Natural vs Synthetic

Natural vs Synthetic

Ok, listen I better start off by saying I’m not bashing anything intentionally (I am actually though) and if you’re in marketing and use some of the wording that I’m about to mention, take a breath and keep an open mind and read on. Please.

There is a growing trend around the world of people moving away from what they perceive as “toxic” chemicals. They are looking for a more “natural” ingredient list. Evens me, I get a kick out of my moisturiser saying that the ingredients are au natural and I love the idea of nature inspiring science. BUT… what does that even mean and why do we want that (or do we?).

Definitions

So lets get some definitions going so we can understand what we’re comparing.

” Natural chemicals are produced by nature without any human intervention. Synthetic chemicals are made by humans using methods different than those nature uses, and these chemical structures may or may not be found in nature. ” The Scientific American

We also then get the hybrid. Basically every alcohol you drink is “naturally derived”, meaning, it uses a natural process (fermentation) that is controlled by humans. Look below at my very helpful diagram – inspired by the one from Scientific American.

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Within the category of natural ingredients you get:

  1. Compounds extracted and isolated from the plant/animal/microbe/rock (vitamin C from oranges)
  2. Extracts from plant/animal/microbe/rock that is taken as a whole and contains multiple ingredients (tea tree oil)
  3. Ingredients that are used just as they are found (mined zeolites)

Bear with me, I know this is a lot to take in but this is important so keep reading!

Common misconceptions

There are a lot of advertisers, beauty influencers and pseudoscience information out there (*cough Gweneth Paltrow cough*). So lets address some of the most common misconceptions:

1. Synthetic chemicals are more toxic than natural chemicals

If you read my first ever post, you will remember I made a list of really long names that were difficult to pronounce and then showed you they were mostly vitamins or common chemicals we encounter in our daily lives. EVERYTHING IS A CHEMICAL. Water is a chemical, vitamin C is a chemical and so is toxic arsenic.

2. Synthetic copies of natural chemicals are not as good for you

Chemicals are not defined by their origin. – Deep yo – They don’t know they are taken from the earth or if they are made in the lab. They don’t star in a coming of age movie about finding out who their parents are. If you take pure water from a glacier in the arctic and you isolate one single molecule and you take a single molecule of water created in a laboratory, they are exactly the same and will not behave any differently.

I’d like to also point out that some synthetic chemicals are chosen over the identical natural chemicals because it is easier to synthetically produce pure compounds than for them to occur naturally like that. For example, iron oxide which is commonly used for pigments in makeup is synthetically made to get a pure compound because the natural compound usually has higher levels of heavy metals – naturally…

3. Natural products have fewer chemicals in them

I call bullshit! Let me explain why with a list of chemicals of say a banana:

This lovely image is made by James Kennedy who has a whole website about his love of chemicals

Here is a list of ingredients in a common moisturiser:

INGREDIENTS: Parafinnum liquidum, PEG-150, methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben, simethicone, BHT, parfum, limonene, geraniol, linalool, hydroxycitronellal, hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexane carboxaldehyde, citronellol

As you can see, the list is longer in bananas. Now my point isn’t to say that natural products ALWAYS have more chemicals, it’s to say that the above blanket statement is irrelevant. The presence of one single toxic chemical (for instance arsenic) is more worrying than say eating a banana which has more than 50 chemicals naturally.

In general natural products (the ones that I described as extracts – a group of compounds) actually tend to have a long list of compounds (which are all chemicals – are you catching the trend here – EVERYTHING IS A CHEMICAL). This is because the active compounds haven’t been isolated or synthesised to be pure, rather the extraction is taken as one ingredient.

How did we get to this point?

The intentions are always good. But misinformed people making broad statements like those above can be dangerous and irresponsible. (Climate change does exist Donald Trump, just saying).

Marketing schemes are fear-mongering so that they can appear to have the perfect solution – all natural, “chemical-free” products. They appeal to our love of Mother Earth and that she would never do anything to hurt us. Ummmm so about that… one of the most toxic chemicals in the world is Botulinum toxin A, a natural product produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. It’s injected into the face of celebrities in teeny tiny amounts as its trade name Botox – what rich people do for beauty… That’s Mother Earth. Just because it’s natural does not automatically make it safe or non-toxic!

Health considerations

If you’re comparing vitamin C that is naturally produced (extracted from oranges) and one that’s synthetically produced (most common by the way) then the compounds are exactly the same and using the natural version will not give you any extra health benefits. In fact it’ll probably cost more – I see you non-GMO, organic, gluten free Cape Townians.

The best thing to do is to treat each and every ingredient (especially the active ingredients) regardless of its origin and only use evidence-based information. Has the chemical shown activity in a reputable scientific study? How many studies? Has it been tested on humans?

I gots you guys – that’s what I’m trying to do and also what I’m trying to get the general consumer to think about.

Bottom line

EVERYTHING IS A CHEMICAL. This video by Lab Muffin is perfect. Don’t let advertising lie to you. Natural does not make it automatically safe.

If you like natural products and the company have shown that their ingredients have scientific backing and have been tested and gone through the regulations etc. then cool, use it. But don’t spend crazy amounts of money using natural products because you think its safer/healthier/less toxic. I enjoy using rooibos extracts because of the smell and not necessarily because I think its safer. I also use scientifically formulated products that are mostly synthetic because I trust pure isolated compounds. These are not mutually exclusive.

I do not renounce natural ingredients or nature. I think we just need to have our skeptic hats on when we get bombarded by advertisers that thrive on selling us sensationalism. Nature is nothing more than the dance floor where chemicals can do the tango!

Reading – Other blog posts and references

  1. Natural vs Synthetic in Skincare blog post
  2. Lab muffins vlog about it
  3. Scientific American article

8 thoughts on “Natural vs Synthetic

  1. My favourite example is Vitamin D.
    Are you going to sit in the sun all day with the chance of damaging your skin OR take a damn vitamin tablet and be on your merry way? Same thing people 😅

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