Green Beauty Doesn't Always Mean All-Natural — Allow Us To Explain
Listen, I think we're long past the notion that clean beauty is anti-synthetics. Just because an ingredient was made in a lab doesn't automatically make it "toxic," and we don't cower from the word "chemical," either—water is a chemical! Yes, we do tend to stay away from certain synthetics in the clean beauty space, due to some skin and environmental concerns. But guess what? Some all-natural ingredients carry those same concerns, too.
Clean and sustainable beauty, to us, means respect—both to our bodies and the ecosystems around us. And just because an ingredient comes from the earth doesn't give it a gold star, which is why we lend a critical eye to both natural extracts and lab-derived synthetics (and actually use a blend of both for our own personal care line; more on that later).
That being said, the "natural versus synthetic" debate continues to buzz around social media, and there's still a lot of misinformation out there. This likely comes as no shock, but a ton of context often gets left out from a 60-second TikTok; so allow us to set the record straight.
Natural ingredients are not always sustainable.
To make sure a natural ingredient is truly sustainable, brands must consider a few criteria: The actual harvesting and planting methods, sourcing, and the labor and ethics involved. It's a tall order, and it's possible for any ingredient (natural or synthetic) to not make the cut.
Let's start with harvesting and planting: "You can have something that is natural and even has a really good safety profile, but it can be grown or created in a way that is not sustainable," notes Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact at Credo. Perhaps the most famous example is palm oil; in terms of skin safety, it's generally well-tolerated and thus popular in many personal care items, but planting and harvesting palm can wreak havoc on the surrounding ecosystems. "It's often planted in plantation-style farms," says Davis. "So [people] get rid of all these wonderful native plants that are necessary for a healthy ecosystem and plant palm." Essentially, because the consumer demand is so high (you can find it in nearly half of all packaged products), we create these monocultures that reduce the natural biodiversity of the forests.
Some natural ingredients also take a large amount of natural resources during the harvesting or extracting process. Take "thirsty crops," for example: "Certain crops in the world take a crazy amount of water in order to grow," says clean cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline. "Sugar cane, rice, and soy are classified as thirsty crops." Pure vanilla bean also famously takes a lot of water to grow and extract—according to the Water Footprint Network, it can take up to 126,505 liters of water (around 33,000 gallons) to produce 1 kilogram of vanilla beans.
And to produce an ingredient on such a large (sometimes global) scale, brands need a lot—like, loads—of the plant to meet the demand. This is often the case with natural fragrances: "It can take 50 roses to make a single drop of rose essential oil," says board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., in a recent TikTok, so imagine how many roses it would take to create an entire sweet-smelling face cream—let alone hundreds to distribute across the country. Not to mention, some fruit essential oils, namely citrus, are way too strong for the skin (remember: Our clean beauty philosophy emphasizes safe ingredients for your skin and the planet).
To give you a quick peek behind the curtain, we knew that bergamot essential oil—which comes from citrus fruit—can be way too acidic and disruptive for those with sensitive skin. So for our neroli postbiotic body lotion, we chose to include a responsible synthetic variation of bergamot in our fragrance blend, along with naturally derived bitter orange flower extract—a gentler, calming botanical that's appropriate for sensitive skin. All that to say, some fragrance formats are better for the environment and your skin, so it's important for brands to think critically about the types they use for various notes.
Finally, if sourcing a natural ingredient exploits a certain community or relies on unfair labor practices, it's not sustainable, period and full stop. To quickly circle back to the palm oil example: As the demand grows and more and more acres are dedicated to palm, native people living in these forests can be forced from their homes without any form of repayment, which adds another layer to palm oil's sustainability problem.
"Fair wages are also a big piece of sourcing sustainably," notes Jeannie Jarnot, founder and CEO of Beauty Heroes. "Is it sustainable for cultures?" If the answer is no, a responsible synthetic might be the better plan of action.
Natural ingredients & their synthetic alternatives.
But clean beauty is nothing if not creative! The industry still has a ways to go, but some exciting new green chemistry is starting to make a splash on the scene. Yes, these lab-derived alternatives are synthetic, but they may be even safer for the environment. Here's how biotech approaches the Big Three:
It is technically possible to responsibly source palm oil (just look for "RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil" on the label), but there are new ways to take the ingredient completely out of the equation. Davis references a company called C16 Biosciences, which brews a sustainable alternative to palm oil using its microbes. "They are basically fermenting palm oil in a laboratory," she notes, and creating a derivative we can then use in beauty products. While it's not commonly seen on the market right now ("They've been working on it for years, and it takes a while to commercialize something like this," Davis says), the future is certainly bright.
Another company called P2 Science uses terpene chemistry to take the upcycled building blocks of plants and assemble them into new materials. "This technology can assemble terpene molecules end-on-end in a linear fashion in a way that's never been done before," Patrick Foley, Ph.D., P2's founder and chief innovation officer, tells me. They can then tweak the resulting fluid to have the same look and feel as some of the industry's most classically unsustainable ingredients, like petrolatum, silicones, and, yes, palm oil. You can learn more about their Citropol technology here.
Rose oil & other natural fragrances
Some brands also rely on terpene technology to achieve gorgeous floral scent profiles. "There's this supplier called Custom Essence, and what they do is they extract the terpenes that make roses smell like roses. They make them in a lab and reproduce them to make a rose scent," says Koestline. Additionally, P2 uses terpenes technology to build renewable aromas. Their BioNonanal™ note, for example, is 100% made from sustainable vegetable oils and offers a citrus, rosy scent.
In our body lotion's neroli fragrance, we use a sophisticated variety of natural extracts, essential oils, and synthetics. For example, to achieve the robust neroli note, we used not only a neroli essential oil, but we layered in a terpene variation extracted from pine trees (a natural resource more widely available than its flower counterpart). And to make our blend, we worked with a French-based, family-owned fragrance house that specializes in natural, sustainable, and clean ingredients. So much so that the house has even been awarded the gold medal of the Ecovadis certification for sustainability and social responsibility—joining the top 5% of rated companies.
Like rose oil, pure vanilla bean takes quite a lot of natural resources to extract and maintain—which is why many brands turn to a synthetic alternative. In fact: "Most of the products right now in the market do not use real vanilla; they use vanillin," says Koestline, which is the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans. "It's safe and much more sustainable than vanilla."
However, the vanillin Koestline is referring to comes from plant-based sources like pine bark and rice bran. It is possible to source vanillin from petrochemicals—and petroleum-derived ingredients come with their own environmental concerns. That being said, make sure the synthetic vanillin on your labels comes from a sustainable plant-based source.
The sustainable beauty conversation can grow dim rather quickly, and a lot of the burden is placed on the consumer, so let me just say: You're doing a great job. This is a difficult space to navigate, so feel free to use this guide as a reference for responsible synthetics—and stay tuned for any updates on the biotechnology front. But overall, just because you see a long, science-y word on the label doesn't always mean it's scary. In some cases, it really is the more sustainable option.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.