What is natural?
There are no shortage of products on the market claiming to be natural, driven by the huge consumer demand. Are these products truly natural or is it marketing hype? From a health and environmental safety perspective, should we be seeking out natural? In this blog post, I’ll dive into this topic a bit further, starting with the question, what is ‘natural’ when it comes to your personal care.
What is natural?
According to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 16128, our best tool currently for defining ‘naturalness’ as an industry. The following is what we (should) mean when we call something all-natural/100%natural, naturally derived and synthetic.
100% natural: ingredients obtained only from plants, animals, microbiological, or mineral origin, either by physical processes (e.g. grinding, drying, distillation, etc.), fermentation reactions occurring in nature and leading to molecules which occur in nature, and other procedures of preparation including traditional ones (e.g. extraction using solvents) without intentional chemical modification. Ingredients from petrochemicals are excluded from this definition. Examples of 100% natural ingredients include essential oils and cold pressed plant seed oils.
Naturally derived: ingredients of greater than 50% by molecular weight natural origin, obtained through defined chemical and/or biological processes with the intention of chemical modification. This can be split up into two categories - end materials with (e.g. cocamidopropyl betaine or sodium lauryl sulfate) or without “synthetic” components (e.g. coco glucoside, squalane).
Natural Mineral: inorganic substances (i.e. non-carbon based) occurring naturally in the earth. For example, talc, sea salt.
Derived Mineral: ingredients obtained through chemical processing of inorganic substances which have the same chemical composition as natural mineral ingredients (i.e. nature-identical but synthetic). For example, iron oxides, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, mica.
Synthetic/non-natural: Ingredients obtained from fossil fuel or ingredients having more than 50% of non-natural moiety: propylene glycol, mineral oil, dimethicone…
A point of debate - petroleum comes from the earth, so would it not be natural? Silicones, for example dimethicone, are largely derived from sand, a natural starting point. Everything, at one point, comes from nature.
From this framework, for a product to be truly ‘all-natural’, it would be quite restricted. For example, if you’re limited to things like oils, essential oils and waxes in your toolkit, the most you could ever hope for would be things like simple anhydrous (water-free) products like lip balms and body oils… all of which would be improved with naturally derived or non-natural materials. For example, since plant-based oils and essential oils are inherently prone to oxidation, without the addition of a naturally derived or non-natural antioxidant (e.g tocopherol), the shelf life would be very low due to rancidity. 100% natural body oils with only cold-pressed oils are greasy and undesirable for most people. When you have naturally derived oily materials to work with, such as esters, all of a sudden you can now produce silky light end products that more people will actually want to use. In contrast to what’s often marketed, soaps, cleansers, water-containing lotions - these are naturally derived at ‘best’, not all-natural.
Other definitions from industry certifiers are quite similar to the above, with the exception that GMOs are considered unnatural and will not be allowed if a product is to be certified, which I have my own thoughts on (For more on this point of certifications, tune into my interview with Damien Perriman). For example, below is the definition from NATRUE, a popular certifier in the EU.
Natural substances are substances of botanic, inorganic-mineral or animal origin (except for dead vertebrates) and their mixtures with each other. Only physical processes including extraction with the extraction and purifying agents listed in Annex 1a and the pH-adjusting agents listed in Annex 1b are permitted for recovery and further processing. Enzymatic and microbiological reactions are also permitted in so far as exclusively naturally occurring microorganisms or enzymes (re- non-GMO) obtained thereof are used, and the end products are identical to those which occur in nature. You can view more on this as well as their annexes here.
Here are a few examples of products with all-natural claims (on, by the ISO standard, not all-natural products) on the market…
*** From a consumer standpoint, since the above definitions aren’t legally enforced, when you see ‘natural’ on a label, take it as a grain of salt. If you’re a consumer who wants to use only natural products, the above ISO standard is a good place to start when reviewing ingredient lists. ***
Here’s the interview I did with Damien that I mentioned above, in case you didn’t click through the link :). An important discussion on the challenges of eco-certification.
Is natural better?
As I’ve already highlighted, all-natural products are generally sub-par when it comes to performance, which is where naturally-derived ingredients can open up many possibilities. But product performance isn’t usually what’s highlighted when people are talking about ‘better’ - usually they’re talking about the environmental or health impact, so let’s explore that.
