Natural Vs Synthetic Beauty: Have We Got It All Wrong?

Over the past several years, natural and ‘green’ beauty has seen astronomical growth, with The Soil Association reporting a 13% rise in certified natural products in the UK in 2016, and sales soaring to £61.2 million. Cult Beauty’s ‘Farm To Face’ page champions homegrown products, Space NK allows you to filter brands via ingredients – ‘natural’ being one of the options – and a Kari Gran 2016 survey found that 73% of millennial women would prioritise green beauty, more than any other age group. In fact, 40% of millennial women said that a product being natural would encourage them to spend more on it (Toluna x Refinery29 Research 2017). Yet at the same time, we’re using more manmade ingredients than ever, with SPF, retinol, and acid peels now a vital part of many people’s skincare regime, and science-backed brands like The Ordinary becoming cult hits overnight.
Whether we want a 100% natural guarantee or need lab-based proof, as consumers we are more switched on than ever, and pay attention to detail (and ingredients lists) before trialling products and offering our brand loyalty. The side-by-side existence of natural and manmade beauty has led to a kind of binary, meaning that customers often fall into one of two camps. Are we right to be wary of the chemicals in high-tech products? Or are we blindly buying into natural brands that have little impact on our skin? Or, in fact, is the polarisation of natural and synthetic products increasingly outdated?
Founder of Lixir Skin and the brains behind some of skincare’s leading brands, Colette Haydon, thinks so. “There is a misconception that if you’re removing something you don’t want in your product, you’re replacing it with an effective natural ingredient. But actually, it’s just as good as a basket of fruit or some pretty flowers,” she tells Refinery29. While Lixir products include phytic and lactic acids, which are naturally derived, Colette places importance on the the active of a plant rather than the plant itself. “Do you want natural in that you don’t want nasties? Yes. Do you want natural in that you don’t want nasties, but what you have got in there are not-terribly-effective plant extracts? No!” It's a refreshingly transparent opinion from a brand founder but, if we’re to measure this debate, we need to ask how this binary came about in the first place.
Alexia Inge, cofounder of ‘hall of fame’ online shop Cult Beauty, explains: “In order for the rising natural category to make a place for itself in the industry – and challenge hardcoded perceptions of ineffectuality – the spokespeople of the natural movement demonised synthetic ingredients, which in turn polarised the two sides.” This demonisation is dangerous and misleading, and can discredit brands that make fantastic products. Incidentally, it's worth noting the definitions of some misused buzzwords thrown around in the beauty industry.
Everything is a chemical – water is a chemical – therefore, chemical-free products don’t exist. ‘Synthetic’ generally means that a naturally derived ingredient, such as hyaluronic acid, which was originally taken from animals, has been molecularly replicated to the same effect within a lab. The word ‘natural’ is unregulated in the industry but essentially means that nothing in the product was made in a lab. Natural products are not always good, ethically sourced, or organic; many people steer clear of mineral oil, which is natural, and non-organic palm oil has a devastating impact on wildlife. “The truth is, you can find toxic natural ingredients and bio-available synthetic ones,” Alexia tells Refinery29. “The line between natural and synthetic is not black and white, even for the ‘big foreheads’ among us.”
Caroline Hirons, skincare expert, qualified facialist and leading industry authority, says we need to look to the USA to see where this split originated. “The British did natural, green and clean years ago – REN has existed for 20 years,” she explains. “But this demand for natural has been pushed by the USA, as the FDA’s [Food and Drug Administration] regulation isn’t as strong as in the EU. They use ingredients that we wouldn’t, and so the green brands have jumped on the bandwagon. While us Brits are back to using chemicals in beauty, the US have gone to the other extreme and are terrified of them.” An advocate of both natural and manmade products, Hirons wants to see a shift in the way we talk about natural beauty. “I’d like to champion natural brands for being good at what they do, without having to scare people. If you have to scare people to sell a product, you’re doing something wrong.”
So which natural brands are leading the way right now? La Belle Lune has gained cult status thanks to its spot-zapping Organic Skin Elixir, Alchemy Oils makes the best concoctions for luxurious hair, and Pai uses rich and effective natural ingredients to target a wealth of skincare concerns. The two brands best known for putting the farm-to-face philosophy at the forefront of beauty are Tata Harper and Farmacy Skincare. Tata Harper prides her eponymous brand on being '100% natural and non-toxic age-defying skincare, great for skin at any age without a drop of synthetic chemicals'. “This is not a trend,” she argues, “it’s really a movement, and it’s happening worldwide. People are trying to live better and elevate their quality of life.”
After Harper’s stepfather was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, doctors recommended removing anything potentially toxic from the house. Here, the ideology behind the brand was born. “We want our brand to be completely non-artificial because we can see how things unravel. For example, talc: even 10 years ago, talc was in baby powder and now it’s a known carcinogen. There are just a lot of chemicals out there and many of them have not been studied – we’re taking the precautionary principle to the max to be completely non-artificial.”
Of course, Harper is aware of the complexity of the term ‘natural’, too: “There are some things that are grown on the earth that are toxic, like heroin that comes from poppies, or arsenic that comes from natural sources. The fact that a product is natural gives you a bit of comfort, but you also need to be careful – was it farmed without synthetic pesticides, without synthetic fertilisers? Being organic is the next step, which ensures that the seed comes from non-genetically modified sources.” While Harper’s line of thought may not suit everyone, her formulas really work. In every product, from the Purifying Cleanser to the Elixir Vitae Eye Serum, is the Estate Grown Beauty Complex, a unique blend of arnica, borage, alfalfa, meadowsweet and calendula, which is grown on Harper’s farm in Vermont. Now in its seventh year, the brand is regarded across the industry as a game-changer.
