Cosmetic Ingredients – Natural or Synthetic?

natural versus synthetic

Since at least the nineties and arguably even before that, the trend has been towards making personal care products that are as natural as possible. The cosmetics business has gone green, both metaphorically and in the case of the labels often literally too.  In fact at one point all the labels in the Body Shop were green.  ‘Natural’ has become the marketers’ adjective of choice.  The Body Shop was of course a pathfinder and pioneer in the world of natural cosmetics in the seventies, but the mainstream was close on its heels. You only needed to turn the television on to see this.  Timotei ran adverts that were designed to suggest that their raw materials included wicker baskets full of wild flowers gathered by a blond woman in her nightdress.

The origin of this trend can probably be traced back to Rachel Carson’s enormously influential book Silent Spring and the environmental movement that it spawned. Environmentalism started out as a very radical notion that challenged the very tenets of society and its obsession with unsustainable consumerism. But over time it has morphed into more of a set of values that determines what you consume rather than how much.  Once it started to be a factor at the till, the industry  as a whole became a convert to greenery.  I remember one trade fair I visited in the early nineties where the chemical suppliers had covered their stands with so many pot plants and bamboo screens that one would have not been surprised to see a Japanese soldier emerge from them unaware that the war had ended.

Green brands and green claims soon started to appear and continue to proliferate to this day. The natural product sector emerged and it still thrives.

So there are probably consumers out there who are under the impression that natural products are made with natural ingredients and that they are distinctly different to conventional ones that are synthetic through and through. But things look very different from the formulation bench. Natural ingredients have always played a big role in the cosmetic industry. In fact the industry predates the development of synthetic chemistry and a great many ingredients have simply never been changed.

There is of course no universally accepted definition of what it actually means to be natural. Logically it is quite possible to argue that everything is natural, or that nothing is natural. But anyone who thinks that a sales pitch needs to take any account whatever of logic has, frankly, not been paying attention.  While nobody can tell you exactly what is natural and what is synthetic in any rigorous way, and although there are some pretty big grey areas, I think it is usually possible to put most cosmetic ingredients into one category or the other.

The reality is that most product formulations are a bit of a mixture. There are a lot of very natural materials that are basic components of every formulators toolkit. Equally most products that are marketed as natural contain some flagrantly synthetic additives. In fact as a formulator you can’t really tell from the ingredient list whether a product is supposed to be natural or not.

Lets have a look at the ingredients of a popular Mac lipstick to see how things actually work (we’ll ignore the actual pigments: they are another interesting story in themselves). This is a very popular base. Last year I did a survey of what products beauty bloggers were talking about. The Mac brand was the clear winner and their lipsticks are their most iconic products. So I think we confidently call this one a hit. Mac as a brand sells itself on quality and style and doesn’t trouble itself with how natural it is. Let’s see what they use to achieve their success.

Castor Oil is natural enough, although the castor seeds from which it is extracted contain ricin which although undoubtedly natural is one of the most deadly poisons known.  Luckily the processors know how to get rid of it, so the stuff that gets onto your lips is safe.  Work has been done to genetically modify the beans so the ricin is not produced in the first place.  It is interesting to note that this means there will probably one day be a genetically modified crop that is clearly and unambiguously safer than its unmodified predecessor.  Castor oil’s lubricity makes it a very logical base for a rich and luxurious lip experience.

Trioctyldodecyl Citrate is a completely synthetic branched ester.  Branched esters generally have a velvety feel on the skin.  The most widely used is isopropyl myristate but there are a huge number of options to choose from.

Glyceryl Triacetyl Hydroxystearate is another synthetic branched ester.  It would be interesting to know just how many of these kinds of materials the team formulating the product tried out before they settled on the ones that gave them just what they were looking for.  I imagine it was quite a few.

Candelilla Wax comes from a shrub that grows in Mexico making it clearly natural.  It is extracted from the leaves by boiling them in dilute sulfuric acid.  Its main contribution to the formulation is to harden it without affecting the melting point.

Octyldodecanol is a long chain synthetic alcohol with a bit of branching, again it probably contributes to the lubricious feel of the stick on the lips.  This is a subtle business- you need enough drag for precision application of the pigment, but you don’t want it to actually be difficult to pull.

Jojoba Oil is a vegetable oil with a unique ester rich chemical composition. It has been described as a sort of liquid beeswax (of which more shortly).  Jojoba oil is genuinely a really natural product by any way that you look at it.  In living memory it was harvested from wild growing shrubs, but the huge demand from the cosmetic industry necessitated formal cultivation.  I am sure there are other crops that have been cultivated for the first time in the last hundred years, but it is the only one I can think of.  Jojoba has a number of unique qualities that have kept it in use long after it has ceased to be fashionable in its own right. The one that lends itself to lipstick formulation is its rather peculiar insensitivity to temperature.  Most oils get thinner as they get warmer.  (You can confirm this yourself if next time you fry an egg you use pure olive oil.  You will notice that it gets a lot more mobile as it heats up.)  Jojoba stabilises the final formulation from changes in temperature, a handy feature for an international brand.

Cera Alba is better known as beeswax. Everybody knows the way beeswax is made, so we all know that this is a natural product. At the moment bees are in the news for the wrong reasons.  A pesticide is being blamed for killing them off.  This might well mean that consumers might be turned off a product that exploits them.  But most of the time using a natural product like beeswax ought to be a gift to the marketing department. Maybe it is familiarity, but no company I know of turns the presence of beeswax in their lipstick into a marketing point.  But that probably isn’t what makes it appealing in this instance.  The thing that beeswax is great at is conferring water resistance.  Anyone who has ever tried washing out a glass beaker that has contained melted beeswax can vouch for this – water simply doesn’t touch it.  What is bad news for lab technicians is good news for lipstick wearers who don’t want to have to reapply after every cup of coffee.

