Saving skin: Demystifying the organic-synthetic divide in cosmetics

From skin dryness to acne, many people use cosmetic products with varying ingredients and formulations to address different skin conditions. But as cosmetic chemists develop new solutions for skin care, the debate on whether average consumers should consider “organic” over “synthetic” products continues to ensue.

It is no secret that the organic cosmetics industry is on the rise as several market analyses have shown the propelling market demand for these organic products—even more so compared to the synthetic variants. Many of the latest products follow this organic trend and take pride in the natural extracts that compose these products.

To many, the natural herbs that compose essential oils and the aloe extract incorporated into many facial solutions may be more preferable than the synthetic products made of chemicals carefully and systematically produced in a laboratory. But is the “naturalness” of organic cosmetic products really superior to that of synthetic ones?

Skin deep

The term “organic” is popularly associated with products that refrain from using so-called artificially developed components. However, in Chemistry, the term is understood to refer to anything containing carbon atoms—and even synthetic or engineered compounds, in that sense, could be composed of this element. 

Engr. Ana Trinidad Rivera, director of the Center for Cosmetics Research of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), also clarifies in an interview with The LaSallian that what constitutes an organic product has not actually been officially defined by the FDA. Instead, the Philippine National Standard for Organic Agriculture has established certain conditions, including guidelines on how to process organic products, such as prohibiting contamination from laboratory-synthesized ingredients and using only naturally occurring materials.  

This emphasis on natural ingredients has led to the misconception that synthetic ingredients are more harmful than organic ones. In an article published in JAMA Dermatology, Dr. Bruce Brod and Dr. Courtney Blair Rubin argue that “clean beauty” products have become trendy due to a movement that popularized the use of natural ingredients. They urge consumers to be deliberative in choosing products for the skin, warning of potential allergic reactions to certain ingredients, whether synthetic or natural.

“Harmful organic ingredients may be determined by its chemistry, [including factors such as] physicochemical properties and structure,” Rivera notes, stressing that an ingredient’s origin does not automatically determine whether it is safe for use. 

A misconceived notion

We hear notions of “natural equals good” and “synthetic equals bad.” Perhaps it is because there is a prevailing idea that synthetic cosmetic products may contain harmful elements. But if we were to take a look at the comprehensive list of safe ingredients evaluated by the ASEAN Cosmetics Directive (ACD)—an initiative by the ASEAN to coordinate the standards each country has regarding cosmetics—a mix of both laboratory-synthesized and naturally occurring compounds can be found among the banned substances.

According to Rivera, 1,348 ingredients are on the ban list as of November 2019. Needless to say, the banned ingredients should not be included in any cosmetic products.

The FDA also lists substances that are only allowed under certain conditions like a given range of values, which could be dependent on how the product is used, for example. Take the case of hydrogen peroxide; hair products can contain up to 12 percent concentration, whereas products taken orally can only contain 0.1 percent at maximum. 

Coloring agents or dyes and preservatives are yet more components of cosmetic products that people tend to look out for. “No added preservatives” or “no added dyes” are some common phrases that many cosmetic products—either synthetic or natural—display in their packaging. Referencing the ACD list again, though, certain coloring agents and preservatives are deemed safe for use to achieve certain hues and to importantly prevent contamination of the products, respectively.

Rivera explains that these ingredients are “assessed and evaluated based on scientific literature, toxicity, exposure assessment, margin of safety and potential for cumulative effects” and that synthetic ingredients, in general, “are not harmful if used in accordance with the intended use and in some cases restricted concentration or amount.” The harmful effects that sometimes result from these products may be due to calculation errors, but this does not automatically imply that organic cosmetic products are safer.

Regardless of whether the product is “synthetic” or “natural”, these guidelines still hold. As for the idea that “synthetic chemicals are more harmful than natural”, well, the exemplified hydrogen peroxide can be found in nature—in the atmosphere and is naturally produced by our body cells’ metabolic activities, derivable from reactions involving water and oxygen. Additionally, certain substances are natural toxins, like some poisons produced by plants or animals, furthering the idea that natural does not always mean safe and healthy.

Brod and Rubin argue that many safe synthetic ingredients have been antagonized without evidence that they are harmful. “Products that include synthetic ingredients are created to prevent those adverse reactions on the skin,” Brod tells Reuters, positing that these products are developed meticulously with consumer safety as the greatest priority.

As Rivera puts it, “The safety of an ingredient is not determined by its source whether it is naturally occurring, organically derived, or synthetically made.”

Melissa Reyes

By Melissa Reyes

Eiji Sunagawa

By Eiji Sunagawa

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