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Is Natural Better?

Posted by Sarah Wehri on

I wish I could say, unequivocally, yes. That would make life so much easier.

But, I can't.  Here's why...

Disclaimer: I'm a chemist. When I say chemicals, I mean everything. Synthetic materials as well as all naturally occurring substances.  All the building blocks that make up the bird that just flew past your window? They're all chemicals.  They all have the potential to cause metabolic change, be it good or ill.

Here's the problem with natural...our metabolism was honed in the 'natural' environment to interact with the chemicals around it. That's how we ended up with the incredible metabolic feedback loops that allow our complex bodies, with differentiated cells, to function coherently. Natural is not by default inert. 

What makes a green ingredient?

So, saying that something is natural does not mean that it is safe, although that is usually how marketing departments portray it. Many natural chemicals have negative metabolic consequences and, almost always, there is a dose/response mechanism at play that must be considered before weighing in on the acceptability of chemical for use by humans. By this I mean a chemical that is beneficial or inconsequential at one level of use is dangerous or even deadly at another. Conversely, a synthetic chemical does not by default, interact with our bodies in a negative manner, which is another fallacy propagated by marketers. There are many synthetics with a great safety track record.  Moreover, many synthetics are compounds chemist have isolated from nature and then figured out how to create in a lab. I would argue that these are still natural compounds. 

If you see products that tell you they are safe because they are natural, you are witnessing a marketing ploy appealing to nature and your emotions. The two are unrelated. Tell them you need a better reason to believe.

So why do we bother?

When I formulate, I pick the best chemicals to get the job done. Natural is not necessarily better, and safety is the number one consideration.  However, there are lots of natural ingredients with proven track records that we endeavor to use. Oftentimes the decision comes down to the process used to produce the ingredient. Sometimes catalysis using heavy metals is required or there is substantial waste produced during production with environmental repercussions. If utilizing a natural substance that is harvested and purified with less industrial waste is possible, it makes good sense and the converse is true as well. 

Food for thought: Walk into any university chemistry department or R&D facility at a pharma or cosmetics company and you will find a bunch of people dedicated to natural products chemistry. Many of the best ideas and active ingredients come from nature. These people want to isolate compounds and figure out ways to synthesize them with high purity and reduced cost to make ingredients affordable and effective. So if someone succeeds in this, is the product good, bad, safe, unsafe, natural, or synthetic? 

I would love to hear your thoughts, please feel free to comment.

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