Natural is Better than Synthetic. And Synthetic is Better than Natural!

by Dr. Hannah Sivak | July 12, 2019


Yes, they can both be true. If there was ever an example of why you should not have “absolute”preferences (be dogmatic about a subject), this is it.

I have posted a lot about natural vs. synthetic chemicals in skin care that you may wonder if I have anything new to say. I think I do.

It is unlikely that a natural chemical will be bad for you, unless they are trying to sell you a poisonous plant extract like Nerium oleander as skin care (!). This does not happen very often simply because there are not that many silly people willing to spend money on a poison.

Case 1) Natural is better than synthetic

What is a natural ingredient? Something that exists in nature and has not been modified by chemistry done in a laboratory.

There are novel synthetic ingredients that you should avoid. The criterion is simple: don’t use an ingredient that does not exist in nature just for novelty’s sake.

Companies that sell ingredients to the skin care industry invent new ingredients all the time because of the public appetite for novelty. But, as explained in the past, it is a bad idea to introduce novel chemicals into your body unless there is an excellent reason for that, like when there is an illness that requires it.

An extraordinary benefit is required to justify a moderate risk, but why risk your health to test a novel chemical on yourself? You would be paying for the privilege of being a research subject! The immune system is too complicated, and nobody can predict how an individual will react to the new chemical that has not been encountered before, especially if your body tends to react with allergies.

Skin care does not need novel chemicals. In particular, synthetic chemicals that modify those that already exist in your body are a bad idea. One example is idebenone, which modifies the all important Coenzyme Q10 (which you need for respiration!), it may lead to allergies. Why use idebenone when you can use Coenzyme Q10?

Another example: Polyphosphorylcholine Glycol Acrylate, No idea who invented this or why, but it is being used in skin “care” right now. Phosphorylcholine is a modulator of lymphocyte response, crucial to the body immune response to pathogens. Apparently, this novel chemical is sold as a moisturizer, but how many moisturizers does the industry need?

Case 2) Synthetic is better than natural

More and more advertising is dedicated to convince you, the consumer, that natural is good for you. But sometimes, using natural stuff is bad for the environment, and there are more and more examples of this situation.

As a result of advertising, substances that used to be luxurious and priced as such, are now affordable to many people. Frankincense used in Chanel #5 in minute amounts is one thing, and frankincense essential oil sold by the tone in pyramid schemes is another. You may approve of this democratization of expensive taste but this is often bad for nature. There is overuse of frankincense, adulteration with fake ingredients and more.

Also, the desirability of palm oil in skin care and in the food industry means that natural forests are decimated in Borneo to make space for palm oil trees.

The desirability of the natural vanilla extract has resulted in huge increases in price (and adulteration).

Incidentally, people mistake “essential” (in essential oils) for “essential for your health”. Essential oils are not essential for humans, on the contrary. The word means that the chemicals present in the essential oil are key (essential) to the aroma or fragrance that the plant has. The plant may use the chemicals to attract pollinators or to defend itself from predators or infection, but the chemicals are not “essential” not even for the plant.

If you can’t tell the difference between natural and synthetic, maybe we could accept synthetic vanillin in Hershey’s chocolate instead of demanding natural vanilla extract? Maybe that would help decrease the price of natural vanilla so that it can be used in projects that benefit from the complexity of vanilla.

It is true that the words Primal Mother Earth. Mother Nature, Pachamama, Gaia, etc. sound better than “Science”. A scientist working in a lab may not sound so romantic. But sometimes, the not so romantic scientist is doing Nature a favor.

When I suggest that we use a synthetic chemical, I am NOT suggesting making a novel chemical but, rather, using a “bio-identical” version of a natural chemical. What is the advantage here? It benefits the environment if the plant used to make the natural version is endangered or its cultivation requires the destruction of a natural ecosystem that supports important species.

What is bioidentical? There is no “official” definition but I do prefer using an ingredient made by humans in an industrial facility as long as it is chemically identical, including in its stereochemistry, to the natural chemical.

It is true that we at Skin Actives get a lot of inspiration from ethnomedicine, the study of traditional medicine in old cultures, but we don’t lose sight of the fact that these old medicines were used because there was nothing else available. The scientist may be doing a favor by eliminating the uncertainty of a botanical extract: how much of each chemical is actually there, and is there any remnant of an unwanted chemical?

So when Skin Actives announces the new skin care line with apocynin, we will be proud to tell you that we are using synthetic apocynin, identical to the apocynin found in Picrorhiza kurroa or Apocynum cannabinum (Indian hemp) and not the chemical extracted from the plant. A natural and a synthetic chemical are identical if the chemical structure is identical. Your body, your nose, your skin, your cells, will not be able to tell the difference. Remember that these chemicals are present in minute concentrations in the plant, so you need huge amounts of plant material to extract and purify small amounts of the chemical you want (and eliminate those you don’t want).

Sometimes, a natural chemical is strongly colored (like curcumin) or has very low solubility in skin compatible solvents, like azelaic acid, a great anti-acne active. Instead of using azelaic acid in alcohol and drying (and damaging) your skin, we use potassium azeloyl glycine, a synthetic azelaic acid derivative that works well in water based serums like our T-zone serum.

Conversely, when we need a natural ingredient, we do our very best to avoid problematic origins of that plant material. For example, our sea kelp is cultivated in Maine, avoiding the use of over-harvested California sea kelp.

When not to use synthetic? When the chemical we need has more than one “version” (stereoisomers) like in the case of vitamin E. Here, we use the natural alpha-D-tocopherol, avoiding synthetic tocopherol. Here, the synthetic version contains both stereoisomers and the wrong one can lead to allergies.

As usual, we try to stay informed on everything, including sustainability of the environment. You can trust us. We do our homework!

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