Clean Beauty: Are Natural Ingredients Really Better than Synthetic?

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Photo: Everyday Health

In today’s world, where all genders have a variety of skincare products and where social media is undeniably influential, our knowledge about the ingredients that go into our skincare has completely evolved. In the last few years, we have seen a significant shift in consumer values and buying habits, generally gravitating to clean beauty due to its promises of being sustainably made and better skin health. Conversely, along with the rise of clean beauty, synthetic-based products are being villainised and portrayed as toxic and harmful.

While there is a plethora of trending skincare trends and viral products, finding a variety of skincare that work well for an individual is a highly personal experience. Hence, consumers must do their due diligence and research the ingredients that might benefit them regardless of their natural or synthetic nature. The contrasting perceptions of natural and clean products result from effective marketing tactics, portraying the chemical-free options as a safer and more sustainable option to generate more revenue and leaving the discourse surrounding chemicals in skincare to be presented in a highly negative light. LUXUO delves deeper into whether clean beauty is better than synthetic or if its rise could be attributed to good marketing.

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Public’s Perception of Natural VS Synthetic Ingredients

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The rising demand for clean beauty is growing rapidly, with the market valued at USD 8.7 billion in 2023 and a forecasted value of USD 39 billion by 2033. The world is getting increasingly more health conscious and diligent in involving their beauty purchases, which has prompted a shift towards natural products. “Natural” ingredients refer to ingredients that do not come from a lab, are conceived through naturally occurring processes, and come from sources like plants. Products labelled as natural are perceived as safer due to the ingredients’ source and the perception that natural resources are environmentally friendly, gentle and non-irritating to the skin and are usually marketed to be suitable for all skin types.

It is also worth noting the factor of consumer empowerment, as these ingredients are compelling to consumers and are terms that one is most likely familiar with. This gives a consumer confidence in the product as they have prior knowledge of the ingredient being safe and its benefits. Comparing it to a synthetic ingredient — given that these are lab-produced — there is less information available for a consumer to learn about its sourcing and safety information, thus making it more challenging to evaluate its benefits than a natural ingredient.

Therefore, clean beauty is generally thought of with simplicity. In contrast, synthetic products may need clarification, making it harder for consumers to understand and reluctant to purchase. Additionally, given that clean beauty consistently includes labelling that is associated with being beneficial for all skin types, like “hypoallergenic”, “natural”, and “clean”, this leads consumers to perceive natural ingredients to be more beneficial than synthetics.


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Photo: Vogue Business

With the increased knowledge of skincare ingredients, consumers always seek safer and non-toxic products to prioritise their well-being. Typically, marketing clean products as “clean” and “natural” draws in consumers by responding to the increased demand for clean beauty, which generates more revenue. While terms like “organic” and “hypoallergenic” are monitored, other compelling terms like “clean”, “chemical-free”, and “natural” are unregulated — leading consumers to be misled from reading the labels.

This is also known as greenwashing, where the marketing is done using green characteristics to persuade a consumer to purchase a product. While this does not apply to all beauty brands, numerous brands use the non-regulation to increase sales by hopping on the clean beauty bandwagon. The only exception is the term “organic”, which is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and certification is required to prove that the product is made with at least 70% organic ingredients. However, if a product is organic, it does not necessarily mean it benefits your skin. As per Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Hong notes, “There’s no set standard for these products and no regulatory body requires the companies that make them prove that they’re as clean as they say they are.” This leaves consumers vulnerable to sneaky marketing tactics companies may use as marketing gimmicks rather than a criteria to meet to determine if the product is safe to use or not.

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Are Natural Ingredients Always Better Than Synthetic?

Simply put, no. The word “Natural” has been taken advantage of to entice consumers, while synthetic ingredients have been villainised by misleading information online. While clean beauty products made with natural ingredients may have the benefits of being more environmentally-friendly and include ingredients in their “pure” form, it does not necessarily mean that they are better for one’s skin.

In addition to a lack of regulations and requirements, a 2023 study found that nearly all the products marketed as “all-natural” contained ingredients that could potentially cause contact dermatitis. This presents consumers with a problem they probably intended to avoid when shifting to clean beauty. While it is claimed by many in the beauty industry that natural ingredients in their pure forms are inherently safe, many ingredients are still potentially irritating even in their purest form. Including but not limited to additives like witch hazel and essential oils used in skincare, which tend to cause irritation due to potent concentrations and common skin allergies.

Environmental Implications of Natural Ingredients

The perception of natural ingredients being more sustainable and environmentally-friendly is only partially true. Given that the harvesting of produce is needed to produce the product, issues of overharvesting may arise and depleting resources can negatively impact the ecosystem. The best example would be the harvesting of sandalwood — according to the findings of The New Knew — given that sandalwood is a slow-growing tree, this means it has a high risk of being over-harvested and would be better off for the surrounding ecosystem if the benefits of sandalwood were replicated synthetically.

Another controversial ingredient is palm oil; while commonly known for its moisturising benefits, harvesting it is associated with many ethical implications such as animal endangerment, violation of human rights concerning child and unpaid labour and deforestation. Hence, the use of natural ingredients may only sometimes be the better option.

Misconceptions About Synthetic Ingredients

What Are Synthetic Ingredients In Skincare
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Synthetic or chemical ingredients generally refer to “scientifically generated or modified substances created by the use of synthetic mixtures of natural ingredients”, as per Learn Canyon. With the rise of clean beauty, synthetic and chemical-based products have earned a bad reputation due to misleading information and public perceptions of chemicals in skincare. The word “chemical” has often been used synonymously with words like “toxins” as an umbrella term, portraying all products as harmful and dangerous.

Unlike natural beauty products, cosmetically containing chemicals are consistently regulated by authorities, imposing maximum quantities of certain ingredients and prohibiting the use of harmful chemicals. Another factor supporting the use of chemicals in skincare is its characteristic of preservation. Many products that exclusively contain naturally-derived ingredients are susceptible to bacteria growth; thus, with the addition of chemical preservatives, harmful risks can be lessened.

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Benefits of Using Synthetic Ingredients

It is also worth noting that chemicals in skincare are used to enhance and accelerate the benefits of a product. The artificial creation of a substance in a lab produces a result that a naturally-derived ingredient cannot achieve. While this makes a product more potent, it does not necessarily equate to it being harmful; it means that consumers must be more cautious and understand the effects of the ingredient before usage. The incorrect knowledge and over-usage of chemical-based products have partly contributed to the public’s negative perception, with numerous social media posts of individuals showing inflamed skin and other mishaps from chemical products. Synthetic ingredients in skincare has a beneficial characteristic in achieving effects within a shorter period and preserving products. However, due to the increased potency chemicals might add, consumers need to have the suitable knowledge and diligence to use the product for its intended purpose.

All things considered, while natural ingredient-based beauty products can benefit those with sensitive skin and their ingredient lists are easier for consumers to digest and understand, certain natural substances can still be harmful and irritating to the skin regardless of whether they are natural or synthetic. Synthetic-based products also have advantages and drawbacks, with their characteristics of preserving products and accelerating intended results, so they need to be used cautiously. Finding skincare products that work for an individual is very much a personal journey; consumers should put more emphasis on the effectiveness of a product as opposed to where the ingredients are derived from.

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