Battle Of The Skincare Products: Why I Prefer Chemical Based Products Over Herbal Ones

Chemical Vs. Herbal : The Age Old Paradoxical Situation

I’m often asked about that age-old question: what kind of skincare products are the best? Herbal or chemical based.

What iAre The Best? Herbal or Chemicals?

As I’m from India, this is the most common question people around me inquire about because in India, there’s a huge market of herbal products. Also ayurveda is emerging as a multmillion dollar business empire.

Here I’ll use herbal & ayurvedic as synonyms (to save time) but to make things clear, they aren’t synonyms. Herbal products can be any skincare product with main components being sourced from herbs found in nature.

Ayurvedic products are also natural products but are based on principles & teachings of ancient ayurveda.

While for the last century chemical based products used to dominate the beauty market, ayurveda & herbal products are emerging as newer options & are already doing good.

Now please note that anything I write here is completely my personal opinion.

·         So, are herbal products safer than chemical based ones?

èToday we’re covering a multi dimensional topic where the answer varies from product to product but if you want a short & sweet answer; then sadly the answer is ‘NO’.

Just because the product says its herbal or ayurvedic, it does not mean its safer than chemical based products. Because on the first place, you need to understand how we define ‘safety’. Safety means a product with lesser adverse reaction & here, in my country many are simply brainwashed that anything herbal cannot cause any adverse reaction.

Those people should understand that a product that actually works should have an ‘active ingredient’ (the main ingredient that targets a specific concern like ageing/acne/dry skin/scars/sun protection etc.) no matter where it is sourced from. The main ingredient in a product that actually targets the specific concern & ‘corrects’ it is the active ingredient. Such as, retinol for ageing, glycolic acid, arbutin for scars, sunscreen ingredients like cinnamate, avobenzone, oxybenzone, zinc oxide for sun protection, emollients for dry skin etc.

Efficacy of Chemical Based Products

Now you see, these active ingredients are the ones that actually do the job in a product & makes a product successful in the market. Such ingredients with a defined chemical structure & name  qualify them as ‘chemicals’.

The fun fact is, most such chemicals are synthesized from herbs that are found in nature.

So practically the active ingredient is generally (I’m not talking about substituting AHA for BHA) the same in both: chemical or herbal product (if it works). The difference lies in the amount of the active ingredients.

In herbal based products, most such active ingredients are found in a crude mixture, as an unpurified version as in this case, the herb/natural product is directly used instead of purifying the active ingredient from it.

Just like a product based on lemon juice & a product based on glycolic acid are both used to fade scars, treat fine lines. In both cases, it is the glycolic acid that works; it is just that in the former lemon based product, lemon juice is used as a ‘source’ of glycolic acid (and also another member of the AHA family: citric acid, practically does the same job) & thus it is called herbal but in an over the counter glycolic acid cream, the purified version with definite percentage of glycolic acid is used to treat the same concern with the same ingredient (the glycolic acid) but it is considered a ‘chemical’ based product.

Now many, due to lack of knowledge, are scared of the term chemical but they’re using the same thing in the form of a herbal product.  

In herbal form, active ingredients are found in a crude mixture with usually very low percentage for which to actually work, it’d need a huge amount of that crude mixture while in chemical based products, since it is in a purified form, the percentage is easily regulated & thus it works better & it takes lesser time.

Secondly in the crude version, as it is found in nature, an active ingredient may remain in a structural form which may deem it unfit to actually do the job. Such as in a racemic mixture, L & D forms (levorotatory & dextrorotatory are two mirror images of each other, enantiomers/ isomers of each other) are found together while only L or the D form may be actually chemically active in human body; that’s why we drink glucose D & not the L form.

In nature, in most cases organic molecules are found as a mixture of it’s both isomers: L & D and this is called a racemic mixture, as it is found in herbal (unadulterated, unaltered versions) products. So, if an active ingredient is put into human body in a racemic mixture, while only one isomer of it is active in human body, it’ll even lessen its effects because 50% of the molecules are in an inactive form while in chemical based products, those molecules are extracted & purified & only active forms are selected, so automatically it works better in a lesser time.

Herbal Based Products Being Less Effective Than Chemical Based Ones

You should also understand I’m not asking you to take any shortcut but just stating the facts which defines better efficacy.

·         But they say, chemical based products are loaded with parabens. Are’t herbal products do better than that?

èThe answer is a big NO. Rather than buying what the advertisements are feeding you, I'd strongly suggest you all to research the fact & verify & please feel free to verify my words as well.

Methylparaben, Propylparabens are popular preservatives that are used in minute quantity in many cosmetic products. Now, preservatives; be it any kind must be used in a product meant to reach a wide range of consumers because before it finally reaches us, it’ll have to spend months or maybe years getting packaged, shipped & hitting the racks of the supermarket & the multi national brands wouldn’t spend a penny in a product that spoils on the way of reaching you.

Thus, to increase shelf life, one product no matter if its marketed as herbal or not, must contain some preservatives; be it parabens or others.

