What are Safe Synthetics in Cosmetics?

Heather Hopes the Brains Can Help. Hi there. I’m a big fan of Lush products and the company’s responsible philosophy, but I have to wonder what exactly do they mean by “safe synthetics”? Are they non-toxic to humans, the environment, both? I’ve found conflicting information about the toxicity of ingredients like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (which Lush would call a “safe synthetic”) et al., and I’d love to know once and for all what’s safe and what’s not. Thanks!

The Right Brain Replies

Thanks so much for your question. Unfortunately, the answer is not simple and depends mostly on your perspective.

Chemical Phobic

If you are the type that is naturally afraid of chemicals then you won’t believe there are any “safe” synthetics. People like this believe that the best things come from nature and when we start modifying them, we make them less safe. This is an extremist attitude but not one that is easily debated. The truth is, it is impossible to “prove” that any chemical is safe. In science, you can’t “prove” a negative (e.g that a chemical won’t be dangerous).

But this doesn’t only apply to synthetics. You can’t even prove WATER is safe. And for some people, WATER isn’t safe.

In the cosmetic industry what happens is that raw materials (whether synthetic or natural) are tested for safety following validated protocols. If the raw material passes these tests than manufacturers & governments feel confident to say that it is safe. This doesn’t guarantee safety, but it does help weed out the chemicals that will cause immediate harm.

Chemical Fearless

Another type of person are those who don’t think about their chemical exposure at all. These people will use any cosmetic or personal care product no matter what’s in there. It’s all about product performance. They trust that the government, industry, and industry watchdog groups are doing their jobs and protecting people from problems.

This is not an unreasonable position to take because for the most part, people have used cosmetics in the US for decades with minimal incidences of problems. Some might disagree with this position and would suggest that there have been problems that we just haven’t seen yet, but there is little proof supporting these connections.

However, this position is extreme too. We are all genetically different and will react differently to different compounds. A chemical that is perfectly fine for Sarah Bellum might be horribly irritating to your skin. Reviewing cosmetic ingredient lists can keep you aware of things to avoid.

Chemical Quizzical

Most people fall in between the two examples listed above. What often happens is they will hear a sensationalized story about a raw material in the news media or on the Internet and become concerned. When your well-meaning mom sends you an email telling you that SLS causes cancer or Propylene Glycol causes brain damage, it can make even the most caviler chemist nervous.

And because there is a rampant chemophobia in our society, people readily believe what they’ve read and don’t investigate further. If they investigated more from reliable sources, they would find that claims of danger are more ambiguous than they’ve heard.

Consider also that the media only reports news that is scary. Who would be interested in (or even believe) a story like “Lauramide DEA Shown Most Likely To Be Harmless”? What would watchdog groups like the Environmental Working Group do if they couldn’t find anything scary about the chemicals in your cosmetics? Both have to exaggerate conclusions of the science just to preserve their own existence.

Safe Synthetics

In the United States, the FDA requires that all consumer product manufacturers sell only safe products. They must do the appropriate safety testing or face recalls, financial penalties, and litigation. The industry trade group, the PCPC, sets guidelines that legitimate companies follow to help ensure that ALL of the chemicals (whether synthetic or not) are safe.

The Beauty Brains Bottom Line

What are safe synthetics? Based on the best available science, all synthetic compounds used in cosmetics are “safe synthetics.” The Lush marketing department is taking liberty with the truth by implying that some synthetics used in cosmetics are not safe. This is unfortunate.