The history of cosmetics spans at least 7,000 years and is present in almost every society on Earth. Archaeological evidence for the existence of cosmetics dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece. Some sources mention the use of castor oil in ancient Egypt as a protective conditioner and creams made from beeswax, olive oil and rose water, described by the Romans. Cosmetics are also mentioned in the Old Testament (Kings, approx.. 840 BC) and the book of Esther describes various beauty treatments. Cosmetics have also been used in ancient Rome, with some women known to have used lead-based makeup to whiten skin and antimony to outline their eyes.
With the rise of industrialization, the introduction of synthetic ingredients into cosmetics began. The development of cosmetics has been moving at an astounding rate over the last century – especially cosmetics based on synthetic ingredients which we shall refer to as regular or conventional cosmetics.
Natural cosmetics have become a major trend in recent years. People are caring more about what they put on their skin studying labels and ingredient lists, researching brands, and learning about the substances used in the cosmetics they purchase.
There is also a growing awareness that we are responsible for the world in which we live as well as an increasing concern for our own health. We try to use environmentally-friendly products that are safe and effective and as harmless as possible to the planet.
So, what are the major differences between regular and natural cosmetics?
REGULAR OR SYNTHETIC COSMETICS
The main difference between natural and regular or synthetic cosmetics is the ingredients. Generally, cosmetics are called natural if they contain ingredients from natural sources while regular cosmetics use mostly synthetic or chemical ingredients (often petroleum derivatives) and, in some cases, they may also include natural ingredients.
We will likely never conclusively know the effects of years of daily use of many of these chemicals & synthetic products. It’s impossible to study them in a controlled way, and the sheer number of ingredients we use on a daily basis makes it difficult to ever pinpoint a toxic smoking gun. Whereas most natural ingredients have been around for millennia and their effects are generally well known.
Some watchdog groups have become powerful in challenging the mainstream beauty & cosmetics establishment on the issue of safety. The EWG, established 25 years ago as a non-profit to look at pesticides and food, is arguably the most powerful one. But since then, it’s expanded to larger environmental and human health initiatives, including cosmetics. In 2004, the same year the breast cancer paraben study was released, the group published its first Skin Deep cosmetics database.
The EWG’s database contains more than 73,000 products and ingredients. Toxicologists, chemists and public health specialists review the data on ingredients, update it regularly and give them a rating for their potential hazards.
The Skin Deep® cosmetics database has become a go-to resource for consumers, a go-to reference for the media and a pain point for many cosmetics brands. But it’s been criticized for perceived fearmongering along the way by some cosmetic chemists and others, as well as for rating inconsistently and giving ratings when there is limited data available.
Here are some ingredients you can find in regular or conventional skin care, cosmetics and personal care products which can be a health concern:
- Preservatives. Synthetic preservatives are used to slow bacterial growth and prolong a product’s shelf life. This can keep a product from causing infections of the skin or eyes. They are a concern to many consumers.
- Artificial colorants. The bright colours of regular cosmetics depend on synthetic dyes and pigments. Natural cosmetics use natural sources instead.
- Artificial fragrances. Synthetic fragrances can be the most harmful part of a beauty product. They often contain chemicals that can cause an allergic reaction however the manufacturer does not have to list them.
- Heavy metals. While heavy metals like lead and arsenic are found in nature, they’re linked to health problems in high doses. Natural makeup should meet the safety limits for these ingredients.
- Surfactants. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, surfactants are found in products used for washing. They break up oily solvents produced by skin so they can be washed away with water. Surfactants are combined with additives like dyes, perfumes, and salts in products like foundation, shower gel, shampoo, and body lotion. They thicken products, allowing them to spread evenly and cleanse and foam.
- Conditioning polymers. These retain moisture on skin or in hair. Glycerine, a natural component of vegetable oils and animal fats, is produced synthetically in the cosmetics industry. It’s the oldest, cheapest, and most popular conditioning polymer. Conditioning polymers are used in hair products to attract water and soften hair while swelling the hair shaft. They keep products from drying out and stabilize fragrances to keep the scents from seeping through plastic bottles or tubes. They also make products like shaving cream feel smooth and slick, and they prevent them from sticking to your hand.
- Emulsifiers. Ingredients that don´t mix well (e.g. oil and water) require emulsifiers e.g. PEG (Polyethylene glycol), PPG (polypropylene glycol).
- Emollients. Used to improve cosmetic´s ability to spread and make the skin feel smooth and lubricated e.g. silicones, synthetic compounds such as isopropyl myristate.
