For Sustainable Beauty, The Natural vs Synthetic Debate Continues On

Is one really better than the other?

Anna Efetova/ Getty Images
natural vs synthetic ingredients sustainable skin care

While the clean” beauty movement has been all about products that are kind to humans, the growing sustainable beauty movement is all about products that are kind to the planet. And although sustainable skin care is the buzziest new beauty trend of 2022, its meaning can be as opaque as the thousands of plastic bottles that line store shelves. The rise of a new breed of conscious consumers is demanding more from brands, seeking products that align with his or her values.

When it comes to sustainability, there’s no doubt the beauty industry has a lot of work to do (think packaging especially) but what about the ingredients brands are using to formulate their products? The sustainable beauty movement has propagated a polarizing debate on natural versus synthetic ingredients, with the chemistry community at odds with the natural community. Natural brands claim to be sustainable because they use ingredients that come from the earth, while chemists argue that natural ingredients are unsustainable because they deplete resources. This debate is particularly pervasive in the skin care category as it makes up the largest share of the cosmetics market, and has a growing consumer base as more (and increasingly younger) consumers invest in products.

A recent report showed a 71% rise in searches for sustainable goods over the past five years, and corporations in the cosmetics sector are responding. Shoppers are calling for greater transparency from safety to ingredient sourcing, which has (happily) prompted many brands to get on board. A recent trend forecast from WGSN predicts that, in 2023, “a brand that doesn’t participate positively toward being more sustainable, won’t participate at all,” meaning if sustainability isn’t a part of your brand ethos, you’re in trouble.

It couldn’t come at a better time since experts warn that it’s now or never to limit global warming, and that humanity is perilously close to the tipping point of irreversible climate damage. And as one of the planet’s biggest plastic polluters, the beauty industry continues to face scrutiny over its impact on the environment. Sustainability can no longer be a trendy buzzword for beauty brands — it’s a necessity to avoid environmental catastrophe.

So, is shopping for either natural or synthetic skin products really more sustainable than the other? The answer isn’t so cut and dry — here’s why.

Opposing Views On Sustainable Skin Care

“On one side, we have the chemistry community who are upset about their ingredients and methods being vilified, and on the other side we have the natural community who feel suspicious about a chemistry-based industry that has been using synthetic ingredients for more than a century,” says Lorraine Dallmeier, a biologist, Chartered Environmentalist and the award-winning CEO of online organic cosmetic formulation school Formula Botanica. Both viewpoints lack nuance in her opinion, and play to a social media soundbite culture. “It is impossible to make such sweeping statements about an industry that uses vast quantities of resources; sometimes the natural ingredient will be more sustainable, sometimes the synthetic ingredient will be more sustainable. It depends entirely on what you’re using and making.”

There’s no doubt that the chemophobia triggered by the clean beauty movement continues to play a part in the debate. Are consumers more likely to dismiss a synthetic ingredient that may be more sustainable than its natural counterpart because of a lingering fear of chemicals? Tina Craig, founder of U Beauty, finds the controversy surrounding natural versus synthetic ingredients almost ironic at its core. “The water we drink, the air we breathe, even our own bodies contain chemical elements,” says Craig. “Despite often carrying a negative connotation, the words ‘chemical’ and ‘synthetic’ aren’t synonymous with harm. By the same token, an ingredient sourced directly from nature or harvested and procured organically doesn’t invariably ensure safety.”

Sustainable Skin Care & The Environment

There’s much to be said about the beauty industry’s environmental impact, wherein populations of plants, flowers, and trees are harvested and turned into ingredients to make products. Essential oils pose significant sustainability challenges as they require a lot of land and plant matter for a very small yield. Take the Boswellia tree, which is being overexploited to keep up with the demand for frankincense, or the Brazilian rosewood tree, which requires an entire tree be felled for a nominal amount of oil.

“There are instances where synthetic ingredients may be more sustainable than natural ingredients, and instances where use of a renewable natural resource isn’t sustainable,” says Dr. Tracy Fanara, environmental engineer. A synthetic vanilla scent for instance, may be more sustainable than growing vanilla, and while palm oil may be renewable, it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. (In fact, the controversial ecological issues surrounding palm oil are well established.)

Avoiding the overexploitation and depletion of natural resources is one area where lab-synthesized ingredients may have the upper hand over their natural counterparts, but determining if a lab-synthesized ingredient is more environmentally friendly overall requires a closer look under the hood.

