Look Good

Synthetic vs Natural skincare, debunked

Busting some myths to help your skin glow.

Written by Jenny Brownlees
Published 10.06.2022

The world of skincare can be confusing, whether you’re a newbie or a veteran of all things face creams.

Scientific lingo can be hard to decipher, trending terms come and go and brands throw around words like ‘clean’ without explaining what exactly that means.

In fact, words like ‘natural, green and clean’ are not regulated within the beauty industry, so any brand can add them to a skincare label without reasoning. At HLN we want to arm you, the consumer with the knowledge of what to look out for when it comes to purchasing skincare, so as well as sharing brands that marry natural ingredients with lab-made, we want to share those that are registered by third-party certification agencies — so when they say organic or Vegan, they mean it.


The synthetic vs natural debate

There is a premise in the beauty world that lab-based, synthetic products = bad and plant-based products = good, but sadly it’s is not always that black and white. In simple terms, many things include chemicals (including food, air and water) and aren’t bad for us. It’s worth remembering that in the age of social media, people like a talking point, controversy and clickbait. The chemical vs. natural debate has often been the focus of this when really, it’s a grey area.

What is a ‘natural’ skincare product?

In general, this means that ingredients are derived from nature, without adding anything man-made or synthetic. However, a product can be synthetic-free and not organic, just as a vegetable isn’t automatically organic, even though it’s natural. When checking the label of a natural beauty product, you’d expect the botanicals at the top of the ingredients list. However, most products require some level of preservatives that are often synthetic, so this does mean 100% natural products can have a significantly shorter shelf life. When shopping for naturally-derived skincare products, consider your packaging — opt for opaque bottles with pump dispensers rather than jars, as repeated exposure to air, light and heat may degrade certain ingredients.

What is a synthetic skincare product?

Synthetic skincare products are generally made in a lab as a chemical copy of natural ingredients. Synthetic versions are formulated from compounds that naturally occur in plants or animals, which are then replicated to make them able to be used in skincare. For example, at present there is no natural retinol or hyaluronic acid available for topical use, so any product containing these ingredients will contain synthetics. Yet, both are wonderful ingredients that work well for the skin – confusing, we know.

That said, some synthetic ingredients are best avoided — synthetic fragrances can cause dryness and irritation while synthetic colours have been known to cause allergic reactions for some. Many choose to avoid parabens (used to extend the shelf life of products) as, although the specific parabens used in the UK have undergone safety assessments, some scientists say they can elevate cellular level damage caused by UV exposure, and believe this can lead to a higher risk of developing cancer.

Labels and logos

Getting to know common ingredients helps when choosing your skincare, as some scientific-sounding names are in fact, natural. We love Paula’s Choice ingredient dictionary, an in-depth list of ingredients and their meanings. Or, if you’d like to do further reading, we’d recommend The Skincare Bible by Dr Anjali Mahto.

Look closely at labels — in the UK, the Soil Association/COSMOS is the main certifying body that will tell you if a brand meets the strict standard which ensures ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides and solvents. The Soil Association’s Cosmos Natural logo guarantees the products do not contain controversial chemicals, parabens, phthalates, synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances, while their Organic Logo certifies that the products are sourced and manufactured using sustainable, organically-farmed ingredients and are not tested on animals.

Sadly, there is no legal regulation on a product labelled as vegan – so check the out brand’s credentials to assess their values. The quickest way to ensure products are vegan is to look for the The Vegan Society logo.


A common assumption is that naturally-derived ingredients are more earth-friendly. This can be true, but creating some ingredients in a lab can help prevent over-sourcing natural ingredients. Also keep an eye out for the Fairtrade logo, this ensures botanical ingredients like coconut and shea butter are bought at a fair price from local farmers who grow the crops.


So, which is best for me – synthetic or natural?

The key is to find skincare brands that align with your values — if you’re happy for your skincare products to include some synthetics, but want them to be Vegan – look out for the Vegan Society logo, and so on. Consider your current lifestyle circumstances, you may want to opt for all natural products over synthetic if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, when it’s not recommended to use certain products like salicylic acid or retinol. Both synthetic and natural ingredients have their benefits and much of comes down to your own preference — it’s also okay to mix and match. The good news is that there is now an abundance of choice, with brands for everyone’s requirements and values.


