Skin Care

Ingredient Insights: Separating Fact from Fiction in Skincare

Skin Care Ingredients

The debate over natural versus synthetic skincare ingredients in skincare has raged on for decades, with advocates on both sides making impassioned arguments. However, the distinction between “natural” and “synthetic” is not always clear, and many myths persist surrounding the safety and efficacy of both types of ingredients.

The skincare industry is expected to reach $180 billion by 2027, indicating consumers care deeply about the products they put on their largest organ – skin. With the market growing rapidly, it’s more important than ever to cut through the misinformation and make informed choices. Understanding the nuances around natural and synthetic ingredients can empower consumers to find products that align with their values and meet their skincare needs.

Define Natural and Synthetic Ingredients

When it comes to skincare ingredients, the terms “natural” and “synthetic” refer to how an ingredient is sourced and produced.

Natural ingredients are derived from natural sources like plants, minerals, and animal byproducts. They undergo minimal processing and are often extracted through methods like steam distillation or cold pressing. Examples of natural ingredients include coconut oil, shea butter, and tea tree oil.

Synthetic ingredients are produced through chemical synthesis in a lab. They are human-made and do not occur naturally. Examples include parabens, polyethylene glycol, and chemical UV filters like avobenzone.

While the term “natural” conjures up positive associations, it does not automatically mean an ingredient is safer or more effective. Likewise, synthetic does not mean an ingredient is inherently bad. Much depends on the specific chemical composition and properties of the ingredient, as well as the overall product formulation.

When reading skincare labels, it’s important to look beyond the natural or synthetic designation to understand what each ingredient actually does and how it impacts the skin. Evaluating ingredients individually on their merits is more meaningful than making blanket assumptions.

Common Myths and Misconceptions skincare ingredients

One of the biggest misconceptions in skincare is that natural ingredients are inherently better and safer than synthetic ones. This belief stems from the appeal of “natural” as meaning pure, wholesome, and less processed. However, this is not necessarily true when it comes to skincare formulations.

The myth that natural is better leads many to believe that:

  • Natural ingredients are safer and less likely to cause irritation or allergies. In reality, natural ingredients like essential oils can cause significant skin sensitization.

  • Synthetic ingredients are toxic or full of harsh chemicals. While some synthetic ingredients should be avoided, many are well-researched and gentler than their natural counterparts.

  • Products with more natural ingredients work better. There is no evidence that natural oils and extracts are more effective for skin than synthetic formulations.

  • Natural preservatives keep products fresher than synthetic ones. In fact, synthetic preservatives are added to ensure safety and prevent contamination.

  • Plant-derived ingredients are always gentle. Many plants produce irritating compounds as protection, which can be problematic on skin.

The assumption that natural is better ignores the nuances of skincare chemistry. When formulated properly, both natural and synthetic ingredients can be safe, effective, and beneficial for skin. Judging an ingredient by its origin ignores important considerations like research, concentration, and purpose. Spreading misinformation creates fear around safe synthetics that have proven benefits.

Safety and Efficacy

There is a common misconception that natural ingredients are inherently safer and more effective than synthetic ingredients. However, this is not always the case.

When it comes to safety, both natural and synthetic ingredients have the potential to cause allergic reactions or irritation in those with sensitive skin. Natural ingredients are not automatically safer or gentler. Many plants contain compounds that can be irritants for some people. Poison ivy is a prime example!

Synthetic ingredients must go through extensive safety testing and be approved by regulatory bodies before being used in skincare products. Reputable brands formulate products using safe amounts of synthetic ingredients that have been thoroughly tested.

Regarding efficacy, both natural and synthetic ingredients can be highly effective for various skincare benefits. There are powerful natural ingredients like vitamin C, retinol, and niacinamide that provide proven results. But well-formulated synthetic ingredients can also be extremely effective.

It depends on the specific active ingredient, its concentration, and the overall product formulation. A synthetic ingredient is not necessarily less effective than a natural alternative. In fact, some synthetic versions (like synthetic vitamin C) provide better stability and absorption compared to natural sources.

The bottom line is that natural ingredients are not universally safer or more effective than synthetic ones. When chosen and formulated properly, both can be safe, gentle, and provide real skincare benefits. Safety and efficacy have more to do with the specific ingredient and overall product formulation rather than its origin as natural or synthetic.

Sourcing and Production

Natural ingredients are derived from plant, animal, and mineral sources. They are sourced from nature and require farming, harvesting, and extraction. This leads to variability in quality and availability based on weather, climate, and farming practices.

Synthetic ingredients are produced in labs through chemical synthesis. The production process allows for consistency in quality and availability. Manufacturers have greater control over the end product.

Some key differences between sourcing natural and synthetic ingredients:

  • Natural ingredients rely on agriculture and must be farmed and harvested. This leads to batch-to-batch variability depending on that season’s crop. Synthetics are produced in controlled lab settings for consistency.

  • Shortages can occur with natural ingredients based on droughts, floods, disease, etc. Synthetics have more reliable availability since manufacturing controls production.

  • Natural sources like plants can only grow in certain climates. Synthetic labs can be located anywhere. This provides flexibility in production locations.

  • Growing natural ingredients requires land, water, and other resources. Synthetics are produced through chemistry requiring less resource use.

  • Specialized equipment and chemical processes are required to produce synthetic ingredients. Natural ingredients rely more on traditional farming practices.

  • Harvesting and extracting natural ingredients generates more waste than synthetic production. Synthetics have a more closed, efficient chemical process.

