How did it all
The skin care market is difficult to
navigate as a consumer.
That fact need not be explained, but for the sake of
starting this article in the right direction it is useful. For
instance, if you read a claim that said something like this ‘You
don’t want any chemicals on your body, they are bad for your
health, most of them are toxic?you’d feel a bit uneasy, to say
the very least. If you read something else that said ‘Our
state-of-the-art research facility has created a miraculous
wrinkle-eraser after 20 years of research and development?you’d
be curious, if not delighted to try to see for yourself the
miracle at work. Both claims are intriguing in their own way, and
there’s nothing wrong with both not wanting dangerous chemicals
anywhere near your body, and desiring a bona fide wrinkle-eraser.
Behind such claims, you would expect at least a grain
of truth. The picture is much larger in fact. Skin care deals with
physiology of the skin, which is a rather messy business and still
an enigma in many ways. There is chemistry involved, there is also
health, ethics, profits, beliefs... it is indeed quite complicated. It is not even simply that synthetic is not good and natural is
great. If that were all, synthetic skin care would have long
become history. Since that has not yet happened, nor will it any
time soon, it would be useful to learn what is really behind that
In this article, I will focus on explaining what is the
fundamental difference between natural and synthetic skin care,
and how did the conflict arise. Once you have an understanding of
how things work, making a choice becomes much more comfortable.
Traditional wisdom has always had a strong hold on skin
care, and until relatively recently it was its sole domain. The
advent of skin care to an actual and highly profitable industry
occurred in the 20th century, when economic, scientific and
technological leaps forward created widely marketable goods of
mass consumption. In a relatively short time, what used to be a
small but consistent trade for pharmacists and herbalists over the
centuries, became a highly industrialized commodity and the
emphasis shifted over to marketing and wide distribution. Although
every field of human endeavor has been affected and invariably
altered by science and technology, the transition from compounded
to an industrial product in skin care has severed the ties with
tradition quite dramatically.
Whereas apothecaries and herbalists used plant and
animal extracts and materials in variety of ways, new skin care
focused on appearance of the product itself: it was homogenous,
fragranced and preserved so it could ship far and last long
periods of time, until it finally sold and was consumed. The
emphasis on the visual appeal brought the focus even more to the
actual packaging. Women were marching on towards consumerism, and
catchy labels, names and bottles competed for their attention, and
their wallets. The long history of skin care being exactly what
its name implied, a method of caring for the skin, was almost lost
in this exciting new world of opportunities. The shift was
dramatic: from simply prepared products in apothecary bottles and
jars that focused on benefiting the skin, skin care became pearly
white, baby blue or petal pink blob of cream in loud packaging
that benefited firstly and mostly shrewd business people.
In order to better understand how this happened, we
will need to explain some basics of the science of making skin
care products, i.e. cosmetic chemistry.
The 20th century brought
more attention to the packaging and appearance of skincare
The bread, butter & milk of skin
The basis for most skin care products is emulsion. Emulsion is a system in which oil and water (which do not mix),
with addition of an emulsifier, are able to very finely disperse
and create a uniform, milky structure, i.e. a cream. There are not
very many examples of natural emulsions, but there is one
intrinsic to mammals that everybody knows: milk. Milk can carry
all vital nutrients for newborns exactly because it is an
emulsion. Emulsions, being basically a contradiction (holding
uniformly two unwilling phases), are delicate systems but also
very powerful. As dual systems with oil and water phases,
emulsions can have both oil and water-soluble ingredients
dissolved in them, respectively, which no other system can. This
factor of ingredients being dissolved in their base is crucial,
since dissolved means biologically active. You could have the most
powerful ingredient in your hands, but if you can’t find the way
to dissolve it in your base, it is worthless.
The skin also needs both oil- and water-soluble
ingredients and their benefits are far and wide-ranging. Examples
of oil-soluble active ingredients are vitamins A, E, D, essential
oils, examples of water-soluble ingredients are vitamins again, B
complex, C, also plant extracts, fruit acids, etc.
