What are natural, chemical-free cosmetics?

Written by Marisa Conde on Sep 22, 22

Many green and mainstream brands today use important and trendy keywords such as natural, handmade, without chemicals, among others. We all have an idea what they are all about, but what do they really mean? And most of all are they all really 100% good or is it more nuanced than that? And did you know what hyaluronic acid and retinol do? Read on to find out!

As the natural cosmetics niche is growing at the speed of light, more brands are claiming to use more natural and sustainable ingredients in their formulations. Is this true or merely green washing? Despite consumers getting more aware of the connection between their health and environmental restoration nobody knows exactly what we are talking about when we refer to these concepts, and lots of brands use it to their advantage to make unsupported claims that are attractive marketing wise.

Since we started Primal Essence, we are frequently asked if chemicals should be avoided, if there is such a thing as ‘good chemicals’, and what is the meaning of the word ‘natural’. We don't have the presumption to state that we have all the answers to these controversial questions, but we will try to demystify some of these concepts and reply according to our best knowledge and field experience. Let's dive in!

Why shouldn't I use chemicals? What's the problem?

Some brands use the term ‘chemical-free’ to describe their natural beauty products. This is inaccurate, as everything is a chemical – water, for example, is a chemical composed of 2 molecules of hydrogen and a molecule of oxygen (H2O). Therefore, chemical-free products do not exist! We believe it’s more accurate to use the term “synthetic” instead of “chemical”.

"Good synthetics": naturally-derived ingredients, such as Vitamin A, which is found in plant sources, has been molecularly replicated in a lab to produce similar results. Especially useful for the production of plant-based materials to avoid animal-derived ones. Some examples which are commonly used in skincare products include:

  • Retinol: synthetic Vitamin A that helps reduce the appearance of wrinkles, dark spots, and signs of ageing;
  • Hyaluronic Acid: recreated from skin tissue to hydrate the skin;
  • Salicylic Acid: occurs naturally in plants, but increasingly reproduced synthetically for effective exfoliation;
  • Peptides: amino acids that send signals to the skin cells to produce more collagen. Its downside is that it is usually not vegan (found mostly in hair, skin, nails, bones, and ligaments, and comes mostly from animal sources, such as beef or fish). The good news is that collagen can now be made by using genetically modified yeast and bacteria! 

Harmful synthetics”: have been linked to irritations of the skin and the mucous membranes, several types of cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormonal and endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, infertility, altered reproductive development, neurodevelopmental issues, asthma and eczema.

Harmful synthetics to avoid:

    • Formaldehyde /PEGs/ Sulphates/ Artificial dyes/ Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Artificial Fragrances, Triclosan, Polyacrylamine, Nitosamines, Phthalates.

Right!...but what's the meaning of 'Natural', after all?

Regarding the concept of ‘natural cosmetics’, technically there’s no legal definition for “Natural Skincare”. One of the problems is that natural means different things to different people. However, generally, it implies that the products are formulated with ingredients found in nature, often from plants, such as botanical oils, OR are naturally derived. This is when the word ‘natural’ can be challenging, as what is natural for some might not be natural for others.

    The best definition of what is Natural in cosmetics that we know belongs and was redefined by Formula Botanica

    • a natural ingredient as being picked directly from nature and having undergone no chemical processing, 
    • whereas others take a more pragmatic view and are happy to accept some laboratorial processing if they’re going to use a naturally derived emulsifier or preservative.

    Nature sourced ingredients, such as plant oils, are similar in composition to the lipids oils on our skin, and due to this natural affinity, are easier metabolised and absorbed by our body. This is particularly relevant for dry skin where essential fatty acids are depleted. Natural vegetable or plant oils will replenish the skin with those fatty acids, improving the condition of the skin at a deeper level. Plus, natural plant and vegetable oils incorporate antioxidants, which are of huge benefit to the skin.

    “Synthetic skincare” means products contain laboratory and scientifically derived ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, for example. The formulas are made using chemical copies of natural ingredients.

    In conclusion, it’s not all black and white, there is only a spectrum of what natural means and how all of us interpret this definition!

    There is so much more to say regarding these questions like the use of palm oil in cosmetics, where are we standing regarding what has been stated, the differences between natural handmade cosmetics and large scale produced natural cosmetics.

    We are always thrilled to shed light on these important choices we all make on a daily basis and especially when comes to skincare products. We will publish more such content in the future so stay tuned!