Making a case for the chemical industry.
Written by Claudia Raatz, food technologist, Work focus: The development and application of cosmetic compounds at ADA Cosmetic GmbH.
The functionality and ingredients of modern body care products must fulfill multi-facetted requirements. Lotions are expected to last a long time but contain only a mild preservative. Shower gels should clean the skin and also nourish and moisturize it. All the ingredients in the product have to be safe when applied to the skin while remaining unchanged in their composition and have a long shelf-life. And, in these times of a ‘nature’ boom, all these requirements are supposed to be fulfilled with the use of as few (or none) chemicals as possible. Anything even slightly linked with ‘chemicals’ usually is immediately vilified.
Speaking as a food technologist, this expectation is based on lack of knowledge — anything that originates in physical, material nature actually is chemical by nature. Everything is made of matter and can be chemically analyzed. This applies to plants, animals and to humans. They all consist of (bio) chemical structures whose atoms and molecules are organized according to a higher order. In cosmetics, we aim to incorporate natural chemical structures in body care products so that they can be utilized.
In this context I would like to answer two questions that consumers may encounter on the subject:
Natural or nature-identical active substances?
Quite often, active substances that originate in natural sources are regarded as more valuable than their synthetic counterparts. Due to their complex structure, however, natural raw materials also present inherent problems during the manufacture of cosmetic products. Depending on the harvest, quality can fluctuate strongly. In the case of synthetic raw materials, production can be more easily controlled and the ingredients can be manufactured in a purer form. In the development of modern, efficacious and well-tolerated body care products the most important factor is a consistent chemical composition and best possible physical* properties. Natural substances are products that nature has chemically synthesized and, while they contain valuable secondary substances, they also include many by-products that can trigger allergic reactions.
While ‘nature-identical’ active substances have been synthetically manufactured, they very closely match their natural counterparts in their composition. One example is salicylic acid. It is keratolytic and anti-bacterial. This substance used to be extracted from willow bark, but today it is manufactured only synthetically. Or take the wrinkle filler hyaluronic acid: This substance is a natural component of the body. It is extracted from cockscomb or obtained through bacteria-aided fermentation.
Is ‘treated’ nature still natural?
Modified natural materials are natural or nature-identical substances that subsequently have been synthetically altered. These materials do not occur in nature as such, but often are superior to basic natural substances. As a result, for example, vitamins are used as acetate or palmitate. In this form, they are more stable in atmospheric oxygen than the natural substance and longer-lasting, for instance, in a facial cream. On the skin, they are broken down enzymatically, i.e. they release the active vitamin.
There is a constant debate about whether a product may be advertised as ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ if it consists either partially or entirely of natural, nature-identical or modified natural substances. One fact is certain: nature itself synthesizes a series of skin-friendly and nourishing substances that qualify as a component for cosmetic products, in ‘modified form’ on one hand and as ‘untreated’ on the other.
Ultimately, only one criterium is relevant in my opinion: The substances used in cosmetic products have to be safe for the user and achieve the desired effect in order to provide modern, sophisticated skin care. In other words, the natural condition of the skin should be maintained or improved. My conclusion: Modern skin care is only meaningful if it is physiologically well-tolerated. And this can be achieved either with natural raw materials, nature-identical substances or synthetic raw materials. In the end, it all depends on the overall product concept.