Mark Veeder’s brand, Farmacy, is also making waves in the natural beauty category. Similarly to Tata Harper, Farmacy formulates all of its products with a key ingredient. “The crux and centrepiece of the line revolves around our proprietary ingredient, Echinacea ‘GreenEnvy,’ a rare green flowered plant I discovered blooming in the Echinacea purpurea bed of my garden in upstate New York,” Mark explains. “That’s where the concept of Farmacy was conceived.” ‘Farmer cultivated, scientist activated’, one way in which the brand incorporates natural ingredients into its products is via bees. The honey in Farmacy products is made “exclusively by bees living on the Farmacy farm in upstate New York – that is chock-full of potent natural antioxidants, helping to keep skin-damaging pollutants at bay. These bees not only give us a rare honey extract, but they also pollinate our farm’s 30,000 Echinacea GreenEnvy flowers.” Because they're homegrown, the brand’s ingredients are highly potent and antioxidant-rich, which essentially is what consumers should prioritise when buying natural skincare; if it doesn’t work, 'natural' means nothing.
Hirons says that within beauty, “there’s a place for everything and I use both [natural and manmade], but if you want to change the structure of your skin, you need a chemical.” Enter the innovators of science-led beauty. Alexia Inge highlights DNARenewal, developed by Dr Ronald Moy, a past-president of the American Academy of Dermatology, Pacific Dermatologic Association and American Society of Dermatology, and vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation. “The DNA Repair Enzymes, expressly those found in the DNARenewal range, are world-class. A synthetic version of the natural DNA repair enzymes found in our cells, they help repair genetic damage that leads to sagging, pigmentation, deep wrinkles as well as the more serious DNA mutations that cause melanomas,” she explains.
"Having ingredients with scientific proof is the most important thing," says Dr Moy. "Part of the reason I started my brand was because my patients were having such a hard time finding at-home skincare products that work and were still spending thousands of dollars on products that they still would have to supplement with procedures,” he tells Refinery29. “To me, it was silly that ingredients that have been around for 20+ years are still being championed as breakthroughs when there are so many more exciting things on the skincare horizon.”
With a brand that's so steeped in science – “Every active ingredient in our product line has its origin in accredited medical journals” – what does Dr Moy make of natural ingredients? “There are definitely natural ingredients that are interesting and have great benefits. Polypodium leucotomos extract (which is in our Remedy Blend) is a Spanish fern extract that essentially gives your skin an added SPF factor when ingested, which is amazing!” he says. “Our growth factors and DNA Repair Enzymes are also sourced naturally, so there is definitely a place where science and nature meet and perform well together. To me, natural ingredients can be great as long as you aren't being driven to them by fear. What most people don't realise is that the studies and reports that make claims against certain chemicals are actually being performed on feeding mice in levels that would take a human hundreds and hundreds of years to accumulate.”
So if brands in both the natural and manmade arenas are championing their own way of producing formulas, and we’re to be wary of scaremongering, how can we make an informed and educated decision when it comes to what will suit us? Inge advises inspecting the ingredients list on anything you buy. “I have a list of ingredients that I look out for in skincare, so I always check that they sit high up the ingredients list (the closer to the top of the list, the higher the % used). Then I research the brand and look at their sourcing practices.” And Hirons? “I would really not worry about ingredients – assume the governing bodies have done the work for you – and buy products based on what they will do for your skin type or skin condition, as opposed to what’s in them.”
Hirons champions vitamins A and C as essential synthetics, as well as an SPF (although not combined with a moisturiser as “that just means you’re paying for a really expensive SPF, because SPF overpowers any other ingredient in a formula”). And naturals? “Any plant oil I’m a fan of, although I think the coconut oil phase has gone too far. It can be incredibly comedogenic on the wrong skin. I just did the faces backstage at London Fashion Week and there were several girls who had chronically dry skin due to using Cetaphil and coconut oil.” This, Hirons explains, means “they’re stripping it of water and not putting any back into it. I immediately said I was going to put acid all over it and they were horrified. So I gave them a mini peel and pummelled the face with good plant oils, and afterwards they all said their skin hadn’t felt this soft in months.”
Inge has a smart way of regulating the amount of synthetic ingredients she uses, wanting to avoid any entering her bloodstream. “If it’s nail varnish, I want lacquer performance because I don’t have time to paint my nails every three days, so I head towards the 100% synthetic end of the scale. For haircare I swing to full 'Earth Mother' mode; because the follicles of your hair are embedded in the scalp this causes an osmotic effect with anything you put on your scalp, drawing it quickly into a very vascular area. For skincare I flip-flop in the middle. I think face oils are one of the most effective avenues to gorgeous, plump, energised skin, but I sometimes use synthetic peels to prep the surface of my skin to soak in every last drop of the oil,” she says. “There is no rule saying you can’t use both.”
And herein lies the answer. For both Hirons and Inge, leading voices in the beauty industry who invest in and work with brands across the spectrum, the advice is this: Look at the ingredients used, and know which work and which don’t for you and your skin alone. Beauty is very personal, so trust your own preferences, do your research, and don’t take a brand’s word for it. Don’t avoid synthetics because you’ve been fed misinformation, and invest in natural products from brands who farm the highest quality formulas. We shouldn’t be looking at beauty from the binary perspective of manmade vs. synthetic, but rather in the way Lixir’s Colette does: “There are good, safe, effective ingredients, and there are bad, harmful and unsafe ingredients”. Both areas should be celebrated and interrogated.

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