• Straight from the doctor: The Chemistry of Ingredients – Natural and Synthetic

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    A review of Natural vs. Synthetic ingredients in Skincare products by Dr. Howard Murad

    Working in my dermatology practice, I’ve been asked many times, “Is it better for me to use an all natural product? My skin is so sensitive and I’m looking for one without chemicals, what do you suggest?” I do my best to educate my patients on the truth – there is no such cosmetic product made of 100% all natural, chemical-free ingredients. All products are made of chemicals.
    The reaction of these chemicals working together happens all the time in nature, in laboratories to create new compounds and in the human body to assist cellular function, produce energy and ultimately sustain life.

    Consumers are often confused and frustrated about what is healthy for their skin, and there has been a misconception about chemical-free, synthetic-free and 100% natural products. However, all products and materials on earth are made up of chemicals. Everything from the chair you’re sitting on, the paper that makes up this page and the ink used to print the words to the water you drink everyday is composed of chemicals. Life is chemistry and everything, natural or synthetic is composed of chemicals.
    There is a lot of misunderstanding right now in the skincare and spa industry over which ingredients are healthy for skin. Regardless of origin, each ingredient can be safe while also having the potential for adverse effects.
    Both naturally derived and synthetic products are tested to assure safety regardless of their origin.

    What is natural?
    “Natural” can be defined as arising from a state produced by nature without interference of humankind. Consumers often believe that using products with natural ingredients are better for their skin. However, in reality, it is often the synthetically derived ingredients that increase the efficacy of natural ingredients. Products containing “natural” ingredients often occur in a small extract of the source, which is usually not enough to deliver results on its own. Other times, some natural ingredients only require small amounts to be functional, depending on the formula.
    A common myth about natural ingredients is that they are better for the skin, however they are just as beneficial for the skin as their synthetic counterparts. For example, a product with vitamin C will contain ascorbic acid, the technical name for vitamin C. The molecular structure of ascorbic acid is the same as its natural counterpart, regardless of it being naturally derived or produced synthetically in a laboratory. A formulator might choose to use synthetic vitamin C over the natural version because it is more readily available, more pure and potentially more functional.
    “Naturally derived” refers to a substance with a natural origin that is chemically or physically modified to make it more functional. This category may include extracts from herbs and flowers by concentration, which would aid solubility or proteins broken down to create smaller peptide molecules. However, natural ingredients do not guarantee any kind of efficacy. As with all ingredients, their efficacy must be tested and validated.

    Why synthetic?
    “Synthetic” ingredients are human-made substances. Synthesis is the formation of a compound from elements or similar compounds. In fact, synthetic ingredients are often more functional than their natural counterpart. Since they are created in a lab, these ingredients will deliver consistent results and high quality every time, assuring control over the reliability of the ingredient.
    Oftentimes, complex ingredient names with several letters and starting with prefixes like acetyl- and propyl- will make the user worry about what they are putting on her face. For many people the word synthetic gives rise to negative images. Natural, on the other hand makes people think of products that are “pure” or “free of chemicals.”
    While it is true that many natural ingredients are used in cosmetic products, all natural products must undergo chemical processing to be purified, modified, concentrated and preserved to make them more functional and viable over time. For example, an orange extract cannot exist in skincare products without being treated first, but a chemically synthesized extract of an orange can. All cosmetics must contain a preservative system to protect the formula from oxidation or spoilage despite the manufacturers claims to the contrary.
    And while some products may contain antioxidants such as vitamins C or E, these vitamins are often synthetically derived, as well. Studies that evaluate the functionality of ingredients, regardless of origin, show that natural ingredients are not necessarily better than their synthetic counterpart. For example, glycolic acid is produced synthetically to yield higher concentrations that are more available than found in nature. The same applied to salicylic acid – its synthesized version is purer, more bioavailable than its natural source from willow bark.
    Many people also do not realize that synthetic and natural ingredients must co-exist to make the other effective. For example, a sunscreen may use Titanium Dioxide, which is natural, as its key over the counter therapeutic (OTC) sunscreen ingredient. The formula may also utilize sodium hyaluronate, which is synthetic, for hydration and silicone for spread ability on the skin. Additionally, using both types of ingredients are essential to create a working formula.
    Walk into any health food store and you will see multiple skincare products claiming to be “all natural” and” free of chemicals”, but in reality, these products do in fact contain chemicals. Common “all natural” ingredients such as water, vitamins, pomegranate and plant extracts are actually chemicals because all matter is composed of chemicals. When it comes to organic, it is important to know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not regulate the use of the term “organic” or “natural” on products, therefore any formula can call itself “organic” or “natural” without penalty or proof. It’s likely that many products claiming to be “organic” or “natural” are using it as a marketing tool, and not based on scientific fact.
    Where do you go from here?
    Utilizing both forms of ingredients will yield the best overall results for optimal skin health. Below are few of my favorite synthetic and natural ingredients.

