Define Natural Please

In response to several requests on formulating natural cosmetics, a fellow blogger recently posed a question to her readers: 'which ingredients do you consider natural?'

After a few days of no reaction, she pointed out how difficult it was to offer advice on creating natural products if no one was willing to answer one simple question.

But it isn't a simple question, is it?

Following the Standard

This is a key issue not many people seem to be willing to address. The fact of the matter is, there is no industry standard for what qualifies as natural, and even us 'greenies' can't seem to agree on what it takes to be accepted under 'the natural banner'.

Surely it's The Suppliers Job

Years ago, I was happy to place the job of defining natural (almost) entirely in the hands of my chosen suppliers. I trusted they had gone through the arduous job of studying the necessary documentation before selecting 'acceptably green' ingredients. And let's be honest here: it is a nonstop job that requires vigilant research into growth, harvesting and production methods – for every ingredient. Most of my suppliers carry hundreds of ingredients. No need to do the math – it takes more than a bit of manpower.

I research ingredients all the time, but I also trust my suppliers to continue doing the excellent job they do. And they continue to be happy to supply documentation and answer my every question. They (all) carry such items as floral waters, hydrosols, organic vegetable and essential oils. And even though some would deny mineral powders and pigments, parabens and scent oils membership to 'the natural club', my suppliers (all) carry these ingredients as well.

From 'Off The Tree' to 'as Long as it's Safe'

I've come across all degrees of what people accept as 'natural' over the years, and it's a pretty wide scope. Some absolutely refuse to accept anything that has been processed in any way at all (read: it's not natural unless you pluck it directly from a tree and mash it onto your face). At the other end of the scale are the folks that will accept 'pretty much anything as long as it's safe' as natural.

So Where Are We Then?

Where does this leave us? Can anyone answer this question? When does an ingredient qualify as natural?
  • When it hasn't been processed? 
  • When it has been only slightly processed? 
  • When there are no petro-chemicals in contact with the ingredient during processing? 
  • When the ingredient is not refined? 
  • When the ingredient is organic? 
  • When the ingredient is plant-based? 
  • What if it is mineral-based? 
  • Is mineral make-up natural? 
  • Which preservatives are acceptable as natural? 

I could go on... but I'd rather hear what you have to say.

You Tell Me

What do you define as natural? I'm all ears!


Debbie said…
Good question! Off the top of my head I would consider something like baking soda natural even though it has to be processed (I think?) in some way. It is a single ingredient that I can pronounce and it for the most part comes out of the ground. If I see a product on the shelf and it has "chemically" sounding ingredients I don't consider that natural but if it's something on the shelf with multiple ingredients that I can pronounce and are "minimally" processed then I would consider that natural. It doesn't seem there are too many things that are not processed in some way, shape, or form, unless, like you said, you pluck it off the tree and mash it! I'm more of a consumer than a producer so that is the angle I am looking at. Organic is something I do gravitate to as I am fully aware of what it takes to have that label. But just because it's organic doesn't necessarily mean it is healthy!
Debbie said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
LisaLise said…
Thanks for your viewpoint Debbie! I totally agree that organic doesn't necessarily mean healthy. As for being able to pronounce ingredients, you may be cheating yourself out of a few goodies .. I use a few ridiculously hard to pronounce ingredients that are all natural. Try this tongue twister: Guar Hydroxypropyl Trimonium Chloride - that's the INCI name for guar gum. :)
Stephanie said…
It's a tough question! No doubt everyone's parameters are going to be different. To make matters worse, just because something is natural, doesn't mean it's necessarily good for you... like tobacco for instance. It's natural, basically a dried leaf, but it sure isn't healthy.
Rikke said…
Hej Lise

Da jeg så dit indlæg om parabener kom jeg til at tænke på, at jeg flere gange havdet startet på at besvare dette indlæg. Nu gør jeg det så. Jeg vil gerne have ordet naturlig skiftet ud med noget andet. For det hele stammer jo fra naturen. Og os, der processer og syntetiskgør naturens ting, er jo også fra naturen. Så er alt ikke naturlig. Jeg så lige en computerboss udtale, at en computer føles naturlig i hånden. "Naturlig" er fuldstændig udvandet. Jeg vil gerne bede om et nyt ord - der beskriver "tæt på den oprindelige form".

Kh Rikke
LisaLise said…
@Stephanie - LOVE THIS. You are so right!! Fun factoid: tobacco is a staple amongst many perfume-creators - far as I understand, it adds a bit of 'mystery' to a fragrance.

@Rikke - This totally deserves to be read by everyone. I am therefore translating your comment:

"When I saw your post about parabens it reminded me that I had begun to answer this question several times. Now I will. I'd like to exchange the word natural with something else. Everything is from nature. And mankind - who processes and synthesizes nature's products - is also from nature. But not everything is natural. I just heard a computer boss comment that a computer felt natural in his hand. 'Natural', as a term, is completely diluted. I'd like to see a new word - one that describes 'close to it's original form'.

Well put Rikke! (and excuse me if I didn't translate this as gracefully as you put it in Danish)
Rikke said…
Thank you for translating Lise. They are my words - just translated to English ;-)

It is a tough question and has been very difficult for me to define what is "acceptable" for my product line. Its a bit of a slippery slope, and one filled with many contradictions.

For instance, many natural companies use Japanese Honeysuckle Extract as a preservative while claiming that they are "paraben free", which is false. It is a natural paraben.

Are "phthalate free" fragrance oils good enough or do we really need to use precious essential oils in a product like a bath bomb, which took many precious plants to make, and will be washed down the drain after the bath?? For that matter, is 0.0001% lab colour in a bath bomb really that bad?

Can I still call myself Natural and use phenoxyethanol as a preservative? what about Emulsifiers - one of the only truly "natural" one is beeswax and borax, but there has also been controversy over the health risks of borax.

Also, I loove using Isopropyl Myristate! It is derived from vegetable fats but has been processed (clearly) - can I use that and not be chastised?

I am trying to come to terms with the fact that I cant please everyone, and there will always be someone who thinks the products should be more "natural". I guess will make what I like myself, and hope others feel the same.
LisaLise said…
Hey there 'Amedaya'. You are really touching on a key issue. I have the same thoughts-- your mention of phenoexethynol and emuslifiers is right on point. And you are also so right about not being able to please everyone. I try to be 100% honest about the ingredients I use but sometimes ingredients that I wouldn't consciously choose (such as carbomer) sneak right in and dazzle me. 100% safe 100% tested, yet it hasn't been anywhere near a plant - ever. Do I stop using it even though my customers prefer the version of my product with this ingredient?