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What Is a Synthetic Skincare Ingredient?


It’s almost 2024, but somehow it's still the wild west out there when it comes to definitions of words like natural, organic, and synthetic in the personal care industry. There aren't any standardized definitions, at least not yet, and even more frustrating is the lack of standards among brands themselves, some of whom simply aren't telling the truth.

WHAT DO NATURAL, ORGANIC, AND SYNTHETIC EVEN MEAN?

We use the words natural and organic quite often, because they are applicable when discussing many of our ingredients like organic sunflower oil or kaolin clay. Other times, we'll use the term naturally-derived, which could also be synonymous with the word synthetic, depending on your definition! 

According to Merriam-Webster online, synthesis is:

  • the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole
  • the production of a substance by the union of chemical elements, groups, or simpler compounds or by the degradation of a complex compound
  • the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole.

By these definitions, we do use some synthetic ingredients in our products. Lye, for example, which is used to make ALL soap (though it is transformed in the chemical process of saponification, leaving none in the final product), is now made in a laboratory. Although it was originally made from ashes, it is not practical to use this type of lye on a large scale. The emulsifiers we use, while 100% naturally-derived and non-ethoxylated, are made in a laboratory as well. Even essential oils, which I consider to be deeply natural, are “made” by distillation of plant material, which could be considered degradation of a complex compound, as described above. 

Telling the truth—I know because Osmia does it all the time—is easy, but knowing when a brand is telling the truth can actually be quite hard. If you search for natural soap, you'll find bright, rainbow-colored soaps claiming to be “all natural,” when they are clearly colored with FD&C colorants, such as those used to color food. Many of these colorants contain parabens and propylene glycol, and some have been linked to behavioral disorders like ADHD. While plenty of FD&C colors are approved for human consumption, remember that Mcdonald’s food is also approved for human consumption. Yikes.

Now let's consider the "organic” soaps I recently came across, allegedly scented with jasmine and rose essential oil, priced at $6.95 per bar. Let me disassemble this absurdness. Jasmine absolute (which is solvent-extracted with hexane, hence, not organic), jasmine CO2 extract, and rose essential oil are priced between 250 and 550 dollars PER OUNCE. Each bar of soap would need to have almost ¼ ounce of essential oil to scent it effectively, putting the cost of making this soap (not even talking about the retail price yet) at 75 to 100 dollars PER BAR. Are you with me, people? This means that a soap listing rose essential oil or jasmine essential oil as the fragrance ingredient, and priced at $6.95 is not possible. They are using fragrance oils, which are usually made with propylene glycol, phalates, petrochemicals, and hundreds of other mystery ingredients.

 

HOW TO KNOW IF SKINCARE INGREDIENTS ARE NATURAL

I guess what I'm saying is this: don’t buy something just because it claims to be natural, organic, or free of “synthetics.” If these are important issues to you, consider the source, and ask yourself if you trust the brand. If not, or if you're unsure, you can use apps like Think Dirty, EWG, or Yuka to check your products, especially if you're trying to avoid ingredients like the ones we avoid in our products. There are, unfortunately, a lot of people out there who have not done their homework on this issue, or who have trouble with full disclosure. Some may not completely understand the science, others are intentionally greenwashing. Luckily for us, I do know the difference, and transparency has always been one of our core values. I suppose that’s one reason our amazing customers keep coming back to Osmia; they know what they're getting, because we've shown for the last eleven years that we are doing the homework, and that we are telling the truth. The only greenwashing we're doing is encouraging you to wash your body with our beautiful bars of soap

With love and clarity from us to you,