We’re always told to read the ingredients label before we buy anything. Foods or personal care products – it doesn’t matter. It’s fantastic advice all around and I do it (and suggest it) all the time.
But even though I read tons of labels every week, I can still find them confusing. Why? Because a truly natural ingredient can sometimes sound like it was created in a lab, while a little marketing savvy can make a synthetic ingredient sound perfectly natural.
While there are likely some exceptions to the below rules, let’s break it down so you can tell the difference more easily.
Natural Ingredients – Plants & Minerals
Look for the common nameFruits, vegetables, flowers, minerals, and other natural ingredients are often listed with their scientific name first, followed by their common name in parenthesis. The scientific name can make the ingredient sound unnatural, but the common name is usually easy to recognize. For example:
- vaccinium macrocarpon (cranberry)
- butyrospermum parkii (shea butter)
- sodium chloride (sea salt)
- hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel)
- camellia sinensis (white tea)
Plant parts & extracts
Sometimes the label will list a plant part (e.g. seed, leaf, root, bark, flower) or an extract of that plant part (e.g. its oil or juice). These are also natural botanical ingredients. For example:
- zingiber officinale (ginger) root extract
- chinensis (jojoba) seed oil
- aloe barbadensis (aloe) leaf juice
- lavandula angustifolia (lavender) stem extract
When a synthetic ingredient is derived from a natural source, the manufacturer will often put the plant name in parenthesis (probably to make it sound like it’s a natural ingredient). But unlike the “common name” mentioned above, you’ll often see words like “from“, “-based“, or “-derived” within the parenthesis. That’s how you can tell the difference.
In other words, the natural ingredient may have just “coconut” in parenthesis, while the synthetic ingredient will say “from coconut” or “derived from coconut” or “coconut-based”. See the difference?
While these ingredients do come from nature initially, they are still synthetic. That doesn’t always make them bad ingredients, but it is definitely something to be aware of.
- cocamidopropyl betaine (coconut-based)
- cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine (plant-derived)
- sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (plant-based)
- sodium levulinate (from corn)
These are synthetic ingredients NOT derived from nature:
- dimethyl mea
- sodium xylenesulfonate
If the manufacturer could also list a recognizable name to make these scary sounding ingredients sound less scary, they would. So if you see a scientific-looking name without anything next to it, you can probably bet it is a synthetic ingredient created entirely in a lab and has nothing to do with nature.
Are Synthetic Ingredients Bad?
This is where it gets a bit tricky, because not all synthetic ingredients are bad. Synthetic ingredients may be safe or unsafe, even if they are derived naturally.
Given the choice, I choose plant and mineral-based ingredients over synthetics 99% of the time. But there are a few exceptions to keep in mind
Safer synthetic ingredients
Some synthetic ingredients are safer than their natural counterpart. For example, titanium dioxide that comes from the ground may be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, which are naturally found in rocks and soil. As a result, cosmetics manufacturers will often synthesize titanium dioxide from pure titanium, so they can easily remove the harmful impurities.
Natural ingredients to avoid
Some natural ingredients should be avoided altogether. For example, aluminum (even without impurities) is a natural ingredient found in antiperspirants, but has been linked to breast cancer. And talc, a natural mineral found in cosmetic powders, has been linked to ovarian cancer.
EWG Skin Deep Database
If you’re ever unsure about an ingredient, it’s always best to look it up. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has an amazing database that makes it easy to find a product or ingredient and see how it fares.
You can also download their Skin Deep mobile app to scan bar codes in-store and make informed purchasing decisions more easily.