Friday, August 30, 2013

On "Natural" vs "Synthetic" ingredients

My first "proper" post after my return from the UK was meant to be a few reflections on my recent trip to London, and how London's character and history informs the particular feel of some of the more prestigious UK shaving brands. That post didn't seem to want to be written, so instead I'm starting off with another topic that I've been thinking about for a while;

"Natural" vs "Synthetic" products

There are many cosmetics manufacturers, especially ones aiming for the luxury shaving and grooming market, who state that they mainly or exclusively use natural ingredients. For example; Taylor of Old Bond Street has labels on many of their products with the words "Herbal Aromatics" and "Pure" on them, while Edwin Jagger label their shaving soaps "99.9% Natural Ingredients". D.R Harris have a "Naturals" range, and eShave boast of their shaving soaps being "100% Natural". 

Edwin Jagger Sandalwood soap
Edwin Jagger Sandalwood soap

Some people take it for granted that Natural is Good and Synthetic is Bad- few people would consider an oil refinery to be as nice a place to visit as a forest, and chemistry is not one of the more popular subjects at schools. Factors like these tend to mean that a lot of people grow up with at least a bit of animosity to the science of Chemistry, and this often spills over into a fear of complex ingredient names on the back of their food and cosmetics packaging. 

However, these fears are not entirely rational (having pored over studies of risk vs perception of risk for my university dissertation, I'm fairly certain few fears are); after all, some of the worlds most deadly substances like Ricin and Cyanide occur naturally in plants, while synthetic insulin has saved many lives. Consequently, there are plenty of skeptics out there who question the (usually) higher price tag of natural products.

Seeds of Castor oil plant- the source of Ricin
Ricin-bearing Castor oil seeds-
Image credits

So if synthetic ingredients are not necessarily bad, and natural ingredients not always good, this begs the question: Why pay extra for natural products?

I personally have 3 reasons why I'm prepared to pay the premium that comes with them (although in the cases of the brands mentioned, the performance of the products alone would probably justify the price).

1) History of testing

Most of the natural ingredients used in cosmetics products have been used for a very long time- Limes for example, have been around for millennia, and have been cultivated and used by humans since at least the days of the Babylonians. The longer an ingredient has been in use, the more likely it is that any negative side-effects will have been discovered. Some things do slip through the net, powdered lead was used in cosmetics for a surprisingly long time despite it's effects, but generally, we as a species have had a long time to work out which of our more commonly used plants are bad for us- so far, all the of natural ingredients in my favorite products have a clean slate. 

This can not be said of synthetics; most of the ones being used in cosmetics are relatively modern, and we have not yet learnt all there is to know about their safety. Parabens, a controversial class of chemicals used as a preservative in many products, are probably the best example of this uncertainty.

2) Complexity
eShave's Almond Shave Cream
eShave's Almond Shave Cream

For all the advances of modern science, no chemical we can currently make in a lab approaches the complexity of many molecules found in nature- the best chemistry labs are still plant and animal cells. Given that your skin and the chemistry that regulates it is natural, this presents a limitation on how well synthetic ingredients can interact with your skin. 

Plant-based ingredients such as almond oil do a very good job of moisturizing and nourishing because their chemistry is much closer to that of the skin- the density of almond oil is allegedly close to that of the skin's own oils ("sebum"), which allows it to be better absorbed. Many drugstore moisturizers contain silicones which tend to absorb poorly, and instead sit on the surface of the skin, letting it feel smooth but doing little to benefit it.

3) Sustainability
Oranges in an orchard at the Technological Educational Institute at Heraklion, Crete
Orange orchard in Crete

Agriculture can have a harmful effect on the environment, but generally speaking, well-managed agriculture can be beneficial to local biodiversity and the environment. In my various visits to farms (and an orange orchard), I've seen many farmers ensure that their land is a haven to birds and insects, without it significantly impacting on the commercial use of the land. 

In contrast, an oil rig managed with even the greenest intentions and best practices will still have no positive environmental effect, and usually a negative one. By this logic, a product containing largely natural ingredients has the potential to be much more sustainable than one largely synthetic product.

D.R. Harris Natural Shaving soap
D.R. Harris Naturals Shaving Soap
These reasons may not appeal to everyone as much as me- I am always interested to hear other people's opinions on why natural products are/aren't worth the money.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

New Press release

We have a new range of 5 piece sets, intended to help newbies get started with wet-shaving. They have everything needed to start off shaving with a safety razor and brush. Probably the only extra you need is are some blades (Merkur razors come with a single Merkur blade, Edwin Jagger razors normally come with a pack of 5 Derby blades). Check out our press release for more info (or just take a look at the sets), along with a mention of some of our new Taylor of Old Bond Street items.

I have a "proper" post scheduled for tomorrow!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Up and running again

I am back in Canada, and already planning the next few month's posts. Stay tuned!