- Other ingredients. Other ingredients that could be included in regular cosmetics include: benzalkonium chloride, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (such as aminophenol, diaminobenzene, and phenylenediamine), DMDM hydantoin and bronopol, formaldehyde, hydroquinone, methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, oxybenzone, parabens, propyl, isopropyl, butyl, and isobutylparabens, PEG/ceteareth/polyethylene compounds, petroleum distillates, phthalates, resorcinol, retinyl palmitate and retinol (vitamin A), toluene, triclosan and triclocarban.
NATURAL SKIN CARE & COSMETICS
There are many types of natural skin care & cosmetics, some of which include:
- Natural — Some of the ingredients come from nature (non-synthetic).
- 100% natural — All of the ingredients come from nature.
- Made with organic ingredients — The majority of the ingredients meet an organic standard, typically meaning that no synthetic pesticides are used in growing ingredients and that farming methods stress conservation.
- Organic — Almost all of the ingredients meet an organic standard.
- 100% organic — All of the ingredients meet an organic standard.
In general, the advantages of natural products include:
- Natural ingredients, often of organic origin
- Overall effectiveness: natural ingredients penetrate the skin safely and deeper (some chemicals can be harmful if absorbed through the skin)
- Reduced exposure to harmful synthetic / chemical ingredients
- Lower risk of skin irritation and allergies
- Safer for sensitive skin
- Contains natural skin-healthy ingredients
- No synthetic fragrances
- No synthetic ingredients (e.g. parabens, formaldehyde, phthalates, etc.)
- Cruelty-free, no animal testing
- Biodegradable and eco-friendly
- Cleaner production
- Recyclable packaging
- GMO and nanoparticle free
NATURAL VS REGULAR OR SYNTHETIC COSMETICS
Natural cosmetics typically contain a minimal (in some cases, none) amount of altered or synthetic substances.
Natural ingredients have been used traditionally for millennia and their application in topical creams, lotions and preparations within the traditional medicines and healing traditions of many cultures has been observed.
Over the last 20 years, clinical and laboratory studies have identified the benefits of an array of natural ingredients for skin care. A number of these ingredients and compounds are today being developed, used or considered not only for anti-aging effects, but also for use in dermatologic disorders such as atopic dermatitis, acne and rosacea.
Regular or conventional cosmetics are far more likely to produce allergies and skin reactions as they are based on synthetic petroleum derivatives and are fundamentally less effective than natural organic products. Furthermore, they typically contain synthetic preservatives, artificial colorants and fragrances and sometimes heavy metals.
However, regular cosmetics are typically considerably cheaper due to the high volume, fast industrial processes used and the low cost of most of the products. Natural cosmetics are usually batch produced, far more labour intensive and include ingredients that are considerably more expensive, resulting in a more expensive product. They typically also have a shorter shelf life due to the fact that preservatives are not used.
Summarizing, here are the pros and cons of both natural and regular cosmetics
Pros of natural cosmetics
- contain natural ingredients found in nature
- have fewer/no harmful synthetic ingredients
- generally safe to use on sensitive skin
- usually eco-friendly
Cons of natural cosmetics
- shorter shelf life from a lack of synthetic preservatives
- natural pigments less vibrant than synthetic dyes
- smaller shade/colour selections
- usually more expensive
Pros of regular cosmetics
- longer shelf-life
- brighter due to synthetic pigments
- larger shade/colour selection
- less expensive and widely available
Cons of regular cosmetics
- linked to unfavourable health effects
- contains more potentially harmful synthetic ingredients
- higher risk of allergic reactions
- may be harsh on sensitive skin
In either case, whether one chooses natural or regular cosmetics, it is wise to check whether ingredients in any product cause skin irritation or allergic reactions. Check the packaging to ensure that you’re not sensitive to the ingredients.
- Skin Deep® cosmetics and personal care ingredients database, EWG (Environmental Working Group).
- Leonard A, “The story of cosmetics”, 21Jul10, The story of Stuff Project.
- “For Nearly Half of U.S. Women Using Facial Skincare Products, Ingredients Determine their Purchases”, 18Sep17, NPD Group.
- Fowler JF, “Innovations in natural ingredients and their use in skin care”, 9Jun10, NLM (US National Library of Health), NIH (US National Institutes of Health).
- Editorial team, “Healthy cosmetics”, 6Jun16, HealthLine.
- Kirsten Nunez, “Everything you want to know about natural makeup”, 21Aug19, Healthline.