Making Sense of the Natural vs Synthetic Debate: The Acceptability of Synthetic Ingredients in Cosmetics
Ideas and perspectives as to what constitutes a natural product vary. Is bread natural? Is fruit natural? What about soap? Or nail polish? What criteria can an interested consumer use to distinguish between a natural or synthetic product? The answer is not as clear as some would have you believe. The world around us is composed of atoms, molecules, compounds and chemicals. We manipulate the natural world around us so that new substances can serve our needs in ways not even imagined fifty years ago. This article will clarify what is natural and what is synthetic, followed by a discussion of how we should view synthetics and their implications in our daily use of cosmetics and personal care products.
What is Natural?
Nature is composed of physical, chemical and biological elements, principles and laws which govern the known and unknown world and universe. The term 'natural' is used to describe a substance or condition which is:
- in harmony with nature
- belonging or connected to nature
- derived or obtained from nature
According the U.S. National Organics Program (NOP), a natural substance is derived from a plant, mineral or animal source, without having undergone a synthetic process (defined in the next section of the article). Physical and biological processes can still render a substance as natural. For instance, dried corn kernels can be removed from the cob, then milled to produce corn flour. The corn has undergone a physical change, but is still considered natural. Yeast is an example of a micro-organism which can be an agent for biological change in a substance. This micro-organism is used to facilitate the process of fermentation of plant extracts, such as grape juice. The process of fermentation yields carbon dioxide and ethanol, which converts the grape juice into wine. Natural substances can result from physical and biological processes, even when the resulting substance cannot be found in nature independent of these processes.
What is Synthetic?
A synthetic substance is a compound which is made artificially through chemical reactions. Natural substances have been chemically modified through human labour or skill to yield substances which are chemically different from the pre-reaction substances. The NOP definition of a synthetic is a substance which has been formulated or manufactured by a chemical process, and has chemically altered a substance which was derived from a naturally occurring plant, mineral or animal source. These definitions encompass two types of synthetic substances: those viewed as natural, and those considered un-natural.
|NATURAL --------------------> ||---------------- SYNTHETIC ----------------||-------> FUTURE
| ||technically synthetic|
still viewed as natural
Why the intermeshing of two seemingly opposing concepts? Consider what occurs during a chemical reaction. A combination of reactants undergo a chemical change, which is a loss, gain or sharing of electrons between or among atoms. The chemical reaction changes the physical properties of the reactants involved. For example,
Na (sodium: a silvery, metal poison) + Cl (chlorine: a poisonous gas) ---> NaCl (table salt)
Table salt no longer carries the physical properties of sodium or chlorine. Table salt, then, could be considered synthetic if human labour set up the conditions for the two elements Na and Cl to react. However, we can also find NaCl that is naturally occurring, such as in sea salt or mined salt. Commercially available salt has the same chemical formula, NaCl, but has been obtained from salt beds or underground lakes and then purified. Products resulting from chemical reactions which occur independent of human interference can be considered as natural substances.
What is a Practical View of Natural and Synthetic Substances?
Synthetic substances can best be understood as existing on a continuum (see Fig.1). Some chemical reactions occur naturally after minimal human input, such as enzymatic browning. This chemical reaction turns the surface of a cut apple brown in a few minutes because of a chemical reaction called enzymatic oxidative browning:
Phenolic enzymes (phenolases) join with tannins -à oxidation of phenols found in the apples-à melanines formed (brown or grey-black pigments)
Who would claim, however, that the resulting chemical changes transformed the cut apple slice into a synthetic food or that melanin, a pigment, is as synthetic as artificial pigments like acrylic? Contrast this with the creation of artificial sweeteners like aspartame or saccharin. These substances are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, and are created through chemical reactions. They have no similar counterpart in nature and should be placed on the upper range of the synthetic continuum. Saccharin, for instance, is made from petroleum products and aspartame is made by combining aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol. Whether or not a chemical reaction has occurred, then, is not a reliable indicator to separate synthetics from natural substances since chemical reactions are part of the natural realm.
