‘100% natural’. ‘Nothing artificial’. ‘Preservative free’.
You’ve no doubt seen these claims on many skincare and cosmetic products, but is 100% natural always better for our skin and are all synthetic (or ‘man made’) ingredients really that bad?
‘It’s important to understand that all ingredients serve a purpose,’ says Rita, AMPERNA®’s head chemist. ‘Not all synthetic ingredients are harmful and not all natural ingredients are safe.’
Skincare expert and founder of Scrubz Body Roberta Perry agrees.
‘Ingredients in skincare and cosmetics can be confusing,’ says Roberta. ‘But I think (whether an ingredient is beneficial or not) truly depends on the particular ingredient and the quantity present in that product. I believe that makers should use the best of the best and use as little as necessary.’
Our skin is our largest organ and just as we aim to put the best into our body by eating a healthy diet, it makes sense that we would only want to put good things on our skin.
So should we avoid all synthetic ingredients?
The Synthetic Ingredients We Avoid in AMPERNA®
Some synthetic ingredients have received a bad rap after being linked to studies1 exposing certain health concerns (such as skin irritations and hormone disruptions) and environmental risks.
In our recent blog article ‘5 ingredients we avoid and why’, we noted that many of these potentially risky ingredients are used to make product formulations cheaper or easier to create. Manufacturers argue that there is not enough evidence to prove that these low level exposures are significant enough to cause harm. It’s true that many people can go through their lives using these products without noticing any obvious issues. For others, using a shampoo or moisturiser with one of these ingredients could be the trigger for painful skin irritations and allergies.
The synthetic ingredients we choose to leave out of AMPERNA® include sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, vinyls and synthetic fragrance because we are concerned about their potential environmental and health effects and our focus is on using gentle ingredients for the most sensitive skin. Our founder Kiri personally experienced skin flare-ups when using products that contained these ingredients and knows first hand how irritating they can be to some skin types.
‘Synthetics lack the therapeutic qualities that many natural ingredients offer,’ explains biologist and environmental scientist Lorraine Dallmeier of Formula Botanica Organic Cosmetic Science School. ‘We are left cold by most mainstream cosmetics as they are generally pumped full of water, cheap fillers, animal by-products, synthetic skin irritants and artificial fragrances’.
However, not all synthetic ingredients have been linked to health concerns and environmental damage and some of them can be very helpful when used in the right product formulations.
We all know the health benefits of eating foods that contain probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, and kimchi, but what about probiotics on our skin?
Synthetics and Shelf Life
While many products contain synthetics that are really not necessary for the product to function effectively, some products need help when it comes to extending shelf life.
Most cosmetics and skincare products are formulated with water as a base, often noted as ‘aqua’ on the ingredients list. Once water is introduced to a formulation, the growth of microbes and potentially harmful bacteria is inevitable, unless preservatives are added.
A preservative is simply an ingredient that helps prevent a product from spoiling. Preservatives can be both natural and synthetic, but it’s much harder to create a formulation with a natural preservative, and often less effective.
‘The big pro for synthetic preservatives is their broad-spectrum effectiveness at very low concentrations,’ explains Jen Novakovich of The Eco Well. ‘In addition, many synthetic preservatives are actually less allergenic, especially because they are needed at much lower amounts than their natural counterparts.’
Every time you open a product or interact with it by dipping your finger inside or dabbing it on your skin, you are potentially introducing new bacteria and microbes into the product and increasing the opportunity for bad bacteria to grow. If there are no preservatives in the product to halt this growth, you could end up applying harmful bacteria to your skin that can cause eye irritations and infections.
Do All Products Need Preservatives?
Not necessarily. Some water free products including balms or oil-based serums may be safe without preservatives.
Is Natural Always Better?
Just as certain synthetic ingredients can irritate or harm our skin, some people react badly to some natural ingredients.
According to a recent article in Choice, natural ingredients like lavender, tea tree oil, lanolin, cinnamon and some essential oils have been linked to skin reaction and allergies, while some personal care products containing lavender and tea tree oils have been linked with hormone disruption in boys.
In addition to this, there have been reported cases where people who have used natural personal care products such as goats milk soap or moisturiser have later developed allergies to goat milk and cheese.
‘While unlikely to be a problem for most people, with intact skin providing an effective barrier to the underlying immune system, application of these 'natural' products containing food allergens to eczematous skin may lead to a severe allergic reaction when the food is eaten subsequently,’ said Professor Robyn O’Heir, director of the Alfred Hospital’s Department of Allergy, Immunology & Respiratory medicine, when interviewed by Choice.
Many natural ingredients that are marketed as better for our skin need to be more thoroughly studied and investigated in order to conclude whether they are truly more effective. On the flip side, further investigation is also needed to explore any possible negative effects before certain ingredients can be touted as more or equally effective than synthetic ingredients.
‘All skin types are different and reactions with individuals can be caused by many contributing factors or ingredients,’ explains AMPERNA® head chemist Rita. ‘The best advice I can offer is to ensure that each product should be patch tested. Wait 24hrs and if there is no reaction, it’s safe for that skin type…happy days. If a reaction occurs, don’t use it again.’
The team at Formula Botanica Organic Cosmetic Science recently released a podcast titled 'What does natural skincare mean'?
Find out more about the difference between organic and natural skincare in this article by The Beauty Crew.
Read up on whether natural and organic ingredients are better for your skin on the Paula’s Choice blog.
If you have enjoyed this blog post, you may like to read Can Makeup Cause Breakouts?
1There are many studies pointing to the harmful effects of some synthetic ingredients; here are three articles you may find of interest: