The Truth About Natural and Synthetic Ingredients

Everything is made of chemicals. The water we drink, the food we eat, the world around us is comprised of tiny atoms, then bonded molecules, then so on, and so on, swirling around us at any given moment. The clean beauty conversation focuses heavily on the distinction between ingredients that are “chemical” (or synthetic) vs. “natural.” “Chemical” sounds, frankly put, scary. Clean beauty aficionados are justifiably cautious about what to use and what not to use. If the makeup you wear is a personal choice, the formulas you favor are too. But, as Keri Biddicombe, a research and development collaborator at Victoria Beckham Beauty, explains, synthetic ingredients are often saddled with a bad rap, and the benefits of natural ingredients are frequently oversimplified and overstated.

“The terms ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ are undefined by any agency or governing body, which allows brands to develop their own definition,” says Keri. “The lack of standards and the erroneous interchanging of these two terms has caused a lot of confusion among consumers, and has facilitated the notion that “natural” must somehow be better for you than not natural, or synthetic ingredients.” Clean beauty doesn’t necessarily mean “natural” beauty in practice.

In cosmetics, a purely ‘natural’ approach can introduce its own complications. Extracting a plant-based ingredient straight from its source requires a significant amount of energy, with little yield in return. In some cases, the ingredient still needs to be processed, purified, and distilled. The final product isn’t always 100% pure every time (although it can be marketed as such). Many plant substances bring in impurities or contain other bits that can cause irritation or allergic reactions for those with sensitive skin. Changing environmental conditions also make it more difficult to rely on natural materials and their performance. If an ingredient’s environment changes, it can create inconsistencies in the active molecules. This means an ingredient may not look or perform the same way every time. Plus, favoring ingredients found in nature can lead to overharvesting, which can have serious environmental implications. 

The word ‘synthetics’ sounds artificial or harmful, but simply put, they’re just ingredients that are developed or modified by humans. In sharp contrast to the ‘natural’ landscape, synthetic materials are often more pure because the conditions are more controlled. This process eliminates microbes or impurities, concentrates active ingredients for effectiveness, creates more consistency (thereby reducing the risk of allergic reactions), and in many cases, the use of synthetics is a more sustainable option that’s less likely to lead to overharvesting. When products are made responsibly, it can also have less impact on the environment. A prime example: mica, the mineral with loads of shine widely used in cosmetics, can be naturally harvested. But, in recent years, a host of ethical and environmental concerns about the way natural mica is mined and supplied was uncovered. Synthetic or lab-made mica is a solution for brands to make products that glimmer in a more sustainable and responsible way. It’s this approach Victoria Beckham Beauty took to formulating Lid Lustre (many can attest to its otherworldly shine).

When it came to formulating Victoria Beckham Beauty, the product innovation team found that a balanced approach is best. “What we at VBB have focused is whether we have the ideal combination of both types of materials (natural and synthetic) to create a product with luxury performance and evidence-based results.” It bears repeating that chemicals aren’t foreign or to be feared, after all, the earth is made of them. As long as brands stay diligent about the synthetic and natural materials they choose (take a peek into VBB’s Ingredient Glossary for the nitty-gritty details), there’s no cause for concern.