Human labour or skill is also not a differentiating factor between a synthetic or natural substance, simply because we can re-create and set-up conditions for naturally occurring reactions to take place. Baking cookies is an example of a product which does not exist in nature unless human labour and skill set up the conditions for a series of chemical reactions to occur in the oven to yield cookies. For instance, baking soda is one of the oldest leavening agents used in baking:
- baking soda + acid (lactic acid found in milk, benzoic acids from fruits, etc) ---water--> salt + carbonic acid
- carbonic acid ----- dissociates --> water + carbon dioxide
This is an example of a chemical reaction which is technically synthetic because of the addition of human skill, but is clearly viewed as natural since it contributes to a product viewed as natural and because the final results of the reaction are naturally occurring substances.
In the cosmetics industry, hundreds of ingredients are used to impose various effects on the skin. These ingredients range from purely natural ingredients extracted from nature in their original condition, to purely synthetic ingredients which have been created from synthetics through a complex series of chemical reactions and have no connection to nature any longer. So how is a consumer to decide which ingredients are natural and which are synthetic?
Every chemical reaction has three parts, and each prompts a series of questions to help us decide:
reactants ----- + -------- catalyst/energy process ----------> products
- Are these naturally occurring, i.e. taken from the earth in its original state or modified physically through grinding, melting, sifting, etc.?
- Are these the result of biological processes?
- Is this a natural substance?
- Is this natural but toxic i.e. harmful to humans or the environment?
- Is this environmentally damaging to obtain or use?
- Is this re-usable?
- Is this synthetic? If so, where does it belong on the synthetic continuum?
- Is this a petrochemical?
- Is the process externally imposed on the reaction?
- What is the source of energy being imposed and is it from a non-renewable or renewable source?
- Is the amount of energy needed to conduct the reaction minimal or energy intensive? This must be weighed against the benefit of the products resulting from the process i.e. is it worth the energy cost when compared to human benefit?
- Are these naturally occurring in the reactants but now separated out?
- Are these chemically different than the reactants in part or in whole?
- Are these toxic or non-toxic to humans and the environment?
- Are these biodegradable without impact to the earth through normal micro-biological or decay processes?
Implications for Daily Use of Cosmetics
There is a vast array of cosmetic products at our disposal. Why does the natural versus synthetic debate matter? Our personal health and well-being, as well as our environment locally and globally, are in question by the widespread use of synthetic substances. We cannot avoid all synthetic substances, and not all synthetics are bad for us. Many of these materials have improved the quality of our lives, but many have also deteriorated it. We do not know what will result from our use of certain synthetics in the long run. Cosmetics are products which we have a direct physical and emotional relationship with, as we wear them daily on our skin and bodies. The environment can be sustained or systematically destroyed by our choices. As consumers we can participate in the sustaining of eco-friendly organic farming practices, wise waste disposal, clean manufacturing processes and biodegradeability of ingredients. The choices are many, and the freedom to choose is ours. Where do you stand on the natural vs synthetic debate? The answer can make a difference to your health and our ecosystem.
The Organic Make-up Company considers synthetic ingredients to be those which:
- do not have natural reactants
- use petroleum derived reactants
- use catalysts which are petroleum derived or on the upper end of the synthetic range
- use processes which require pressure and/or heat which cannot be achieved with simple technology
- yield products through chemical reactions that have properties which are chemically (not physically) different from the reactants
- yield chemically produced substances which are not biodegradable through normal biological processes
The Organic Make-up Company considers natural ingredients to be those which:
- are derived, obtained or drawn from plants, minerals or animal sources such as beeswax (please refer to our policies on animal testing and use of animal part ingredients).
- have not undergone a synthetic process as defined under our criteria above of a synthetic substance
- are refined through physical processing
- result from biological processes
- result from simple chemical processes where the reactants and catalysts are natural as defined in this article and the statements above
- have been changed or created through the use of simple technologies such as those that can be found in a conventional kitchen
- Freeland-Graves, Jeanne & Peckham, Gladys. Foundations of Food Preparation 5ed, Macmillan Publishing Co; New York:1987