Are natural cosmetics better than synthetic ones (and what does “natural” mean)?

November 9, 2017

I've often wondered what makes "natural" cosmetics natural, and since there are no regulations regarding natural products (for example I could package something as natural, even though it might not be), what are we actually getting, and how do we even know what we're getting?

Enter Conny Oberrauter, who has been in research and development, and formulation development. She is a qualified cosmetic chef, with a marketing degree too. She makes products, and sells kits on her site The Cosmetics Chef so that you can make your own products at home, using her recipes.

She's also releasing a book next month, with recipes for natural products.  I asked Conny more about her products "natural" cosmetics.


What are natural cosmetics?

This is a very difficult question to answer in a short paragraph. Natural cosmetics should be cosmetic products that have been made with natural ingredients. One of the big issues in the market is that many companies have jumped on the natural bandwagon.

There are natural claims all over the packaging, but often when you look at the ingredients you will see that less than 5% is natural. This is called greenwashing, and this has made it more difficult for consumers to tell which are really natural and which are not. You can also get certification for natural products, but for South African companies this is very costly as most charge in Euros or US dollars.

In real terms no cosmetic can be natural as all the ingredients even if sourced from nature have undergone some process to ensure highest quality and safety for use. But some processes are considered as acceptable in natural terms.

What consumers need to be most careful about is safety. Natural does not equal safe – some of the deadliest things such as cyanide, mercury, lead, etc are all natural. This is not a concern for most cosmetics, but consumers need to be careful with products claiming natural, home-made etc. Some natural ingredients have not been certified for safe use in cosmetics.

How do you know if a product is natural?

Read between the lines. Carefully read what the label is actually saying, not what the marketer wants you to think it says. If a product says anti-ageing, we immediately think, wow, my wrinkles are going to disappear. Then we are disappointed when they don’t disappear. The label probably says, reduces the appearance of wrinkles. So, the appearance is less, but that doesn’t make the actual wrinkle less. It’s a simple example but I think you get what I mean.

If you look at the ingredient listing on the label, the ingredient must be listed from most to least. Preservatives, fragrance and colour are usually last on the list and usually less than 1%. So anything around that section of the list is very low. If the only natural ingredients are very low on the list, the product probably isn’t fully natural. Although, as I said, some natural ingredients have very chemical sounding names.

You also kind of have to rely on the ethical marketing of the brand, which is another difficult one.

image: Shutterstock

Are natural cosmetics beneficial, and are they recommended over synthetic ones?

I think most cosmetics are beneficial, natural or synthetic. Cosmetics are manufactured according to very strict safety rules, despite the crazy stories you can find online. I think there are so many wonderful benefits in nature that are difficult to replicate, so harnessing the best of nature and using that for beauty gives consumers so much more choice.

There are a few debates that go on in my head about natural vs synthetic. I think a balance between the two is the best way to go. This gives consumers the best options that are also the safest.

Think of it in terms of food. You can’t really have a fully healthy diet on meal replacement shakes alone, but sometimes the real food lacks a little something you need in your diet. So having a nutrition shake, or nutritional supplements gives you everything you need. It’s a balance between the natural real food, and the supplements. If that makes sense?

With the different skin concerns every one has, you may find that for an oily skin a synthetic active can give much better efficacy and clear the skin beautifully, but for a dry skin a natural ingredient may be the perfect solution.

It also comes down to a personal choice. Some people love tech, and there are some amazing technology advancements in cosmetic ingredients.

With natural only, you may also not get the exact soft, light, silky feel of a cream that you could with a few synthetic ingredients added in. So the preference for texture will also play a role.

Then comes the cost. Natural ingredients can cost as much as 100 times more than the synthetic equivalent.

This question could also be delved into much deeper to explain more about differences between natural and synthetic ingredients.

Image: Shutterstock

Do you use shelf cosmetics?

Yes, I do. I am a girl, and I love pretty things. When I make my own products, they are usually in lab sample jars, and look plain. I get to have some of the best products, but I also like pretty packaging on my dressing table.

Another reason is I like to try new products on the market, so that when I get requests from clients to formulate something like the latest launched product, I am familiar with it and know what the new trends are. I also like to play with the products and get a feel for how other people make them.

When I am using a top brand I imagine what their cosmetic chemist was thinking when they formulated it. Sometimes I am blown away by how amazing a product is that seems so simple, but the reverse is also true.

