Romance vs. Reality: The Truth About Natural and Synthetic Ingredients
In a world where vaginal steaming is promoted as a beneficial detox, and marketers lure you with promises of organic ingredients planted and harvested by hand in harmony with the moon cycles (an actual claim), it’s easy to get seduced by terms like organic, natural, and botanical. But exactly what do those words mean? And what do moon cycles have to do with product efficacy?
Natural and Organic Aren’t Always Natural and Organic
The interest in healthy living has prompted manufacturers to shift their labeling and marketing to reflect a natural and green approach in formulation. But there are a few things you should keep in mind when looking at the labels.
“Natural” is a marketing term, not a standard. The FDA has no regulation regarding this word so it gets applied liberally and has little real meaning.
Most products labeled “natural” contain a number of synthetic ingredients that are there to stabilize, thicken, preserve, and add color or fragrance.
The terms “naturally-derived,” or “plant-based” refer to ingredients that are man made (synthesized) using natural sources.
The term “organic” is regulated by the FDA, however, the label does not require the product be 100% organic. It only requires a percentage of the ingredients to be organic. (That percentage varies by state.)
Synthetic Doesn’t Mean Bad
Nature offers an incredible wealth of therapeutic substances. There’s no argument there. For centuries, people have relied on botanical extracts, essential oils and minerals for curing ills, improving health and enhancing beauty. However, the benefits of these substances may be outweighed by a variety of factors when using them straight from nature. They can have impurities. Their beneficial constituents often occur at too small an amount to have a real impact. And growing or environmental conditions can create inconsistency. Additionally, some natural substances can be irritating or cause allergic reactions.
Through science, we’re able to study, isolate and improve upon natural elements. Synthetic versions of plant oils, extracts and minerals created in a lab eliminate impurities and inconsistencies, concentrate active elements, reduce irritants, and provide sustainability.
New York Times beauty blog Skin Deep reporter Natasha Singer consulted Dr. Linda M. Katz, the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, on the topic. Dr. Katz had this to say: “Consumers should not necessarily assume that an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ ingredient or product would possess greater inherent safety than another chemically identical version of the same ingredient. In fact, ‘natural’ ingredients may be harder to preserve against microbial contamination and growth than synthetic raw materials.”
Everything Is Chemistry
The debate over natural vs. synthetic often comes down to an argument that goes something like: if it didn’t come from the earth, it doesn’t belong in/on my body. The problem with that argument is that everything comes from the earth, even chemicals. We’re going to get a little science-y for a minute.
Remember Chem 101? All matter is made up of atoms, molecules and sub-atomic bits and bobs like protons and neutrons. Even your body is a mass of chemical elements and compounds. Items you use every day are chemicals. Sodium bicarbonate, for instance, a white powder composed of sodium ions and bicarbonate ions. You know it as baking soda. It’s also used to ignite fireworks, to neutralize acids, to speed the effects of local anesthetics, to kill cockroaches, clean your toilet, and brush your teeth. It’s a chemical compound. And it’s 100% natural.
Some terms in an ingredient list may sound ominous because they are unfamiliar, but often these are simply scientific names for natural chemicals. Ascorbic acid is vitamin C. Tocopherols are forms of vitamin E. Oligopeptides occur naturally in the body and are building blocks of collagen. Copper-chlorophyllin is an antioxidant derived from chlorophyll, the element crucial to plant photosynthesis. It stimulates cell regeneration. Sodium PCA (pyrrolidone carboxylic acid), another substance that occurs naturally in the body, is a humectant that repels aggressors like pollution and UV radiation.
And where would skin care be without retinoids, the gold standard of treatment for acne and aging skin? These transformative regenerists are derived from natural vitamin A and enhanced in the lab through science.
It Comes Down To Efficacy
What makes a product better or worse is not whether it’s natural, synthetic, or a combination, but whether it contains the appropriate percentage of ingredients that have a defined mechanism of action and produce specific evidence-based results. In other words, whether or not it actually works. If it doesn’t pass that test, you are paying for glorified aromatherapy.