Even "Natural" is Chemical!

Even “Natural” is Chemical!

Nat­ural cos­met­ics ulti­mately must be phys­i­o­log­i­cally tolerable.

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.

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