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Is “natural” better than “biotech”?

I dislike it when the skincare industry uses adjectives not relevant to the product. Natural, organic, green, sustainable, etc. You can keep adding: honest, environment, nature-derived, etc. It’s like, if a product doesn’t work for the customer, at least you are doing something good for the environment. Actually, no. The best thing for the environment is for a bad product to not exist. However, this almost philosophical thought will not  help you choose skincare.

That a skincare product is nature-derived will not help you (or the environment). After all, everything on earth, the atmosphere and even the galaxy, is naturally derived, right?

The best you can do for you and the environment is to buy a product that works. This will help you to NOT buy 20 more products that will end up in the trash or that will send you to the pharmacy in search of anti allergic creams (for that tea tree oil soap) or to the doctor looking for help with those blisters caused by going out in the sun with  a cream containing some (very natural) mandarin essential oil on your back.

My suggestion, then, is to buy the best product, the most effective skincare that will do what your skin needs it to do. If it is made of natural products, great. It it was made in the lab by Hannah or her colleagues, even better.

Of course, you should avoid buying natural products obtained by deforestation followed by planting of palms, or by distillation of wild plants that are becoming extinct. Remember that natural can be bad for you and/or bad for the environment.

This subject remind me of a great TV show, “The Good Place”, with an after life where all humans are destined to hell because they have so many choices and no choice is “right”. In my life, I am now giving up on perfection and choosing “good enough”.

Improvements in chemical methods are making it possible to imitate natural products like specific chemicals even the right stereo-isomer, enzymes and growth factors, and obtain them very pure and active without having to start with 100 pounds of raw material and worrying about toxic contaminants. Why not choose synthetic, then? When the “synthetic” and natural can’t be distinguish by our body, we only gain from this substitution, gaining in safety and preserving the environment. Some essential oils are extracted from species in danger of extinction, like sandalwood (Santalum album), which is listed as vulnerable, and rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora), atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica), and rosewood (Dalbergia abrahamii).

What’s the problem of purifying a natural chemical from the original plant material? If what you are looking for is starch, and it makes up a large percentage of the original material, like corn or potato, go for it. But if you are looking for a molecule that is present in the parts per million concentration, try to synthesize it or get a bacteria to manufacture it in large amounts. We can now do do this for many ingredients and the new methodologies will make this task easier and cheaper, safeguarding the environment.

In short, rather than worrying about achieving unattainable perfection, let’s concentrate in decreasing waste: buy a few, effective products. Concentrate in what the ingredients can (and cannot) do, rather than in how pretty the containers are.  Don’t follow the fashion, follow your skin’s needs. In short, buy good, useful stuff, buy Skin Actives,.

Don’t get me wrong: at my company we recycle, support a plastic recycling program (please see  also  ), and are very conservative (in the environmental conservation sense) in our business. We are involved in conservation matters and support efforts to decrease human impact on the environment. Our family (Sivak-Funtowicz) has been involved in the discussion of ethical issues concerning biotechnology since the very beginning. But our most important objective is to improve the health and looks of our customers.

Please don’t read this post as a paean to scientists. Science has changed since the heroic (and altruistic) Luis Leloir, Carlos Cardini, Cesar Milstein and Norman Good.  Jurassic Park is science fiction but it approximates, too closely, reality (read the introduction to the book by his author). Science is a human activity and its practitioners are almost too human. So let’s keep an eye on them and not let the sometimes very talented scientists escape the ethical duty they owe the rest of us. With great power comes great responsibility.



Crichton, M. (2012) Jurassic Park: A novel. Ballantine Books, 464 pp.
Silvio O. Funtowicz, Jerome R. Ravetz  (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 25: 739-755
Bomgardner, M.M. (2016) The problem with vanilla (2016) Chem. Eng. News, 94.