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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 skincare ingredient can sometimes sound like it was created in a lab, while a little marketing savvy can make a synthetic ingredient sound perfectly natural.
So how can you tell the difference between a natural vs. synthetic ingredient? And are all synthetic skincare ingredients bad? Let’s find out.
Recognizing plant & mineral ingredients
When I first started reading skincare labels, I noticed that my eyes would skim over the words I didn’t immediately recognize and would lock onto those that I did. That came in handy because the natural ingredients in skincare products tend to be listed with both a (less recognizable) scientific name alongside it’s more easily recognized “common name”.
At first, I’d hone in on the common name alone. But after seeing the same botanical and mineral ingredients again and again, they began to feel less foreign. Over time, I began to recognize these scientific names at a glance as well, which made things easier.
All that to say, if your head spins from looking at some of these labels, rest assured that it does start to unwind itself after a while. In the meantime, look for the common name.
Look for the common name
For context, when fruits, vegetables, flowers, or minerals are listed on a food or drink label, you’ll typically just see their common name. For example, chamomile or peppermint tea will just list chamomile or peppermint leaves on the label.
But when these same ingredients are found in natural skincare, they’ll be listed with their scientific name first, followed by their common name in parenthesis. So chamomile might become “chamomilla recutita (chamomile)” and peppermint may be listed as “organic mentha piperita (peppermint) oil”.
The scientific name can make the natural ingredient look like a synthetic ingredient at first glance. But (again) the common name is usually easy to recognize. Here are a few more common examples:
- butyrospermum parkii (shea butter)
- sodium chloride (sea salt)
- hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel)
- camellia sinensis (white tea)
- cera alba (beeswax)
- vaccinium macrocarpon (cranberry)
Plant parts & extracts
Similarly, the label will often 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
- cocos nucifera (coconut) oil
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 skincare 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.
For example, synthetic ingredients derived from nature
- cocamidopropyl betaine (coconut-based)
- cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine (plant-derived)
- sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (plant-based)
- sodium levulinate (from corn)
Synthetic ingredients NOT derived from nature
If the manufacturer could also list a recognizable name to make these scary-sounding ingredients sound less scary, they probably would. So if you see a scientific-looking name without anything next to it, it’s likely a synthetic ingredient created entirely in a lab and has nothing to do with nature. For example:
- dimethyl mea
- sodium xylenesulfonate
Au Naturale Cosmetics, Handcrafted in the US
Are synthetic skincare ingredients bad?
This is where things get a bit tricky, because not all synthetic ingredients are bad and not all natural ingredients are safe. Given the choice, I choose plant and mineral-based ingredients over synthetics 99% of the time. But there are two main exceptions to keep in mind.
1. 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.
2. Natural ingredients to avoid
Some natural ingredients should be avoided altogether. For example, aluminum (even without impurities) is a natural ingredient found in antiperspirants and has been linked to breast cancer. Talc, a natural mineral found in cosmetic powders, has also been linked to ovarian cancer.
Not sure? Check the EWG Skin Deep Database
If you’re ever unsure about an ingredient, you can simply 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.