Dallmeier points out that a life cycle assessment must be undertaken to compare apples to apples and assess each ingredient’s footprint. Dr. Fanara adds that the process involves comparing ingredients at each stage, from cradle to grave, to determine water and energy costs, as well as the impact on natural environments as well as waste produced during the sourcing, manufacturing and packaging processes. “This would create some work in the beginning, but would give a company and consumer a clear understanding of real efforts made towards sustainability,” says Dr. Fanara.

Sustainable Skin Care & Economic Livelihood

Sustainable development should be viewed in terms of what Dallmeier refers to as the “three-legged stool” of people, planet, and profit — if one leg is missing the stool falls over. If two legs are missing because you’re only focusing on profit, there’s no stool. “Sustainability needs to be viewed as a balancing act between environmental justice, social responsibility, and economic viability, where beauty products are consumed in such a way that doesn’t compromise the needs of future generations,” says Dallmeier.

The sustainability of an ingredient not only depends on the ecological sustainability, but also relies on the communities around that ingredient being able to continue with their traditions and cultures. Consider ingredients like shea butter, seaweed, coconut oil, moringa oil, and other cooperatives where people’s livelihoods depend on producing these plant-based ingredients. According to Dallmeier, ensuring a sustainable trade of such plants may actually lead to them being protected further for generations, enhancing biodiversity and driving environmental conservation.

Sustainable Skin Care & Biotechnology

Biotechnology is ushering in a new future for beauty, providing opportunities to create effective, active ingredients that are safe for humans and the environment. In case you’re not familiar, the process reproduces natural molecules obtained from microorganisms in a lab through bio-fermentation and genetic engineering techniques. Bacteria, yeast, and algae are commonly used in biotechnology to create skin care ingredients.

One Ocean Beauty is one such beauty brand that is embracing biotech, formulating its marine-inspired skin care with conservation of the ocean’s precious resources in mind, using what they call blue biotechnology. Using this method, they reproduce molecules obtained from living marine microorganisms in a lab without negatively impacting the marine environment and its biodiversity. Biossance uses similar innovation to produce a 100% sugarcane-derived bio-identical squalene without the environmental impact of shark liver harvesting.

“Biotechnology certainly has great potential for the beauty industry and I feel quite excited about the possibilities for using this ingredient synthesis technique to sustainably create ingredients,” says Dallmeier. However, she cautions that you simply cannot say that just because an ingredient has been synthesized using biotechnology that it is therefore automatically more sustainable than its natural counterpart. “It depends on how ingredients are synthesized, manufactured, processed, and shipped,” she adds.

Determining What Ingredients Are More Sustainable

“It is hard to take a side in the debate when you are looking at the high-level category of natural vs. synthetic,” says Kimberly Shenk, co-founder and CEO of Novi Connect. “But when you peel back the onion and look at the data on each individual raw material, brands can start to incorporate the nuances into their ingredient selection.” Novi’s data-driven sourcing platform of over 50,000 sustainable raw materials helps make the product development cycle transparent, fair, and sustainable; leveraging data that assesses ingredients to their source.

Novi’s assessments look at responsible sourcing and upcycling; end-of-life impact; materials that are produced using renewable energy and limited water consumption; society and ethics including fair trade, and more. Products developed leveraging the platform help increase the volume of sustainable products on store shelves and give consumers some peace of mind knowing the ingredients in the bottle (natural or synthetic) meet the sustainability standards they care about.

The Bottom Line On Natural Vs. Synthetic Ingredients

In Dallmeier’s view, the sustainable beauty conversation makes sustainability sound far too simplistic, necessitating the need for more informed nuance to the debate.

Assessing the sustainability of an ingredient isn’t as simple as just looking at its natural or synthetic origins — it involves investigating each ingredient on a case-by-case basis, delving into the story behind that ingredient and backing it up with hard data. There are times when a natural ingredient will be more sustainable and there are times when a synthetic ingredient will be more sustainable. It requires looking at an ingredient at every stage of its life cycle.

Dr. Fanara urges consumers to do their research, paying attention to the ingredients in products. Seek out brands who place sustainability at the core of their mission and values, and who are transparent about where and how they source ingredients. The best thing consumers can do is align themselves with brands that are putting in the work to be environmentally responsible, and being open and transparent in their pursuits to develop sustainable products.