Today we’re so bombarded with half-truths, speculation, and sometimes outright lies that it’s hard to believe anything. Natural has always been accepted, but today in many circles, it’s often used as a synonym with “better” or “safer,” and marketers have been keen to take advantage of this. Today, we talk about the reality of natural and synthetic products.
The idea that natural is good, and synthetic or artificial is bad is an ancient one,1 and one that is often exploited by savvy marketers. These narratives can range from outrageous and harmful conspiracies (like anti-vaxxers)2 to clever, well-meaning, and informative ones like the Story of Cosmetics3 that get a few important things wrong. The reason that the appeal to nature narrative is so compelling is that it mirrors how our brains work – in analogies and associations.
|Good and Wholesome||Eww, toxic stuff|
While most of us like science, we simultaneously have a mistrust of artificial substances. We’ve all heard of catchphrases like, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.” It makes sense, right? It does until you take a critical look at it. All of your favorite natural superfoods like blueberries are composed of many, many unpronounceable multisyllabic monstrosities like tryptophan, 3-methyl-butyraldehyde, and hydroxylinalool. We hold on to the illusion that natural stuff is “simple” only because the labels simplify the chemical concoctions that they are and call them by their commonly known name, “blueberries”.4
But chemical? Yuck! This term has such a bad reputation today in the world of skincare – it’s often thought of as synonymous with “toxic.” One shouldn’t take this association so literally since:
Almost everything that’s a thing is a chemical.
Humans? A bunch of chemicals. Water? Air? Chemical. The list of stuff that is not chemicals is rather short – the list is something like: Light, sound, thought, with a couple of other exceptions, sprinkled here and there. So it’s incomprehensibly silly to say that “chemicals are bad.”
Ok, but that seems disingenuous; surely there are “natural” chemicals? They’re safer, right?
Unfortunately, mother nature didn’t have perfect skin for humans at the top of her to-do list. Think of it this way: What’s more likely from an evolutionary perspective?
- “Natural” plants evolved to produce beneficial ingredients so that humans can pick at the plants to treat problems like acne and have “perfect natural skin”
- “Natural” plants can’t move, so they evolved various toxins to discourage predation from the many organisms that eat them
With good reason, many plants are irritating to the skin. If we’re talking generalities, one relevant observation is that nature often produces the most dangerous chemicals. The evolutionary arms race explains why many “natural” poisons become nonsensically toxic – enough to kill humans many times over.5 The golden frog (P. terribilis) is certainly natural but extremely poisonous – enough to kill 10 to 20 humans while sporting a slim 5 cm body. Botulinum toxin (yes, the stuff that we use to fight wrinkles – yes, it’s safe) is very much natural and is so much more toxic than anything that’s synthetically produced that it’s quite literally off the charts if you compared them head to head.
What about the synthetic stuff – isn’t that bad?
Plenty of synthetic stuff is bad. The notorious DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a synthetic compound, can be as harmful as its full name sounds. Rubbing DDT on your skin is not a good idea, but neither is rubbing arsenic (natural) on your skin. You have to judge things on their own merits. Saying that a product is natural isn’t speaking much about its safety or its utility. The natural vs. synthetic debate is a gray area, and probably more accurately, one that isn’t very relevant to the science of skincare at all.
Using vaseline isn’t a bad idea, just because it’s synthetic. It’s probably the safest, most versatile over-the-counter product that’s used in skincare. Petrolatum – is its only listed ingredient.6 If there is a generalization about synthetic products, the list of ingredients is far smaller and simpler than natural products, which tend to have a litany of chemical components. Indeed, nature is complex, and from the standpoint of medicine, challenging to keep consistent.7
Natural isn’t inherently good or bad. The same goes for synthetic. It’s true that in the past, medicine was unprocessed except for the drying. Many amazing discoveries are naturally sourced, and we exploit the wonders of mother nature to help us. Both natural poisons that we mentioned, the golden frog and botulinum toxin, are exploited by humans to make blow darts to hunt and to beat off wrinkles (and treat eye spasms). We use the more gentle ingredients that nature provides us as well – like the familiar aloe vera, chamomile, and coconut oil.
Today, it’s true that pharmaceutical companies generally prefer to work with synthetic compounds. There are many reasons for this, some economic (patenting natural products is difficult), and some pragmatic/medical (refined and purified compounds are more stable, reliable, and more comfortable to work with). Still, it’s not because synthetic is inherently better or vice versa. Don’t let persuasive marketing trick you into believing that natural is better or safer. It’s neither good nor bad; to simplify it into categories and suggest that natural or synthetic is better is lazy. You have to do the work to research the ingredient on its own merits, whether you’re talking about skincare, food, or medicine.
2Not only are anti-vaxxers wrong, but they are wrong in a way that hurts not only themselves but others.
3 A video that’s very much a mixed bag; it makes excellent and fair criticisms of the cosmetic industry, but it is also full of inaccuracies and unfounded assumptions about toxins and safety.
6 To be fair, strictly speaking, petrolatum itself is a mixture of several chemicals.