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Natural vs. Synthetic Cosmetics Ingredients: What are they, and what’s the difference?

Elizabeth Heath

Jul 12, 2021 · 4 min read


If you were offered a choice between a product — be it food, cosmetics, or even a mattress — that called itself “natural” versus one that advertised itself as “synthetic,” you’d probably gravitate to the natural product, right?

Worries about the short and long-term safety of what we put in, and on our bodies, coupled with concerns for the health of our planet has an increasingly large number of consumers choosing natural over synthetic. But what do those terms really mean, and is one always superior to the other?

You might be surprised to know that natural isn’t always better, and synthetic isn’t always bad.

What Are Natural Cosmetics?

Natural cosmetics are those made with a majority of naturally derived ingredients. While that usually means plant and mineral-based products, there’s no universal definition — much less regulation — as to what a “natural” product really is.

While we’re not knocking natural cosmetics, here are some of the pitfalls of the term:

  • Natural doesn’t mean vegan or vegetarian. There are natural cosmetic products made from bovine and fish collagen, snail slime, shark liver oil and crushed beetles.
  • A natural product can be extracted or produced in an unsustainable way. Take palm oil, for example — it’s a natural product whose use in industrial food production is devastating rainforest habitats around the world.
  • Natural doesn’t mean 100% natural. Since there are so few regulations on cosmetic product labeling, a “natural” product may contain a majority of natural ingredients but also contain unfavorable synthetic ingredients.
  • Natural doesn’t always mean beneficial. Arsenic, mercury, petroleum, and snake venom are all naturally occurring products. But that doesn’t mean we want them anywhere near our hair and skin.
  • The terms “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable — not by a long shot. A “100% natural” fruit-based cosmetic might be made with fruit that’s treated with pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

What are Synthetic Cosmetics?

Synthetic cosmetics are made from products that are formulated in a laboratory. Think of synthetic as another word for “artificial” or “manmade.” Synthetic products are often derived from natural sources — hyaluronic acid is a good example in the cosmetics industry. It’s made either from fermented bacteria, or from rooster combs and animal offal.

In other cases, synthetic ingredients are engineered to mimic natural ones. Vitamin C is just one example of a naturally occurring ingredient that’s frequently replicated in the lab.

There are times that synthetic ingredients may be a better choice, both for consumers and the planet:

  • All cosmetics contain some form of preservative, but synthetic cosmetics almost always have a longer shelf life than their all-natural counterparts. That means less packaging waste.
  • The environmental footprint of lab-derived ingredients is often smaller than that of natural ingredients. On a large scale, natural products require massive resource consumption, such as land and water for plant crops, and the pollution associated with their transport.
  • Industrial flower- and plant-growing for fragrances and cosmetics typically involves fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that may kill pollinators and contaminate water supplies.
  • Synthetic ingredients can often be made more cheaply than natural ones, and these savings trickle down to the consumer.
  • If performance is the objective, synthetic ingredients often show superior results to natural ones.

For more on cosmetic products and sustainability, check this article from Byrdie.

What’s Right for Your Product?

As you begin to develop your cosmetic product, you’ll be faced with a dizzying array of options for ingredients. You’ll probably also be learning a lot about the differences between synthetic and natural, and the nuances between natural and organic.

When it comes to formulation, factors you’ll want to consider include:

  • Ease of sourcing: Are the ingredients readily available?
  • Effectiveness: Will the ingredients do what I want them to do?
  • Sustainability: Can these ingredients be sourced in a sustainable manner?
  • Branding: Do the ingredients and their sourcing align with my branding and messaging?
  • Cost: Can I use the ingredients I want and still price my product for my target market?

The INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients), a database run by the Personal Care Products Council, identifies and describes tens of thousands of cosmetics ingredients. Though full access is by subscription only, you can search for some results here.

Elizabeth Heath

Written by

Elizabeth Heath

Liz is a writer and editor based in central Italy.

Connect with Elizabeth Heath on LinkedIn.

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