    Top Synthetic Ingredients:

    Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s) / Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid: Alpha Hydroxy Acids, Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid are often used in skin care products because of their ability to penetrate the skin, and to help stimulate collagen and elastin production. These ingredients can also be naturally occurring in sugar cane or milk.
    Salicylic Acid: This chemical compound causes skin cells to slough off quickly to help prevent pores from clogging. Because of its properties, it is often used in acne products. This ingredient is naturally occurring in willow bark.
    Silicones: Silicones are often used as emollients, such as lubricants, and thickeners to help smooth the skin.
    Retinol: A derivative of vitamin A, Retinol helps reduce hyper-pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, while improving skin texture and restoring hydration levels.
    Synthesized Peptides: Formulated to work like naturally occurring peptides, the synthesized version stimulate collagen production and promotes elasticity.
    Hydroquinone: This bleaching and lightening agent is a popular ingredient in skin care products and often used to treat hyperpigmentation.
    Avobenzone: Most often found in sunscreen, Avobenzone absorbs UVA and UVB rays.
    Glycerin: Glycerin is often used as an emollient, humectant, and solvent, in personal care products.
    Sodium Hyaluronate: Also known as Hyaluronic Acid, this ingredient has moisturizing properties and helps retain water in skin cells.
    Ceramides: Ceramides (synthesized sphingolipids) are used to smooth skin and interact with the top layer to protect water loss.

    Top Natural Ingredients:

    Water: Water is the most common ingredient in skin care products, and is included to hydrate skin and to help other ingredients penetrate the skin. While water is natural, it is not taken directly from the tap and mixed into a skincare formula, it first must be sterilized, a form of synthetic processing.
    Titanium Dioxide: This mineral ingredient acts as an invisible light reflector and is used as a sunscreen.
    Zinc Oxide: Zinc Oxide, another mineral reflects both UVA and UVB rays and is also used to to protect against sunburn and other damage to the skin caused by ultraviolet light.
    Goji Berry Extract: A small berry loaded with antioxidants, trace minerals and amino acids, it is included in anti-aging, anti-redness and firming products.
    Pomegranate Extract: This fruit extract is a powerful antioxidant and has been scientifically proven to be effective in boosting sun protection.
    Polysaccharides (yeast extract): Polysaccharides help form a water-binding film on the skin to protect the skin from water loss and may assist in boosting immune function.
    Petrolatum: A mineral oil jelly, this common ingredient is often found in skin lotions and cosmetics to improve skin barrier function and prevent transepidermal water loss.
    Colloidal Oatmeal: This oat ingredient helps soothe, moisturize and relieve dry skin.
    Sulfur: Used for problem and acne-prone skin, sulfur
    Evening Primrose Oil: This essential fatty-acid hydrates the skin to helps restore the moisture and lipid balance to dry skin conditions. Regardless of the ingredient origin, natural or synthetic, what’s more important is the final product safety profile and proven effectiveness. People should understand that all ingredients, natural or synthetic are chemicals.

    Moreover, just because an ingredient might be harvested from the ground, and “natural,” it might not necessarily be good for the skin, and vice-versa – just because an ingredient is synthetically produced might not be harmful to skin.

    • Hi Derma,

      I always wanted to know which products were better for your skin and I found your post very helpful. It is very hard to determine what is good for your skin with all those products out there. I’m Hua, the director of Wellsphere’s HealthBlogger Network, a network of over 2,000 of the best health writers on the web (including doctors, nurses, healthy living professionals, and expert patients). I think your blog would be a great addition to the Network, and I’d like to invite you to learn more about it and apply to join at http://www.wellsphere.com/health-blogger. Once approved by our Chief Medical Officer, your posts will be republished on Wellsphere where they will be available to over 5 million monthly visitors who come to the site looking for health information and support. There’s no cost and no extra work for you! The HealthBlogger page (http://www.wellsphere.com/health-blogger) provides details about participation, but if you have any questions please feel free to email me at hua@wellsphere.com.

      Best,
      Hua

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