All of this is biological; meaning, it explains the
value good ingredients have in caring for the skin. However, there
is another element to emulsions, or creams, that is no less
significant and has been exploited far more than any other
feature: emulsions are very pleasant on the skin and very well
There are two types of emulsions: oil-in-water (o/w)
and water-in-oil (w/o). The first has a higher water content, the
oil phase is dispersed in outer water phase, and this type is
generally of a “lighter?texture, while the second has higher
concentration of oil and is “heavier? To create a simplified
image: when water is the inner phase, its tiny droplets are
dispersed throughout the matrix of the oil phase, and the
opposite, when it is the outer phase, oil is finely dispersed
throughout the water structure.
Water and oil must be
finely dispersed to form an emulsion, so that the skin can
utilize the nutrients effectively. This is an example
of how water and oil do not mix on their own.
The conflict, the escalations and
the early battles
You may have missed a component of an emulsion
mentioned above, but without which there is no emulsion, thus no
cream, thus no skin care. The emulsifier. There are very few
naturally emulsifying agents in Nature. Of those that are
available, even fewer can create emulsions stable over a longer
period of time, meaning that the cream will not dissolve into
starting water and oil. Of those very, very few by now, fewer will
create emulsions that feel good on the skin, not tacky, sticky and
yucky. And finally, even when you’ve found the ones that work, and
some of them have been known forever, like Beeswax, Borax,
Lanolin, Spermaceti (this one is illegal and unethical since it
comes from whales but was used widely in the past), they will only
produce the ‘heavier?type of creams, more like ointments, i.e.
the water-in-oil emulsions, which have higher content of oil than
This is where the trouble and the rift between natural
and synthetic skin care occurred and turned such benevolent and
private activity of caring for one’s skin into a battlefield of
lifestyle, health and ethics. This is also where synthetic skin
care took the lead easily. Synthetic emulsifiers, of whom there
are very many varieties, are far superior to natural emulsifiers
in their ability to bind high quantities of water with low
percentage of oil and create stable and ‘light?emulsions.
To make things worse, these synthetic emulsions didn’t
feel badly on the skin at all, since as mentioned earlier,
emulsions are such interesting constructions that they simply feel
nice. Skin loves them. For instance, if you had a dry,
rough-patched skin exhausted by weather or other harsh conditions,
putting anything creamy on it would offer relief. How good the
product really was became secondary; it still made an improvement
compared to what was there before.
Even synthetic creams can
have a positive effect on dry skin. But is it actually
good for you?
How things got spoiled even more
There is yet another aspect to emulsions, or creams,
although not inherent or structural, which became prominent in
conditions of mass production and global markets, and is in dire
need of explaining: the preservatives.
Preservatives are needed in creams because of
the water content. Water is the basis of all life, including
microbial. While some microorganisms can exist even without air,
water is in everything that lives. The higher the content of
water, the greater susceptibility to germ proliferation. Creams do
not need to be sterile (sterile-environment that is absolutely
free of microorganisms of any kind), just as our food is not
sterile, nor is water that we drink, but do require a low count of
microorganisms. Creams are also used externally, on the skin,
which exists in the real world, along with germs. As everything
living will eventually expire, so do all creams have an expiration
date. From the moment skin care products are manufactured, the
countdown begins. Deterioration is slower in the product that is
tightly closed and unused, and accelerates when frequently opened
and touched. Without any preservatives, the creams would last up
to a week, more or less, if refrigerated somewhat longer (in this,
it is similar to a prepared food). Under the attack of both moulds
and bacteria, and without preservatives, the spoilage happens
quickly and inevitably.
Healthy skin can tolerate this onslaught of microbes in
an unpreserved product relatively well for a short period. However, skin that is having acne, or cuts, or is damaged and
sensitized in any other way, is much more vulnerable and can react
with infections to the cream with uncontrollable growth of
bacteria and moulds. Nobody really wants to, or should be put in a
situation where an individual’s skin is tested in these
conditions. What that means is that preservatives are in
It is important to distinguish what preservatives
really do. They essentially go against time and natural processes
for a while, until the product is either used up or spoiled,
whichever comes first. This function of preservatives is achieved
through their toxic effect on bacteria and moulds: they either
kill them or prevent them from reproducing. This is not
necessarily a benevolent action even for much larger organisms,
like human bodies, because the way preservatives act is affect
metabolic processes of microbes, and we all have metabolism, which
is the factory that keeps us alive. Although synthetic
preservatives are more powerful, especially long term, than
natural ones, it is only a matter of time before even the most
synthetic cream will go bad. There is also a limit to how much of
a preservative can be used, because, as mentioned above, they are
not nice, not only to germs.