Probably my biggest reason for buying shelf cosmetics is that it's my work to make cosmetics. So when I run low on something, sometimes I don’t have the time to make myself something, or I am just not in the mood to get into my lab to work. Maybe like a chef enjoying take away food? Or a plumber calling in someone to fix their own drains.

But I use mostly my own creations. One of my best things to do, and a real privilege in my work, when I make an exquisite cream for a client, if it doesn’t quite come out right and I don’t want to submit it, instead of throwing it away, I keep it and use it.

Image: Shutterstock

Can natural ingredients help with skin concerns such as pigmentation?

Absolutely! There are so many advances in the technology of natural ingredients that almost any skin concern can be helped by natural ingredients. There are so many choices it is hard to list a few key ones. One big one though is the use Niacinamide (Vit B3) for evening skin tone, anti-ageing and anti-acne. This is one natural ingredient that can do so much.

Natural oils are becoming very popular and are also amazing for different skin concerns, like baobab, marula, jojoba, argan etc.

When I get a brief for new formulation development I have a list of hundreds of naturals to go through to get the right claims. Often an ingredient is chosen because it has a great marketing story that can be used. The technical aspects of how an ingredient works is not usually of interest to a consumer, so a pretty story behind the ingredient is usually used in marketing.

How long do homemade products last?

This really depends so much on what you are using and how you make it. If you are using fresh food, like avo or pineapple, then it won’t last very long.

If you're making creams they should last a few weeks, but this really depends on the formulation/recipe and how you've made it.

The recipes in my book can last a few months. I’ve made them a few times over and still have some that I made eight months ago which are still perfect. 

Are natural cosmetics safe for kids?

Some may be and some not – it depends on the ingredients and how much of the ingredients in the formulation. For kids, it's safest to use products that state they are suitable for kids.

Simple products like oils-based products should be fine, but if some essential oils are used, or some actives, it may not be suitable. For instance a plant extract that has long-term moisturising properties for dry skins, may not be necessary for a young child’s skin, and it may cause a bit of irritation rather than nourish. It all depends on the product.

Basic creams with mainly natural oils should be okay, while essential oils are not always suitable for babies or kids as they can cause allergic reactions. Read the label carefully and if in doubt, Google the essential oil, and check safety for kids (and pregnancy).

What are the general tools one needs at home to make up products?

I use a Thermomix to make mine, it makes it super easy, but I’ve also used a standard hand blender.

You would need:

  • Heat stable glass jars/beakers (pyrex jugs are great)
  • Thermometer – for creams
  • Hand blender
  • Kitchen scale
  • Stove top with a solid plate (so that the glass jug doesn’t fall over when heating on the stove)
  • Jars and bottles to pack into. It helps to keep your used ones of bought products. Wash them well and then reuse.

What are your favourite ingredients for making up products, or treating skin and hair?

Coconut oil is so easy to work with for hair and skin care. It has so many benefits. I also love making lavender water which I use in some recipes instead of water. It gives that special bit extra in the product.

Neroli oil is my favourite essential oil, it has the most amazing smell and so many benefits as well.

I like to play around with other oils and mix different oils together to get maximum benefit, so if my skin is a bit drier during winter I like using avo oil and coconut oil. But if I want something lighter for summer then I use sunflower oil, it has a slightly lighter feel.

Can you share a favourite recipe?

My latest one, which I also shared on Facebook, is one of my favourite ones to make. It detoxes the skin, helps cleari oily skin, and refreshes tired and dull skin. And you have all the ingredients you have in your kitchen!

Volcanic Detox Mask


  • 1 tsp charcoal powder
  • 4 Disprins
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • Few drops lemon juice


  • Break the Disprins up and mash into powder. The back of a teaspoon works well.
  • Add other dry ingredients and mix together.
  • Add a few drops of lemon juice. I prefer to squeeze fresh lemon, but lemon juice works just as well.
  • It will start fizzing and bubbling, just like a volcano about to explode. 
  • Apply the mask onto clean skin, leave on for 10 – 15 min.
  • Use gentle circular massages to remove the mask with warm water. This helps exfoliate the skin.


When and where will the book be available, and what can one expect from it?

The provisional launch date is 22 November at Skoobs Montecasino, where it will be sold. It can also be ordered online for delivery.

With the help of this book you will be able to create 50 amazing, economical natural and organic beauty and household products. Learn how to make everything from cleansers, scrubs, creams and lotions to dog shampoo.

I also include lots of expert tips with the recipes and some extra information on the science of skin, hair and cosmetics.

You can follow Conny on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.




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