Sesame Oil is another natural oil being derived from sesame seeds.  It is one of the lighter oils and it probably got in here to tone down the heaviness of the castor oil a little.  The trick is to come up with a well balanced formulation.

Ozokerite is a sort of fossilised paraffin wax.  I suppose it represents a stage on the way to the formation of coal.  Unlike coal where more or less only carbon remains, ozokerite is still a hydrocarbon and needs only a little processing after it is mined to produce the wax.

Carnauba Wax comes from the wax palm grown in Brazil. It is exuded from the plant onto its leaves and is simply beaten off of it on the plantation.  I was surprised to find that only about 20,000 tonnes of it are harvested annually, because it has a great many uses and turns up all over the place.  It gives a hard shiny coat which is much more durable than most of the alternatives.  It does this with a really thin coating which perhaps explains why a little of it goes so far. The use which is most familiar to most people is as the shiny coating on sweets/candies like M&Ms.  It’s main use in lipsticks is to get the right melting point, but I imagine it helps with the film formation as well.

Cetyl Ricinoleate is a synthetic derivative of castor oil.  This is one of those materials that is in the grey area between natural and synthetic.  It is certainly derived from natural sources, but those natural precursors have been turned into something that has rarely if ever occurred in nature. It is yet another branched ester so is probably here mainly for the skin feel.

Microcrystalline Wax is a hard solid form of paraffin wax.  This is a long way down the ingredient list and so we can presume there is not too much of it in the formulation.  But it might well play a key role modulating the melting point.  This stuff is the antithesis of natural.  It is basically a hard form of paraffin distilled specifically to produce a solid wax.  It is colourless, odourless and to all intents and purposes completely stable.  In theory it comes from a finite resource, so is unsustainable in the long run.  But the amount used in lipsticks is so tiny in relation to the size of the petrochemical industry that this is not really a consideration.  There are no conceivable toxicity issues with it. It is wax, and as pure and simple a wax as you can imagine.  But it seems to do the job.

Ascorbyl Palmitate is an oil based antioxidant. I’d regard this as pretty synthetic but you see it on ingredient lists with the name vitamin C added, which sounds a bit natural.  There are plenty of unsaturated bonds n the natural oils in this lipstick that need protecting from oxidative damage and the off odours that gives rise to.

Vanillin – as its name suggests this has a vanilla flavour and odour.  It is a terpene-like aromatic alcohol  that is found in vanlila itself (I think of it as a terpene but its benzene ring means it doesn’t quite meet the criteria for being a member of the terpene family.)   It is popular with users who like the smell.  Somebody  on Twitter went so far as to comment “the vanilla ice cream smell of mac lipstick fully turns me on. it’s an actually fetish i swear”.  This is perhaps at the extreme end of the reaction scale, but suffice to say lots of people like it.

Tocopherol –  is a natural antioxidant.  Tocopherol is the official name you have to list it as, but you could educate consumers about it by calling it vitamin E.  Vitamin E plays the same role in this formulation as it does in the skin.  It scavenges the free radicals that are responsible for breaking the bonds in the molecules.  So vitamin E protects the lipstick from decaying over time, and could do the same for the skin to which it is applied.  But you might just settle for knowing that the lipstick will have a reasonable shelf life with a splash of tocopherol to stop the oils going off too quickly.

So to conclude, this very popular lipstick has an eclectic mixture of the very natural and the very synthetic.  The origin of the materials doesn’t seem to have been a factor in their selection.  They have concentrated on picking the best tool for the job.  As it happens, the bulk of the constituents  are natural and sustainable.  In the hands of those creative folks in marketing departments this lipstick could easily be made to sound like something so wholesome you’d rather spread it on a slice of wholemeal bread than on your lips. It is certainly a lot greener than say a shampoo whose only nod in the direction of the environment is some essence of some herb.

But I think the Mac team are wise in steering clear of the naturalness of their product in their promotion.  Fashions can change very quickly. A lot of products that make a big play of their natural credentials aren’t necessarily all that good.  This is something the consumers might begin to notice. Or more likely, they just won’t buy them again if they don’t enjoy them. But good formulations will always find fans.  By selecting the best functional ingredients they have created a product that people want to use again and again.

I think there is a lesson here for all of us engaged in product development.   At the end of the day how comforting the ingredient list reads is not that big a factor.  It is what the ingredients do that is important.  There are some great natural raw materials available, particularly when you are looking at waxes and butters. As this Mac lipstick shows, natural waxes can be the bedrock of a great formulation. But make sure you are using them because they are great, not because they are natural.

If you are interested in formulating products generally, not just natural ones, join our Beauty Launch Bootcamp community on Facebook.
This article was originally written for Personal Care Europe, a trade magazine, but unfortunately I missed the deadline.

4 thoughts on “Cosmetic Ingredients – Natural or Synthetic?”

  1. I really liked your ingredient breakdown Colin. You write in a very cogent way about the balance of performance and the origins of the raw materials.

    One of the things that I noticed when performing project research is that a vast number of consumers are absolutely in love with the ideas of natural and organic, but their purchasing behaviours suggest they love the performance of synthetics even more.

  2. Wow, this was incredibly informative. I really appreciate the deeper breakdown of each ingredient. I’m incredibly excited to have a look around your site now!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.