We don't go natural, we return. Natural is where we began.” This increasingly widespread quote (now a popular ‘instagram caption’) is consistent with a common public perception that ‘natural’ ingredients are better for you, better for the environment, and better for reducing your footprint on the planet. But is this really true, or is it too often just clever marketing?


Human societies have long used natural resources for the attraction of lovers, masking the effects of advancing age, enhancing natural assets, and compensating for physical defects [1]. As early as 3000 BC, wealthy ladies in China stained their fingernails with gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax and egg white, while ancient Egyptians famously applied face pigments, developed fragrant perfumes, and made skincare products based on olive oil, cypress and milk.  

It wasn’t until the 19th century that synthetic ingredients – that is, those formulated or manufactured by chemical process, or chemically altered naturally-occurring substances – were widely used. It was around this time that photography was invented, and innovations in mirrors allowed people to see their own reflections regularly for the first time. The growth of the Western cosmetics and personal care industry in the 19th century has often been attributed to these technologies, which made more people aware of their own appearances, and drove demand for products such as face powders made from zinc oxide. Unfortunately, by the late 19th century, many cosmetics were toxic (based on lead, mercury, arsenic or ammonia) but, by the mid-20th century, most cosmetic and personal care products were based on petroleum and alcohol. It was around this time that modern technologies and chemistries allowed the use of non-toxic, inexpensive ingredients, and opened up these products to the masses.  

As with many other industries, it was the new millennium that witnessed a real change in consumer demand for natural products. After a steady rise of safe synthetics, the public’s appetite for natural cosmetics and personal care products has been driven over the past two or three decades by various social activist, environmentalist and natural wellbeing movements.  



Generally speaking, a 'natural' product can be defined as something that is derived from plant, mineral or animal by-product. In other words, they are made from raw materials sourced from nature. Typically, natural cosmetics are subject to minimal processing, so the active ingredient being used or applied is as close to its original state as possible. 

As consumer demand has driven an increasing number of products seeking to advertise themselves as ‘natural’, it is perhaps surprising that a legal definition of ‘natural’ has not long been a regulated term. EU Regulation EU 655/2013 [2] already ensured that “every claim present in a product label shall be supported by adequate and verifiable evidence”, but it was only really in 2019, when the International Organization for Standardization issued ISO 16128 [3] – a new series of guidelines for any product claiming to be natural (or organic) – that the European market had a system in place to ensure any product claiming to be natural could hold up to that claim.  

Meanwhile, in the US, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are yet to establish a regulatory definition for this term in cosmetic labelling [4]. With the landmark Natural Cosmetics Act announced in November 2019, it was thought that things were about to change. However, the bill was not passed by the end of Congress (January 2021), leaving the US situation unresolved at the time of writing. 


The demand for natural cosmetics and personal care products is generally based on the belief that, compared with synthetic ingredients, natural products are: 

  • Safer and more beneficial to overall health 

  • Easier on the skin 

  • Better for the environment and biodiversity.  

So accepted are these benefits that market analysis company Grand View Research predicted last year that the global natural skin care market would grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.0% from 2020 to 2027, reaching a value of more than $14 billion [5]. Similarly, the natural hair care market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 4.7% over the same period, reaching around US$13 billion [6], while natural cosmetics are projected to reach a massive US$53 billion, growing at a CAGR of 5.01% [7].  

So yes, the future for natural products seems bright, and the value of a ‘natural’ claim on your label seems high. Yet I can’t help wondering if this is a castle built on sand… are natural products really safer? Are they really easier on the skin? Are they really better for the environment and biodiversity?  


As so succinctly pointed out a few years ago in Scientific American [8], “It's true that modern chemistry has brought us a number of toxic chemicals, like DDT and dioxins, but do you really think that nature's chemicals are any less harmful to you? In fact, the most toxic chemicals to humans [botulinum toxin and tetanospasmin] are completely natural!” The idea that a chemical is safe just because it is natural, is not correct.

Thanks to modern regulatory requirements, the safety, allergen and toxicity profiles of any synthetic ingredients used in the cosmetics and personal care industry are well understood, as is their compatibility with other ingredients. In fact, there is an argument that synthetic ingredients might actually be safer than some natural ones. Certain natural oils, such as ylang-ylang and tea tree oil, appear to spark reactions in about 1% of people [9]. Botanical extracts are harmless for most people, but researchers have compiled a list of around 80 plant-based oils that can trigger allergic reactions, including tea tree oil, ylang-ylang oil, jasmine, peppermint and lavender oil. Both synthetic and natural ingredients can contain allergens, but the low concentrations required for many synthetic chemicals (e.g. high impact aromas, synthetic preservatives) mean that they might be less likely to trigger allergic reactions. Synthetics can also be manufactured under strictly controlled conditions to ensure that they offer consistency, and that they contain no unwanted trace allergens or photosensitizers. 

Therefore, contrary to popular belief, natural is not always better for you and your skin. It is also not true that synthetic copies of natural compounds are not as good for you as their natural counterparts. After all, if the chemical structure is the same, then it’s the same compound – however it was made – and why wouldn’t the effect be the same?  


" The idea that a chemical is safe
just becouse it is natural,
is not correct "

In summary, natural ingredients can cost a lot more to acquire and use in cosmetic and personal care products. For example, importing fresh jasmine from the tropics will cost more (and be less reliable, as crops are at the mercy of the weather) than a local facility producing benzyl acetate on demand.  

“Ah,” I hear you cry, “but what about the cost to the planet?”  

Well, in fact, the hard truth is that natural ingredients are not always the most sustainable. In fact, sometimes, the most environmentally responsible option are ones that come from a lab. Especially with the growing popularity of green chemistry, science is providing new solutions to a variety of natural ingredients that do more damage than good, like palm oil, vanilla and floral extracts.  

So well recognised in this issue, that in order for a natural ingredient for cosmetics to be allowed on the European market, it is now necessary to demonstrate that its use does not threaten biodiversity or put any species at risk [10]. As biodiversity regulations become more important in Europe, it is acknowledged that this can present a major challenge to ingredient suppliers in developing countries. However, it can also present an opportunity if suppliers integrate biodiversity and species protection into their ethical sourcing programmes.  


" The hard truth is that natural ingredients
are not always the most sustainable "

No, of course not. We have to understand that the natural versus synthetic debate is not a clear-cut good-bad issue. Both natural and synthetic ingredients need to be considered on a case-by-case basis in relation to our personal health, the environment, and the overall impact of our purchases.  

Ethical sourcing is an issue that exercises responsible manufacturers across the world. Interestingly, younger generations appear to be increasingly well informed about the ethical records of companies. Modern consumers are starting to care deeply about companies’ ethics and brand purpose [11].  I doubt that, as a society, we will ever stop wanting to attract lovers, mask the effects of aging, enhance our assets, or conceal our defects (real or imagined!) Demand for cosmetics and personal care products will likely never cease. What I think will be interesting, however, is how the natural versus synthetic ingredients argument will play out, with an increasingly knowledgeable consumer base, and a maturing generation that shows encouraging awareness of the danger our world is in, and what they will need to do to save it.  


Image by Angelo Rosa from Pixabay