We’re sharing the products we love from a range of brands — from cult favourites and more natural alternatives.

Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser - £15.00

Glossier’s cult cleanser is Vegan and all ingredients are cruelty free. This cleanser also boasts poloxamer instead of soap, so it’s mild on the eyes.  Whilst Glossier is not an all-natural brand, this cleanser features two great natural ingredients, Rose water and Comfrey Root Extract — both hydrating heroes.

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Biossance Squalane + Amino Aloe Gentle Cleanser - £20.00

If you want to take your skincare to the next level, Biossance is leading the way as one of the best brands on the market. All products are nontoxic, synthetic fragrance free, paraben free, Vegan, phthalate free, and mineral oil free and rigorously screened against their ingredient blacklist. Not only that but the brand are making a positive impact on the world – from creating royalty-free treatments for Malaria to helping to save our oceans. The brand do make ingredients in lab, and for good reason — since the 16th century, sharks were hunted for their squalene (an oil in their livers used to make moisturizers and skincare products) Biossance scientists created a renewable, sugarcane-derived version called squalene  – an example of a synthetics used for good.

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Medik8 Pore Minimising Tonic - £40.00

Elliot Isaacs used his background in and pharmacology and biochemistry to found Medik8, who “don’t regard themselves as chemical-free, as even vitamin C is considered a chemical, but do leave out any ingredients which could cause concern like SLS, parabens and phthalates.” The science-backed brand does promote results-driven formulas that are ideal for anti-aging — like this smoothing toner that’ll help maintain a youthful complexion.

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Indie Lee CoQ10 Toner 125ml - £34.00

In contrast, Indie Lee is a naturally-derived and organic line, founded after Lee was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour. After surviving a successful surgery, she embarked upon a new journey — creating cruelty-free skincare using natural ingredients.

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The Ordinary Buffet Serum - £14.30

Products from The Ordinary’s skincare line are vegan and cruelty-free, as well as being free of parabens, sulphates and mineral oil. Their “Buffet” serum offers an array of anti-ageing wonders, including Matrixyl 3000 to stimulate collagen and hyaluronic acid to offer heroic hydration that plumps up fine lines.

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Bath House Kombu Seaweed Facial Serum - £42.00

If you’d like to shop local and small-batch, this eco-certified North East company’s serum is made of 97% natural ingredients, is sustainable, vegan and cruelty-free. Their highly concentrated yet lightweight serum uses vitamins A and E to smooth skin and help reduce fine lines, whilst nourishing Irish Moss Seaweed hydrates.

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Charlotte Tilbury Charlotte's Magic Cream Moisturiser - from £25.00

Charlotte Tilbury’s cult moisturiser is not au natural, though it does contain some natural ingredients including Oat Kernel Extract, Camellia Oleifera Seed Oil and Flower Extracts. It’s much-loved for its plumping and firming properties that leave skin with a runway-ready glow and the formula is now housed in a sustainably minded, refillable jar.

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Neal's Yard Remedies Frankincense Intense Lift Cream - £52.00

In contrast, Neal’s Yard were the UK’s first certified organic health and beauty brand, and even helped ban harmful plastic microbeads. We love their Frankincense cream, which helps strengthen, soften and restore skin that is starting to show lack of elasticity.

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No7 Youthful Replenishing Facial Oil - £24.95

No.7 is not a Vegan or natural brand, but their replenishing face oil is loved for its light-weight, non-greasy properties. Because it’s Hypo-Allergenic, it suits even the most sensitive of skin, using Jojoba oil to help restore lost moisture.

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Pai Skincare Rosehip Bioregenerate, Rosehip Seed and Fruit Universal Face Oil 10ml - £12.80

If you’d rather opt for an organic brand, Pai are accredited by COSMOS and Soil Association, The Vegan Society and Cruelty Free International. The brand makes products in their own lab in the UK, and all products are free from parabens, SLS, artificial fragrance and alcohol. We massage 2-3 drops of this rejuvenating oil into cleansed, damp skin at night to awaken brightened, and with pesky pigmentation diminished.

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Mario Badescu Drying Lotion - £16.25

You will have spotted this anti-blemish bottle on many a magazine page, it’s been seen backstage at runway shows and in celeb must-have lists for years. You can thank Salicylic Acid for the acne-fighting results.

