MY THOUGHTS: The Natural vs. Synthetic Binary

by - June 05, 2019

As I've been thinking about how I want to make little changes to this blog so that I'm more personally satisfied with what I'm putting out, I've really felt inclined to write more about my feelings on the state of the beauty community and the beauty industry. Smatterings of these things may have popped up in blog posts before, but I really felt like since this is my space and these are things that I feel pretty strongly about they were worth writing down and sharing here. I have a feeling this will end up being a bit of a series here on the blog, but to start with I wanted to really dig into something that has been niggling at me for a while now.

I feel like more and more, with the rise of "clean" beauty we've seen a really firm binary being cemented and accepted and it's been really bothering me. The problem with binary thinking on pretty much anything is that it obliterates nuance and context and boils everything down to a basic, easy-to-understand but often incomplete or even incorrect picture of what's going on. When it comes to the question of Natural Ingredients vs. Synthetic or Manmade Ingredients, I genuinely believe there's no answer to the question of which is better because ultimately we're asking the wrong questions.

Keep reading for more!

First off, when the argument is presented that natural ingredients are better, safer, etc. than chemical ones it fails immediately based on... you know, the fact that everything is chemicals. Contrary to Food Babe's assertion that, "If a third grader can't pronounce it, don't eat it," it's not that simple. There are a lot of completely benign natural ingredients whose chemical names would be impossible for anyone without a chemistry degree to pronounce, and conversely pretty simple words for pretty dangerous things. Defaulting to how scary the name for an ingredient sounds does little to actually protect you from harm. But I digress.

The argument that I really want to speak to is Natural vs. Synthetic, because that's actually the accurate one, though I still find it to be somewhat useless at the end of the day. The reality is that, like most things, it's complicated and there isn't a black and white answer. Both categories contain ingredients that are safe and efficacious as well as ingredients that are unsafe and ineffective. That's just a fact. The argument that natural is better because, you know, it's natural doesn't really hold up when you actually examine it critically and that way of thinking can also be really damaging.

For example, Gwyneth Paltrow has a pretty significant following and she's literally quoted as saying, "I don't think anything that is natural can be bad for you," in reference to the sun - which, let's be VERY clear, is both necessary to human survival and also very, very bad for you. The idea that something being naturally occurring means that it's safe is both factually incorrect and a really, really dangerous idea that's becoming more and more pervasive. I mean, the list of examples of naturally occurring things that are toxic - toxic like actually toxic and not "toxic" in the way that people misuse the word to mean anything not naturally occurring or maybe not good for you - is as long as my arm. And ultimately, even though I think we can all agree that all Gwyneth did with her statement about the sun is prove her idocy, the sentiment is pervasive when it comes to this argument.

Personally, I've been finding myself annoyed with the moniker "Clean Beauty" because it's ill defined and seems to mean different things to different people, used as a marketing term more than an actual industry standard. (Amusingly, I paused after typing that last sentence and popped over to check my email and found one with Clean Beauty in the subject line and inside a list of natural beauty products... timely.) Depending on what you're looking for, whether it's safety, cruelty free, eco-friendly, ethical, or all of the above, there's really no guarantee that you're getting what you're looking for just because a product is touted as being "Clean". I feel like, until there's a firm definition for Clean Beauty based on evidence, it's really just a marketing term intended to comfort rather than inform consumers.

Another issue that I have is the assumption that natural alternatives to synthetic ingredients are just as good. Don't get me wrong, if you show me clinical evidence (in this context, if there is clinical evidence for the synthetic, I have pretty much no use for anecdotal evidence) that the natural alternative is just as effective and just as stable... cool! I'm certainly not asserting that only synthesized ingredients are effective. The problem is when companies start asserting that you'll get the same results from their natural alternative as you would with a well studied synthesized ingredient without actually proving it - and there really is nothing stopping them from making those claims. I think we have to have the same burden of evidence for both efficacy and safety regardless of the origin of the ingredient, because neither of those things are foregone conclusions. Regardless of origin, ingredients should have to be tested for safety and efficacy.

Here's the thing... This stuff is complicated and I get that complicated can be a pain in the ass and our brains tends to like being able to categorize things, which is why the whole problem of black and white thinking exists, but I believe that the fact that it's complicated needs to be acknowledged. Don't get me wrong, if you use only all natural products, I'm not going to judge or try to sway you from your choices, but I think we do have to be intellectually honest about the fact that being natural does not automatically make a product safer or better than something containing synthetics. That intellectual honesty and acknowledgement will not only combat dishonest marketing practices and misinformation, but I genuinely believe that it'll lead to a better, safer beauty industry over all.

It kind of makes me sad that I need to clarify this, but I know that I do. I am not saying that natural products are bad or that they don't work. There are all kinds of natural and organic products that I use or have used and really, really love. Nothing about this is taking aim at natural products. In fact, that's sort of the whole point. I don't think that it's a one versus the other situation. What I'm trying to communicate is that I don't think it's fair or accurate to hold a blanket bias against products based on whether their ingredients are natural or manmade because that's a fallacy. Ultimately, I just feel like it's really time that we acknowledge that the debate of natural vs. manmade takes away from bigger, more important issues when it comes to beauty products. Rather than shoving ingredients into two distinct categories and arbitrarily declaring one better than the other, we need to focus on evidence to prove efficacy and safety when it comes to those ingredients.

I guess what I'm really saying with this post is that I believe that we, as consumers, deserve honest marketing that relies on evidence and truth rather than appeals to a dishonest binary rooted in cognitive bias and the appeals to nature fallacy. For me, it's incredibly important that the products I use are safe, effective, ethically sourced and environmentally friendly and I try to be diligent in understanding ingredients lists and making purchasing decisions based on those factors. I don't want the waters muddied by an oversimplified and incomplete picture when I'm making the decision on what to buy.

I hope you guys enjoyed this and I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Also, if you'd like to see more of these My Thoughts types of posts, let me know because I definitely... have a lot of thoughts on the state of the beauty community and industry.

Thanks for reading! Seriously, if you got this far, I really, really appreciate it!

You May Also Like