In summary, natural ingredients come with unpredictability from agricultural sources, while synthetics offer consistent production through laboratory manufacturing.

Skincare ingredients

Preservation and Stability

Natural ingredients tend to have shorter shelf lives and degrade more quickly than synthetic ingredients. This is because natural ingredients are often extracted directly from plants, animals, or minerals with minimal processing. They retain more of their inherent bioactive qualities, but this also makes them more prone to spoilage from heat, light, air, and microbial growth.

Synthetic ingredients are produced in laboratories under highly controlled conditions to maximize stability. The chemical structures are designed to be resistant to breaking down over time. Preservatives and stabilizers are added to increase the shelf life. This gives synthetic ingredients an advantage for use in products meant to have a long active lifespan, like skin creams and cosmetics.

However, degradation isn’t inherently bad. Some natural ingredients like vitamins, antioxidants, and essential oils provide benefits precisely because they break down and interact with skin on a cellular level. Overall, natural ingredients require more care in formulation, packaging, and handling to retain potency. But this doesn’t mean they are inherently less effective or safe than more durable synthetics when used properly.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of natural and synthetic ingredients is complex. On one hand, growing and harvesting natural ingredients like plants, minerals, and oils affects the environment. Land use changes to grow natural crops, pesticides and fertilizers may be used, resources like water are consumed, and harvesting can disrupt ecosystems. For example, the booming demand for argan oil, jojoba oil, shea butter and other plant ingredients used in skincare has led to unsustainable farming practices and loss of biodiversity in some regions.

On the other hand, synthetic ingredients are produced in factories through chemical processes that require energy and generate pollution. The full life cycle impacts depend on the specific ingredients and manufacturing methods used. Some argue that synthetics allow for more targeted extraction of active compounds, avoiding waste from unused parts of plants. But “natural” does not automatically mean “good for the environment.” And not all synthetic processes are equal either. More research is needed to fully understand the nuances.

Ultimately, both natural and synthetic ingredients can be made responsibly or irresponsibly. Sourcing, transparency, renewability and other factors for each ingredient play a role. There are also tradeoffs to consider between different impacts like land use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than making broad claims that one category is universally better, consumers should look for brands that demonstrate sustainable practices for their chosen ingredients.


The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates both natural and synthetic ingredients in skincare products. All ingredients, whether natural or synthetic, must be demonstrated as safe before being allowed in cosmetics sold in the United States.

The FDA does not have a formal definition distinguishing between natural and synthetic ingredients. Their concern is whether ingredients are safe and effective, not whether they came from natural sources. For example, natural ingredients like citrus oils can cause irritation and reactions for some people. On the flip side, many synthetic ingredients have an excellent safety profile.

Some consumers believe “natural” ingredients are inherently safer than synthetic ones. However, the FDA reviews all ingredients for safety regardless of origin. Both natural and synthetic ingredients must meet the same safety standards. An ingredient derived naturally may still be toxic at certain doses, while a synthetic version of the same molecule may be harmless.

The source of an ingredient (natural or synthetic) does not determine its safety profile. What matters is the chemical structure and dosage. The FDA prohibits any ingredients, whether from natural sources or synthetic ones, that are shown to pose significant risks to human health and safety. Ultimately, FDA regulations help ensure both natural and synthetic ingredients in skincare and cosmetics meet stringent safety standards.

Price Differences

Synthetic ingredients are often less expensive to produce than natural ingredients. This is for a few key reasons:

  • Abundant raw materials: The starting materials for many synthetics are inexpensive and abundant, like petroleum. Natural materials are often rarer or take more effort to obtain, driving costs up.

  • Efficient manufacturing: Synthetic production utilizes chemical processes that can be performed efficiently at large scales. Natural extraction methods are often more labor-intensive, low-yield, and constrained by seasonal crop availability.

  • Shelf life: Many natural ingredients have shorter shelf lives than synthetic versions due to instability. More frequent replenishment drives inventory costs up. Preservatives are often needed.

  • Supply and demand: Some popular natural ingredients have experienced supply shortages, causing spikes in market prices. Jasmine oil is a prime example. Synthetic production can be ramped up to meet demand.

  • Consistency: Batch-to-batch variability is common with natural ingredients depending on geographic origin and weather patterns. Synthetics offer more consistent quality and performance.

The dramatically lower costs of synthetic ingredients allow them to be incorporated into more affordable consumer products. However, consumers are often willing to pay a premium for products marketed as “natural” or “organic” despite the lack of evidence that they are safer or more effective than those containing synthetics.


When choosing between natural and synthetic skincare ingredients, there are pros and cons to consider for both options. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other. What matters most is choosing high quality, well-researched ingredients that are safe and effective.

The decision between natural and synthetic ingredients often comes down to personal preference. Those who prefer natural ingredients believe plant-derived ingredients are gentler with fewer risks. However, natural ingredients have disadvantages like shorter shelf life, higher cost, and limited availability. Synthetic ingredients are made in a lab for purity and potency but some consumers perceive them as “unnatural.”

Ultimately, it’s best not to vilify either natural or synthetic ingredients. Both can be formulated into excellent skincare products when chosen wisely. Look for products with ingredients that suit your skin type and concerns. A mix of thoughtfully selected natural and synthetic ingredients often provides the ideal balance of skin benefits. Focus more on the overall formulation and performance than fixating on natural versus synthetic. With quality ingredients and responsible manufacturing, both natural and synthetic can be safe, effective options for healthy skin.