Coming to the point if parabens are harmful or not, there is no single answer. If you’re allergic to parabens, then yes; they are harmful to you. But the fact is many brands promote parabens as harmful to everyone which is not entirely true because the carcinogenic (cancer causing when upon long term usage)  potential of parabens is a highly disputed matter.

So unless you are particularly allergic to parabens, you shouldn’t be afraid of them just because the advertisements are feeding you an altered information. If you’re allergic to it, there are many options in the market & these days many well known brands (including chemical based ones) are introducing their paraben free ranges & you should definitely try them.

Secondly being marketed as ‘herbal’ or ‘ayurvedic’ does not guarantee you that the product must be paraben free. You should also understand, there is no ‘ABSOLUTE HERBAL’ product because no matter if you’re using parabens or not, you must add some kind of a preservative to make it ultimately reach the end users, you or why would they invest their multi million dollars on a product that spoils in the market shelves before you can use it.

Also paraben free does not mean preservative free because you have to use preservatives anyway.

The same is also true for sulfates. Sulfates aren’t harmful unless you’re particularly allergic to it. One of my friends found that she was allergic to sulfates back in 2011 & back then, in India, we didn’t have many sulfate free options like now. So she had to work really hard to find a shampoo that actually caused no adverse reactions.

Sulfates are nothing but surfactants, the molecules that actually form lather & cleanse the skin (as in soaps/body washes) or hair (shampoos). Now-a-days, we have many sulfate alternative surfactants available & these are heavily used in shampoos but you must also keep the fact in mind that those are milder surfactants & are mostly unable to get rid of heavy dirt & oil build up. So, if you compromise in sulfates, you’ll compromise in efficacy.

I’m noway advocating sulfates but simply dishing out the scientific facts.

So if you’re allergic to sulfates, you must use a mild shampoo which is a non sulfate based product & since these surfactants fail to cleanse as efficiently as sulfates, you must use them frequently to avoid heavy oil/dirt build up on scalp.

Talking about environmental sustainability, yes in this case, both parabens & sulfates accumulate & are not environmentally sustainable. But the fact is also true that those are so widely used beyond cosmetic products, like sulfates in floor cleaners; until we get a perfectly efficient & safer alternative to sulfate, we will still be risking a lot.

But the fact remains the same, chemicals & herbal-active ingredients are still both the same thing with different names & there is no absolute herbal product, because you need some preservatives anyway & most of them are chemical based.

environmental sustainability of skincare products

I’d also suggest you guys to read labels. It is important because sometimes products are advertised to have nice things; suppose you get to see a product has been launched which is heavily marketed as having lavender oil or basil extracts. Now when you turn the bottle, the label mentions lavender oil or basil extracts (just an example) at the end of the list of ingredients.

There you go. ……….

Usually the label would mention the ingredient of highest amount the first & those which are used in trace amount at the very last of the composition list.

read the label: product composition

Many times I see such products which advertise themselves of having a certain ingredient like lavender oil but the label mentions it at the ends of the ingredient list. Which means yes, practically they have some lavender oil but the amount is trace or so minute that it’ll never work as it claims.  So, to buy the perfect product, you need to be smarter now, because you’re spending your hard earned money here.

So practically this is why I prefer clear-cut chemical based products which mention all its ingredients honestly (in some cases, with percentages) & don’t hide the truth behind impossible-to-pronounce ingredients. Also I hate those who promote ‘all natural’ products or ‘no chemical’ products because it is simply impossible. Any agent with a defined chemical structure is a chemical & those which are not defined yet, simply aren’t safe because we don’t know how it works.

In most herbal products, the real active ingredient is a chemical by its own right &, making preservative free products isn’t possible. So whoever claims so, is lying. That’s why you’d never see a good brand with some self respect would label their product as ‘all natural’ or ‘chemical-free’ because it is NOT POSSIBLE, although majority of the ingredients are naturally sourced.

So please don’t think I’m against naturally sourced ingredients because the best chemicals are also sourced naturally (glycolic acid, salicylic acid, arbutin, kojic acid, retinol) but it does not mean anything natural is harmless. There are poisons found naturally that can kill you, even cyanides can be sourced naturally but that does not mean it is safe.

I’m not against herbs, I’m against lies.

Now coming to the point that many people feel chemicals cause more adverse effects; it is because they are actually effective, that's all. If you use them wisely as it should be, they can be a blessing but if you don't, they can actually harm you more than doing any good. 

You need to be effective in order to cause any effects, be it great/benefiting or adverse. Since chemicals are exactly the purified active ingredients, they actually work while if used the wrong way, they have a great potential to harm. It is always a 50-50 chance. At the end of the day, you must remember that what can't kill you; can't save you either & if something is effective, it'll produce adverse effects if not used wisely. So, you should always consult a dermatologist if you're confused about a product.

Also this is completely my personal opinion based on what I learnt over the years. If you think otherwise, do not forget to share in the comments section below & do stick around.

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Stay Tuned.

Koyel M.

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