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BySarah Ally Blemish Recovery Oil - £39.00

If Salicylic Acid irritates your sensitive skin, all-natural and certified B Corp brand By Sarah London have created their natural anti blemish oil to help rebalance the skin’s microbiome. Handmade in the UK, this formula contains the highest quality, cold-pressed organic plant oils.

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Supergoop! Glowscreen SPF 30 - from £15.00

Supergoop! is Leaping Bunny-certified cruelty-free and the brand produce both chemical and mineral sunscreen actives, their mineral-based formula is perfect for children and people with sensitive, acne-prone or reactive skin. Their chemical formula below is the best for active people who are looking for a lightweight, high-performing, clear formula to use daily — it even holds up when swimming or sweating.

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Kri SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen - £22.00

Kri’s Mineral SPF has no essential oils or fragrance, does not irritate eyes or clog pores. Their SPF30 sunscreen absorbs quickly and forms an instant protective barrier on your skin without irritation, even on the most sensitive skin.

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Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum 30ml - £89.00

Not all of Allies Of Skin’s products are Vegan, but we love this next-generation overnight serum with a hardworking blend of 11% mandelic, lactic and salicylic acid. The aforementioned gently dissolve dead skin cells to battle stubborn pigmentation, large pores, persistent breakouts and uneven texture.

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Green People Fruitful Nights 50ml - £22.00

Over in the organic-only world, who said plant based meant lesser results? Green People’s rejuvenating night cream uses pineapple, hibiscus and raspberry extracts to even-out texture and minimise wrinkles.

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Paula's Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment - £55.00

As cited earlier, there is no natural Retinol — so if you want to opt for the ingredient, it will be synthetic, but it will also work to firm skin, fade brown spots and smooth wrinkles.

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Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum - £49.00

Bakuchoil is considered the natural alternative to retinol — offering similar skin-smoothing, brightening, line-lessening properties. We love Herbivore’s serum version.

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IT Cosmetics Confidence in an Eye Cream - £33.00

IT Cosmetics isn’t a vegan brand, it was developed with plastic surgeons and a former news presenter looking for beauty products that would stand up against unforgiving HD cameras. This moisturising eye cream has a colour-correcting, brightening effect, all while helping to restore firmness.

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Gallinee Eye Contour Cream - £22.00

Cruelty-free, small-batch brand Gallinee’s formulations are made from 89% to 100% natural origin ingredients. The brand is all about supporting the microbiome (1000s of good bacteria which form the protective layer of the skin.) This eye cream will help dark circles, irritations, and wrinkles, even for the most sensitive and eczema-prone skin.

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Aesop Body Cleansing Slab - £19.00

Aesop says they are “fascinated with the benefits that plant-based products can have for the skin, but also appreciate the remarkable results that science can deliver.” So whilst not 100% natural, they use beautiful natural ingredients like Bergamot Rind, Ylang Ylang and Tahitian Lime in their sumptuous body bar.

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Zenote Handmade, Organic Moisturising Body Bar - £10.50

Local brand Zenote are not only eco-friendly in their packaging, their refillable soap bar is made with 100% organic Cocoa, Shea, Hemp & Jojoba butters and oils that are guaranteed to leave your skin soft and glowing.

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Rituals, Body Shimmer Oil - £21.50

Rituals, whilst not all-natural are paraben free, plastic microbead free and products are not tested on animals. The gorgeous shimmering partials of this body oil are mineral, and leave skin beautifully illuminated.

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The Bath House, Orchid Flower & Camelina Face, Hair & Body Oil - £35.00

Made from 95% natural ingredients, this Multi-Tasking Vegan bar can be used on the body face or hair. Better yet, dry oil still absorbs super-fast – despite it being silicone-free.

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Diptyque, Softening Hand Wash - £48.00

Diptyque is not a vegan or organic brand, but they do focus on natural ingredients – their lavender and rosemary infused hand wash (beautifully packaged in a refillable glass bottle)  is beloved for its softening and restorative properties.

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Beautiful Betty, Natural Spa Factory Fig & Vanilla Hand Wash & Hand Cream Duo - £32.00

Free from Parabens, SLS, MI and MCI Sulphates, this natural hand wash contains Coco Glucoside (derived from renewable raw materials such as coconut oil) soothing vitamin E, sweet almond and jojoba oil to help leave skin supple and moisturised.

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