While it may feel right to assume that a natural ingredient will be better for the earth and for you, it’s ultimately a case by case basis. Poison ivy, as an example, is natural. For an example closer to home in the personal care world, certain essential oils are among some of the most allergenic ingredients used in cosmetics... and they're also fraught with sustainability challenges... with slow-regrowth coupled with harvesting that sometimes kills the plant (i.e. sandalwood), or massive amount of plant material required for essential oil extraction (i.e. rose otto, around 10,000lbs for 1lb of essential oil) (note, I’m not saying all essential oils aren’t sustainable. I’m saying that some arguably are not, such as with the cases above). Sometimes “synthetic” is a better option. Outside of potentially synthetic or biotech fragrance alternatives to the examples above, a great example here would be iron oxides, previously naturally derived but due to health risks for things like heavy metal contamination, today, as mandated by the FDA in the USA, all iron oxides must be made in a lab to ensure consumer safety and are thus nature-identical but totally synthetic (note, in the USA, there is NO SUCH THING as all-natural makeup due to regulations on material safety). Mica is a mined mineral with a lot of social issues, particularly with child labour. While I’m not of the opinion that mica is bad per se - many communities depend on mica for their income and there are agencies working to do things better, for example, the Responsible Mica Initiative. With that said, synthetic mica - fluorphlogopite, could be a good alternative. Natural preservative systems are less effective than their “synthetic” alternatives, and often have to be used at higher percentages. This bodes for a higher potential for skin allergy (preservatives generally have a potential for irritancy) and contamination - from a safety perspective, this is a concern. Note, natural preservative systems also typically contain nature identical ingredients, such as sodium benzoate, and are actually often “synthetic” anyway. Parabens, considered “synthetic” are, in contrast to what is often spouted, demonstrably safe and very effective (for more, read our guide to preservatives) - they also naturally occur in many fruits and veggies. Would they not also be nature-identical? Alas, misinformation on these ingredients have already spread, so likely, despite this contradiction, this probably won’t change.
Here’s a few podcasts that would be worthwhile to listen to, on the topic of misinformation, including as it pertains to parabens.
Appeal to nature fallacy: an argument which proposes that something is better because it’s “natural”, or bad because it is “unnatural.” This is an idea that we as humans have a tendency to lean towards. We have to actively train our minds to not fall into this thinking pattern if we truly want to think critically on a subject to make the best decision based on the available evidence.*
Instead of buying into the idea that “natural is better”, my suggestion, be critical of the actual impacts. An obvious one - will you use a straight-up oil as a moisturizer if it feels greasy on your skin? Less obvious questions - What is the carbon footprint of the material? Is it biodegradable/degradable? If not, is it an eco-toxin? Is production/sourcing sustainable? Is the material allergenic? Is there actually any data to support adverse health impacts when used at percentages seen in your products (note, hazard vs actual risk from a toxicological perspective)? There are so many agencies and individuals with a vested interest in selling you a product based on misinformation - Be critical of your information sources. After reading this and taking the time to form your own opinions, if you still come to the conclusion that natural is better, at least you’ve done so using your own critical thinking and not relying on blind faith.
Questions, queries, comments or concerns? Leave em’ below or on any of our social media feeds and we’ll try our best to get back to you :).
Bledzka D et al. (2014) Parabens. From environmental studies to human health. Environmental international. 67:27-42.
Federal Drug Administration. (2017) Summary of color additives for use in the United States in food, drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/industry/color-additive-inventories/summary-color-additives-use-united-states-foods-drugs-cosmetics-and-medical-devices
International Organization for Standardization. (2016). Guidelines on technical definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic ingredients and products. ISO 16128-1
Mortimer S & Reeder M. (2016) Botanicals in Dermatology: Essential Oils, Botanical Allergens, and Current Regulatory Practices. Dermatitis. 27(6):317-324.
NATRUE. (2019) NATRUE Label: requirements to be met by natural and organic cosmetics. Retrieved from https://www.natrue.org/uploads/2019/06/EN-NATRUE-Label_Requirements_V3_8-1-1.pdf
Sasseville D et al. (2015) “Parabenoia” Debunked, or “Who’s afraid of parabens?” Dermatitis. 26(6):254-259.
Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS. (2005) Extended Opinion on Parabens, underarm cosmetics and breast cancer. Directorate-general for health and consumers.
Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS. (2010) OPINION ON Parabens. Directorate-general for health and consumers.