Is 'Natural' better than 'Synthetic' for skin?



By Dr Ernst Eiselen and Dr Des Fernandes
How often do we hear the claim that one cosmetic is superior to another because it uses ‘natural’ or ‘botanical’ ingredients? What does ‘natural’ even mean? Nature is full of very dangerous substances – snake venom, botulism, ricin, and malaria. Confusingly, man’s interference with a substance can also make it safer, not more dangerous. Take Botulinum – it is the most toxic substance known to man and it is completely natural, but you can safely have it injected into your face as Botox – after processing (by man) and in the correct dose.

Natural versus Man-made is a very grey area!

Recently, my skin therapist told me that a salesman who visits her business regularly told her that (uniquely) the glycolic acid in his products is ‘botanically sourced’, and therefore much safer. She was smart enough to know that glycolic acid comes from plants – all glycolic acid! It is then treated in many ways before it can be used on skin.

Every substance on earth is a chemical and every chemical, in and of itself, is natural – everything, including water, oxygen, crude oil and even honey. If the opposite of natural is man-made or synthetic, then every cream, gel, oil and serum you put on your face is synthetic unless you actually scoop honey out of a jar or use a fresh egg as a masque and place cucumbers on your eyelids.

There is no such thing as a natural cosmetic. Synthetic means to ‘place together’ or to mix in a manufacturing process. Once mixed, those chemicals react to each other, separate and re-combine. All cosmetics are a mix of different chemicals. If you think about this long enough, the logic will strike you. Man cannot make anything that does not come to him from nature, meaning there is no such thing as ‘man-made’ either. Man-mixed might be a better description.

Any claim that a substance includes only natural, non-chemical ingredients therefore, is a lie, or the result of an ill-informed marketing department with no knowledge of chemistry. The word ‘natural’ has been hi-jacked by people who want to fool you into buying products that make you feel safer because they are ‘natural’ and not ‘man-made’. We have to dump the idea that natural is good and man-made or processed is bad. We have to look behind the tricks that marketers play.

Take the paraben paranoia that began about 14 years ago. A perfectly innocent substance, that is found in plants and also synthesized by man to replicate plant paraben exactly, was blamed for cancer and a swathe of ‘natural’ ‘paraben-free’ cosmetics was launched. There are no studies to prove that parabens were to blame, but the opportunity to launch a newly-differentiated product was not to be missed. Sadly, many of the replacements for parabens are less effective and more dangerous than parabens. Ironically, those cucumbers that we have been happily putting on our eyelids for years are very high in parabens, and will easily penetrate the skin.

So – what is it that makes a substance either good or bad for us?

It certainly isn’t whether or not it’s natural or man-made.

There is no lazy or convenient way to categorise chemicals into boxes such as natural and not natural. Each chemical has to be analysed separately for its safety and efficacy. The only indicator of whether or not a substance will harm us is the dose. A chemical’s toxic effect is governed by its dose. Paracelsus, the father of toxicology said, “All things are poison; and nothing is without poison. Only the dose allows something not to be poison.” You can have too much oxygen, too much water, or not enough of either and be equally threatened. The poison is in the dose.

When someone asks a question about the toxicity of any substance, it is critical to know the dose.

Recently, we were asked about the following chemicals present in many cosmetics:

Question: SODIUM LAUREL SULPHATE – Is it a skin irritant, with organ system toxicity? 

Answer: Yes. SLS can certainly irritate skin and poison you… if you drink several litres of a liquid soap, for example.  However, most soaps contain SLS, in low doses and it is certainly safe for your organs. There have been no reported cases of organ failure from using an SLS containing product. The people who torture animals might have forced them to drink vast amounts of SLS to discover that. I think the major problem for people using SLS in a daily soap is that their skin can become dry. 

Question: BUTYLATED HYDROXYTOLUENE (BHT) – Is it a toxic preservative, known allergen, possible carcinogen, that causes endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, and irritation? 

Answer: Yes, provided you use vast doses. BHT is a rather powerful antioxidant at low doses and that is why it is used in cosmetics.  It is made by plankton and algae and certain bacteria. All the same principles again apply about toxicity at the right dose. BHT is normally used in very low doses.

Question: PHENOXYETHANOL – Is it a toxic preservative, a known irritant for skin, eyes & lungs?
 Answer: Yes, again the dose makes the toxin.  It is usually used at concentrations that are well recognized, after extensive testing, as safe.

Question: Are DISODIUM EDTA & TETRASODIUM EDTA penetration enhancers dangerous? 

Answer: The EDTA’s in cosmetics are used in extremely low safe doses specifically to inactivate metals that are in normal water that could interact with essential vitamins and make them ineffective.

Question: Are PARABENS dangerous to health?

Answer: Parabens are active against a broad spectrum of microorganisms. Parabens are derived from plants and also synthesized to be identical to plant parabens. Strawberries, carrots, broccoli, grapes, olives and blueberries all contain parabens. Once again, the dose will indicate whether or not they are dangerous. A small number of people are allergic to them and this is true of most chemicals or substances. They are much safer than some other substances used to preserve cosmetics.

To get any clarity on this subject, we have to look not only at the substance but also at its dose, treating every chemical on a case by case basis. Nothing is completely safe and nothing is completely dangerous.