What's up with natural ingredients?
Have you ever wondered, what’s up with all these natural and organic products that seem to be becoming increasingly popular over time? It’s certainly something that has been on our minds here at ThinkSkin. Today, we will discuss some of the frequently asked questions and key issues around natural and synthetic products.
Let’s first clarify some terminology. There are basically 3 major categories of ingredients: natural, synthetic, and synthesized natural chemicals. Here is how we define them:
or simplicity sake, we will exclude the third category and focus our discussion on natural and synthetic ingredients.
So let’s answer some questions.
Yes and no. There are scientific studies which show that addition of certain natural ingredients can improve the efficacy of the skin care product. For example, colloidal oatmeal can improve the moisturizing effects of a lotion and reduce dryness of the skin and manuka honey infused dressings may improve wound healing. However, not everything has supporting evidence like these ingredients. In fact, even the ingredients that have valid research demonstrating beneficial effects, natural or synthetic, are not necessarily as good as they claim to be. Most scientific experiments assessing skin care products often compare the product to either nothing or a placebo. Sure, this can show that the product works, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better than another product. As you may expect, companies would never compare two of their own products because the inferior product would subsequently lose sales, and they usually do not compare their own products to another company’s products because of the fear of lawsuits or unfavorable results. Furthermore, even if they found favorable results, these could easily be dismissed as biased. Finally, the sheer number of individual ingredients out there simply make it impractical to study them all in reliable detail.
So the bottom line is, we can not confidently declare whether synthetic or natural ingredients are better. Not to mention that it would be quite irresponsible of us to make such blanket statements about the ever expanding field of cosmeceuticals.
The general assumption that natural products are by default superior to synthetic products probably arises from a complex combination of inherent subconscious psychological beliefs derived from one’s experiences and perceptions, and external influential factors, such as mentors, peers and the media.These concepts are beyond the scope of our discussion today but perhaps will be our focus for another day.
Not always! There are many natural ingredients that were once used for therapeutic reasons that are now recognized as harmful. An example is arsenic. It sounds silly now because we know it causes various types of cancer---but believe it or not, arsenic was once widely used in face powder and as a treatment for diseases like psoriasis and syphilis. Of course, there are similar examples of synthetic ingredients that were once widely used are but now banned due to health concerns. The important point to remember is that neither the terms ‘natural’ nor ‘synthetic’ are synonymous with safety.
This is a core component of this entire argument. The bottom line is that the information provided about cosmeceuticals are very difficult to regulate and often fall into a gray zone. First of all, when it comes to cosmetics or skin care products, there are no firm legal definitions of the words ‘natural’ or ‘organic’. You may be surprised, because foods that are labelled organic actually abide by a rigorous standard (in most cases). Products that you put on the skin, unfortunately, do not undergo the same strict rules, and because of this ambiguity, proponents of natural ingredients commonly employ two marketing tactics:
When someone advertises a new blood pressure pill, they often review quantitative outcomes such as how much does it reduce the blood pressure, what percentage of patients found benefit, and what side effects does it have. On the contrary, because skin care products are not drugs, their advertisements tend to use subjective and qualitative statements, such as “it will make you appear younger” or “it will make you feel healthier”. One author gives the following example:
'Marketing claims may differ between drugs and cosmeceuticals. For example, drugs claim to “decrease wrinkles” whereas a cosmetic may claim to “decrease the appearance of wrinkles' Milam, 2016
Because the very nature of these subjective and nonspecific claims make them almost impossible to truly invalidate, advertisements usually get away with such statements. The problem is that these ads are so confident in their wording that they can generate the illusion of having effects that may not even be present.
Just for fun, here are some other examples of ambiguous claims:
It will give you a healthy glow
It will heal you
You will feel cleansed
Your body will understand natural ingredients instead of being confused by unnatural ones
This is an example of the age old saying that ‘offense is the best defense’. By occasionally and subtly making elegant statements that discredit the opposition, synthetic ingredients in this case, with a seemingly endless arsenal of negative descriptors like harsh, unnatural, fake, inferior, harmful, toxic, cheap, irritating, dangerous, poisonous, and so on, marketers are able to draw the unwitting audience into believing that unnatural ingredients are, in a word, bad. While most of these statements are not supported by any body of literature, the ones that do make references to scientific literature often do so with some bias. The classic example here is parabens and breast cancer. For those who are unfamiliar with this story, a 2004 study found parabens in breast tumor tissue and in their concluding statement the authors suggested that further studies are needed to determine what effect this may have on the body. The results were blown out of proportion and quickly became misinterpreted as ‘parabens cause breast cancer’. Even though the authors themselves later claimed that no such statement was made in their study, parabens continue to be vilified and the fixed belief that parabens should be avoided has been reiterated countless times since then.
So where is the answer in all of this?
Our point is that natural ingredients are not always better or always worse than synthetics. And we certainly do not endorse or deny any specific brand or product. Instead, we are hoping to shed light on this topic that many cosmeceutical consumers tend to struggle with. The bottom line is that you should not choose or reject products solely based on natural or synthetic ingredients. In fact, the reality is that the best products for most people probably employ a combination of both types of ingredients, not because of their origins but instead because of the effects they have on your skin. So try to look beyond the labels and find out for yourself which products truly work best for you.
That's all we have to say today folks! See you next time!
Milam EC and Rieder EA. An Approach to Cosmeceuticals. J Drugs Dermatol. 2016 Apr 1;15(4):452-6.