Water is the basis for
all life, including microbial.
This is the second front where the battle between
natural and synthetic skin care is being fought. Natural
preservatives are much less toxic than synthetic ones or not toxic
at all, but that also means that they can’t make creams last as
In the old days, skin care products were prepared in
smaller quantities, they didn’t sit on the shelf very long, and
they had a lower content of water. By introducing synthetic
emulsifiers, which created light creams with high content of
water, a Pandora’s box was opened ?those creams couldn’t leave
the manufacturing plant to go anywhere unless they were properly
preserved. In the meantime, we’ve lost the apothecary on the
corner where you knew everybody and went frequently to get your
supplies, instead, we go to department stores, drug stores, skin
care salons and boutiques to pick up creams that have been made
far away and long time ago. Once the technology has come up with
effective long-term preservatives for food (which found a wide
application at the beginning of the 20th century), the next thing
was to apply them to everything else pertaining to daily
consumption. Long shelf life truly revolutionized the personal care
industry and it allowed it to actually become an
These two conditions: the highly efficient synthetic
emulsifiers which created light and stable creams, followed with
synthetic preservatives that facilitated shipping those products
far and wide where they could be stored for up to few years until
they sold, was an offer hard to resist for many a businessperson.
Synthetic chemicals were becoming cheaper and cheaper, the production
process was quite simple, products were stable, and the money
saved there could be spent on advertising and pretty bottles. Adding pretty young faces to campaigns raised the appeal even
higher, well; really, the sky was the only limit.
At the consumers?end, conditions were favourable:
being courted by light, fancy looking creams in even fancier jars
followed with suggestive posters and slogans, proved to be an
irresistible bait. And that was not all; at first, this radical
transition appeared revolutionary, innovative, simply better. Everybody was seduced by the industrial appeal, the rule of the
day was: away with the old, we want progress.
With less expensive
materials being used in the creams, companies have more
money to spend on other things, such as seductive
Waking up to the smell of two
Several decades have passed. The tower built in a hurry
and so tall started to lean and crumble in places. That same
unstoppable science had discovered in the meantime that the skin
was actually not an impenetrable barrier between the body and the
outer world, and that all those emulsifiers, preservatives, colours, fragrances, paraffin, stabilizers etc. were not just
lubricating the skin, they were going in, who knows where, doing
who knows what.
At the other end of the spectrum, people found out that using
synthetic chemicals in products intended for human consumption
required testing for their safety, which was very good because
chemistry has come up with some nasty stuff, but how was that
testing done turned many stomachs and made quite a few people very
Again that impertinent science: there were now almost
daily news about breakthrough findings that all those nearly
forgotten plant extracts, natural oils, vitamins, various extracts
from botanical sources, were indeed very beneficial and some had
properties that were short of amazing. Those frustrated
pharmacists and natural-oriented chemists who adhered to old
traditions and kept on doing what they have been always doing, now
stood up and started to advertise that natural is not only good,
it is simply the best and only thing that should be put on the
The skin also spoke up: after decades of being exposed to who
knows what, sensitivities, allergies, dermatitis and a slew of
other reactions were on the rise and nobody could quite say what
and how had caused them, because, remember, the science of human
bodies is messy, but more and more fingers started pointing
towards synthetic chemicals in skin care and cosmetics. Along with
alternative health therapies, came individuals who suddenly
remembered recipes their grandmothers used to tell them about,
surfing the Internet and a number of how-to books helped along,
and they were now making natural skin care products too.
The Tower of Skin Care become the Tower of Babel,
everybody was talking at the same time, swaying and pulling this
way and that way, with cries of ‘scientifically proven?
‘dermatologically tested? ‘guaranteed results? ?00% natural?
‘organic? ‘miraculous results?.. coming through, causing utter
The consensus that everybody seems to agree on is that
natural is not only good for you but natural ingredients in skin
care products is what achieves best results. That, however,
created another problem, or two, three... Who is really natural?
