Are Natural Ingredients Really Better for You Than Synthetic Ones?

Skin Care

There is a sector of the women’s health, beauty, and cosmetics industries that are super-vigilant and concerned about the safety of ingredients. Natural and organic product companies and retailers are now generating billions each year off of fearmongering and perpetuating myths like the following:

  • You shouldn’t put any ingredients on your skin that you can’t pronounce (despite chemicals like pentyl acetate naturally occurring in an organic piece of fruit, like a banana),
  • You should research the safety of ingredients on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database or the Good Guide before purchasing (despite the fact that even safe, natural ingredients like vitamin C can be toxic in concentrations as high as the synthetic ingredients are used in some of the quoted studies),
  • You shouldn’t use anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as an ingredient (despite the fact that some of the best ingredients for the skin, like retinoids, peptides, amino acids, and niacinamide, are isolates of extracts your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize at all)!

It also gets ugly from a political perspective. There are databases that register email addresses for their newsletter. But they simultaneously signs registrants up to look like they are supporting very liberal political policies in California. They are cited by politicians as “political supporters” for their causes, when in fact these are just consumers who are concerned about the health and safety of their beauty products!

In the meantime, there is selective funding of studies that research the toxicity of artificial ingredients, like sunscreen ingredients or parabens (which are naturally found in blueberries), while letting studies trying to research the potential toxicity or allergenic potential of natural ingredients to not be funded at all.

Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing natural or synthetic skin care products:

Natural Product Ingredients Do Not Have to be Purified

In answering the question as to whether or not there is any difference between natural and artificial ingredients in skin care, there is only one correct answer: Artificial ingredients are simpler in composition and potentially safer, because only safety-tested components are utilized. On the other hand, natural extracts can contain many particulate toxins inherent to their sources. Natural coconut, for instance, depends on a chemical found in the bark of a Malaysian tree. Extracting this chemical involves the removing of the bark, which also kills the tree. So although this “natural” coconut is exactly the same as that in an organic chemist’s laboratory, it is also much more expensive and hazardous for the environment.


The toxins in natural products can be dangerous for the consumer. Plants make many toxic substances. Some of these toxic substances are created by plants to combat other plant species. One class of these, called the triketones, have been used as pesticides (Toxins, 2010). Notably, when plants are treated with these pesticides, they can cause the tissues of the plants to turn white from the bleaching of chlorophylls (Toxins, 2010). Do you really want to put these toxins on your skin?!

Another example are the allergens that can be found in numerous natural products. For instance, the all-natural ingredient chamomile, which is known to be soothing for the skin, also contains ragweed. Repeated exposure to chamomile has been known to induce a highly irritating rash resulting from a ragweed allergy, according to the nutritional guide The Prescription for Nutritional Healing.

Many other “natural” ingredients, such as the arnica montana used to treat bruises, are also able to induce detrimental effects after repeated exposure. In fact, according to Dr. Leslie Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology, “Prolonged treatment of damaged skin [with arnica] often causes edematous dermatitis with the formation of pustules; long-term use can also give rise to eczema.” Synthetic ingredients are less biologically complex and have less allergenic potential in general.

Natural Extracts are Less Regulated than Synthetic Ingredients


In addition to purity concerns, natural extracts are less regulated than synthetic ingredients. Whereas the FDA states synthetic ingredients are only permitted in skin care products up to certain concentrations to minimize potential irritation, inflammation, and allergenic reaction in the skin, natural extracts are generally permitted in products up to whatever concentration the company feels comfortable with — which is not only bad practice, but also potentially dangerous for the consumer.

Concentrated Ingredients are Better than Whole Plant Extracts

Aspirin was created when the active portion of the Salix alba white willow bark, acetylsalicylic acid, was extracted from the whole witch hazel plant. In studies, aspirin

My second problem with the “natural not chemical” movement is simply that consumers are often ignoring the numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center studies backing certain chemical ingredients in favor of clever marketing giving the impression that natural is always better. And that is a problem, because there is no research to date demonstrating that all-natural skin care products are always better, while there is substantial research indicating that certain chemical ingredients – retinol, niacinamide,vitamins C & E, and chemical sunscreens, to name a few – have proven long-term benefits for the skin.


