for their specific properties e.g. anti-aging, glow restoring, nourishing, balancing etc.
Synthetic active ingredients are most often made from single molecules with very targeted action, so every product is very specialised. Over time, the product accumulates on the skin without actually benefiting it all. Take synthetic collagen molecules as an example. They are too big to be absorbed by the skin, so they remain on the surface. According to 60 million cosmetics users, half of all anti-aging creams aren’t effective enough, even though they cost €2000 a litre ! I suppose it is quite difficult to pay for both budget celeb endorsed adverts AND high quality ingredients… Even when these products do contain high quality ingredients, they rarely make up more than 1% of the entire composition of a synthetic cosmetic, 5% in the best case scenario. The rest of the ingredients are just excipients and filler ingredients that are cheap and inert. Up to 99% of synthetic ingredients don’t actually benefit the skin, which means our needs aren’t being met at all.
Natural ingredients are rich in nutrients that are essential for vitality and the protection and health of our skin : vitamins, fatty acids, amino acids, minerals, antioxidants etc. Like the plants that they come from, they have a complex composition and can contain dozens of active molecules ! This means they have a very wide range of action.
Plant-based oils and butters, rich in vitamins A,B,C,D,E,H,K,PP and omegas leave the skin supple, have a toning action and protect the skin from free radicals. They’re also very moisturizing, nourishing and regulating. Essential oils are made from very small and penetrating molecules that are very concentrated and have powerful and targeted action. They can be anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiseptic and sebo-regulating, for example essential tea tree oil is as effective as benzoyl peroxide in the treatment of acne, without the risk of dry skin or burns. Hydrolats have the same properties but are much more gentle. They hydrate, cleanse and soothe even the most sensitive of skins.
The best part is that natural ingredients are nearly all active ingredients. Whether they’re used as excipients, perfumes or additives : they all bring something beneficial to our skin. A natural cosmetic product will contain at least 70% active ingredients, at oOlution all our products are made from 100% active ingredients ! We don’t use any ingredients that don’t benefit the skin. By combining a range of active ingredients, one product can easily cover all of our skin’s needs, even the most challenging issues.
A cosmetic product that only contains natural ingredients can contain up to 100% active ingredients : it can cover ALL of the needs of your skin
Natural ingredients : 2 Synthetic ingredients : 0
Round 3 : Being kind to the skin – additives
Third category : the additives that preserve, stabilize, texturize, perfume and color a product. In other words, ingredients whose number 1 objective is not necessarily to look after the skin. They don’t cause any problems… as long as they aren’t harmful.
This isn’t the case in synthetic cosmetics. The list of commonly used additives is long and not very interesting : parabens and phenoxyethanols, preservatives, phthalates, fixatives, sulfated surfactants (SLS and SLES), synthetic perfume, stabilizing EDTA, ethoxylated surfactants (PEG) etc. They’re ingredients you would have heard of due to their irritant effect, the damage they cause to the hydrolipidic film and the fact that they are often allergens or carcinogenic. Some are well-known endocrine disruptors, which the World Health Organization consider a threat to worldwide public health ! That’s not even taking into account all the future health scandals linked to synthetic substances that haven’t come to life yet. There is no petrochemical synthetic surfactant that is completely safe for our skin or health, yet they’re still found in nearly all conventional shampoos and gel cleansers. It’s a bit of a paradox really. From the point of view of manufacturers, they’re cheap and allow them to sell us even more products to counteract their undesirable effects. They may not win anything for their effectiveness but we can definitely give them a prize for cynicism !
In natural cosmetics, additives are gentle on the skin and are produced from green chemistry :
- Gentle cleansing agents made from plant oils : Sodium olivamphoacetate (Olive) or Potassium cocoate (Coconut) etc. They either lather only a little bit or not at all, they just cleanse ! Suitable for all skin types.
- Texture agents made from cornstarch (Zea mays starch) or coconut (Sucrose cocoate) etc.
- Preservatives made from plant fermentation : coconut (Lactobacillus), radish (Leuconostoc / radish root ferment filtrate) or antioxidizing vitamin E contained in other ingredients (Sunflower oil or rosemary essential oil)
- Stabilizers made from lemon (citric acid)
These ingredients are not only gentle and better for our health, but also much more beneficial for the skin : nourishing and anti-microbial properties from coconut, astringent properties from lemon etc.
Natural ingredients are the only ones to be gentle on our skin and good for our health
Natural ingredients : 3 Synthetic ingredients :0
There’s no competition : natural ingredients win with a knockout ! Never let anyone tell you that natural cosmetics are a pro-environmental militant act that’s detrimental for your skin. Choosing cosmetics with ingredients that are 100% natural is choosing maximum effectiveness whilst still being gentle on your skin.
This post is also available in french.