How natural are you? What is natural? What is this all about?!
There is more, and from a different point of view: does synthetic
skin care have better feel; does it do a better job of delivering
active ingredients; does it mean that opting for a healthy
alternative leads to being shortchanged for quality, both
biological and sensory?
Let’s try to answer that.
Choosing your beauty
products can be very confusing if you are not armed with
While the battle still rages on,
has anything really changed?
Remember how making a nice stable emulsion that felt
good and wasn’t greasy on the skin was difficult with natural
emulsifiers? That still holds, it is very difficult indeed,
but difficult does not mean impossible. Similar goes for
preservatives. Natural are few and hard to work with, but they
are available nonetheless. Such natural creams could carry other
natural ingredients and compete in the market with synthetic
creams. In fact, they have been gaining ground.
Those synthetic emulsions, at the other end, now come
with loud claims of containing plant extracts, botanical
ingredients, vitamins, breakthrough amazing wrinkle-erasers, as
so-called ‘active ingredients? Which means that they added them
to the basic emulsion formulated with reliable synthetic
emulsifiers, preserved with reliable synthetic preservatives.
Because of all that, the confusion has not receded;
however, the selection has expanded tremendously. What was
considered old and obsolete came to the forefront: visionaries who
insist on and pride themselves with reviving ancient traditions
have again opened the doors, this time in style, to skin care made
of natural ingredients. And so has skin care come a full circle.
It is certainly not what it used to be, we have all gotten a bit
wiser and a great deal more demanding. Today we have natural skin
care that is utterly modern and synthetic skin care that borrows
from the old, and everything in between.
Today we have more
formulations to choose from than ever before.
Where does the difference lie
today, or, is there any difference at all?
If you have everybody, from a drugstore brand to the
most exclusive luxury skin care line claiming that they use
natural ingredients, the fact of the matter is that they do. It
would be not only unethical but also against the rules and
regulations to claim that you use ingredients that are not
actually there. How much they use, what quality etc. is their
proprietary information, and we can’t know that for sure. Mind
you, using a drop or a bucket of the same ingredient will give a
very different product; that is simply common sense. However, that
is still not where the fundamental difference is.
The difference is where it all began: in the emulsion,
i.e. the cream itself. This is where the true heart of the skin
care product lies. While the gap between natural and synthetic
skin care has narrowed when it comes to ‘active ingredients?
(those dissolved in either of the phases for the purpose of
achieving certain results), the division remains along the lines
?the choice of oil phase, and
We now know that natural emulsifiers can create nice
creams. Natural preservatives will make them last long enough,
within reason, to be used up safely. Natural oil phase means using
natural vegetable oils and waxes instead of petrochemicals and the
derivatives. Whereas active ingredients get most attention,
insisting on who is the best, most concentrated, effective,
organic and so on, it is that basic emulsion, which holds
everything together, that makes the product natural or synthetic. It is also the one responsible for the absorption into the skin,
and how that product feels; in other words, because of that basic
cream you either love or hate what’s in the jar. The basic
emulsion is not only the foundation of your product; it is the
actual house. And one built with bricks couldn’t be called a stone
house because of a little bit of a decorative finish at the end.
And there you have it: natural and synthetic skin care
are fundamentally different. In the end, it is not about who uses
more or less of the current star ingredient - as we have seen in
the recent years, everybody uses the same popular ingredients - but it
is where they put their ingredients that matters.
Although the search for the ultimate skin care, whether
by purity of its ingredients, or effectiveness, is nowhere near
finished, there is one quiet winner after all: Nature. Chemistry has
also grown up. From inventing things, spoiling too much in the
process, messing up, then cleaning up, it has reached the level
where it simply makes things easier for the natural way of life.
It is Science in service of Nature, and Nature that supports
Science. A need to care for one’s skin is as fundamental as
everything else is in a healthy lifestyle. Living the best life
possible is a commitment worth pursuing, even through the
treacherous grounds of the great divide between natural and
synthetic skin care.
?font face="Book Antiqua"> Ivana K.
Cosmetic Chemist and Founder of I2 by Ivana K.
the SCC (Society of Cosmetic
Chemists) of North America
This article nor
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consent from the author.