Food that is Good for You is Not Always Good for Your Skin

Acidic or neutral pH products are best for your skin. This is because your skin has a natural barrier that is significantly disrupted by agents with a pH higher than 7.0 (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 2006). Your skin becomes more exfoliated with products that are highly acidic, with a pH of less than 5.5. (Hence why glycolic acid peels are so popular!) And your skin’s healthy physiology, containing microflora and healthy bacteria, is maintained at a neutral pH (Acta Dermato-venereologica, 1990).

However, the exact opposite — an alkaline/basic, or high-pH — diet is best for your health. This is because the hydrochloric acid in your stomach has a pH of approximately 2.0, neutralizing and ultimately breaking down high pH food residues much better than acidic food residues. It doesn’t hurt that the vast majority of healthy fruits and vegetables are either alkaline (like leafy greens) or leave an alkaline ash in your system (like lemon and other citrus fruits).

pH Matters Skin

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  • You’ve said everything I’ve been thinking but wasn’t 100% confident in stating… as an esthetician your blog is incredbily informative.

  • susi

    Both syntatic and natural products/ingredients can be good or bad for the skin, the environment and/ or the health. So in my opinion you should check the ingredients of a product.

    eg for an artificial ingredient:
    for the environment it is better to Skip silicones because they attach to particles in the wastewater. Normally, the solid particles can be used as natural fertilizers. Because there are more and more silicones in the wastewater, thats often no longer possible. So more artificial fertilizers have to be used with all the negative effects of its usage: contaminated groundwater, to much nitrogen in lakes promotes algae-growth, leads to no oxygen, leads to death of fishes. There are more negative effects on the environment and it can have negative effects on skin and hair. We all (not just the companies)have a responsibility for what we put on our skin, so read the ingredients and learn a bit about them.

    One example on an natural ingredient:
    Palm oil and coconut oil: to grow palm oil trees, the rainforest is cleared and the people who lived there were displaced with violence.

    So be aware of the ingredients and

  • bardofthewind

    6Thank you nikki, I Love this website, and that’s why I support it, recently i purchased a few pricey natural products. >( I shouldve been more aware, thank you again, i will continue to buy from you.

  • Great article. Very informational
    Interested in possibly carrying the line please contact me

  • eastvillagesiren

    Thank you for a fact-based, well-organized article. After delving into “natural” products on and off for years, I took the time to really research ingredients, ingredient safety, and the long-term effects of these ingredients on my skin, my health and the environment. And now I feel pretty much the same as you do. And my skin looks good! And yes to retinoids, vitamin CE serum, amino acids, niacinamide, peptides, and sunscreen!

  • stormdance

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!! For this article, wish more people would read this information and take heed. Working in a Beauty Care Product Line, dealing with Customer Questions daily – I have the above conversation over and over, weekly.

    I always like to remind people, just because its “Natural” does not make it better/safer. We have both good and bad ingredient choices in synthetics and “naturals” for example Poison Ivy, Rattle Snake venom, Night Shade…….

    And just because its a “chemical”, does not make it evil…after all water, salt, air, are all “chemicals”, made of the same building blocks as “natural” plant extracts.

  • Linda

    Those Box Links that come up on the Left side of the page are so irritating.
    They Cover the text and you Have to Minimize them.
    Why don’t you put them on the Right Side, where One does Not Have to Deal with them.
    They are In the Most Annoying Spot on the page. Very bad design.

  • Very well written blog! I formulate products under the Natural standards and I too have seen this bias. It is 99% driven by Marketing not Science.

  • Amanda

    I could not thank you enough for writing this!!!!

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