Let's Do Away With The Word Natural!
It may seem odd for a manufacturer of “natural skin care” to be saying that--but under federal labeling rules, the word "natural" means absolutely nothing. Unlike certified organic, which adheres to a clear set of standards by the USDA, the FDA has never created any regulations for what "natural" actually means, and if it ever does try to define “natural” it will be no easy task.
So what does natural mean? Well, that depends on who you ask. Do this simple exercise. Sit down with friends and family and ask them to define the word “natural.” First, define what Natural “is” and then what it “is not.”
You cannot plant a seed in the ground and grow a natural bar of soap or face cream--the ingredients have to be processed in some way. Since there is no legal definition of what ‘natural’ really means, the concept of a "natural" skincare product becomes a subjective definition based on the philosophy, marketing plan, and target consumer of the company.
Merriam Webster defines natural as “existing in nature and not made or caused by people.”
While that seems simple enough, what does “not made or caused by people actually mean?”
- Unless your fruits and vegetables come from heirloom seeds, just about everything we eat from the ground has been grown using seeds that have been modified over time, by people, using natural breeding techniques—and I am not talking about GMO seeds.
- What if I cause my natural heirloom tomatoes to become tomato sauce? Can we still call them natural?
- What if I take natural olives and naturally press them into olive oil—is it still natural?
Merriam Webster goes on to define natural as “not having any extra substances or chemicals added.”
- Everything in nature is made of chemicals--so this is quite confusing.
- If I add some extra salt to my natural heirloom tomato sauce, is it still natural?
- Making jams and jellies has been a way of preserving fruit that dates back centuries and enabled people to have vitamins from fruit all year round. All types of sugar are chemicals--and jams are made by people--so can they be called natural?
- What if I take all of my natural ingredients that exist in nature and create a chemical reaction. Mixing together eggs, flour, sugar, water, baking soda, etc. to make dough and baking that dough in the oven is a series of complex chemical reactions. So, can I really make 100% natural bread?
Merriam Webster continues by stating “not containing anything artificial.”
Seriously, now I am supposed to define what artificial means?
One of my favorite definitions of natural is, "Comes from nature . . . all ingredients used are from a natural source.” There is a HUGE problem between something that is Naturally Occurring and something that is Naturally Derived. Here are some problems with that definition.
- Naturally occurring is defined as a natural ingredient or product that is delivered in a natural form and does not undergo any synthetic process
- Naturally derived means that some ingredient that was originally derived from nature has been chemically changed in some way and used to artificially create a new product
For example, a coconut, whether sold whole, shredded, sliced, or even dried, would be classified as a naturally occurring ingredient. If I extract the oil from my coconut by pressing, the oil would also be classified as naturally occurring.
However, if I take my coconuts and add sulfuric acid, sodium carbonate and process it using ethoxylation, it forms Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLS). During this whole process the harmful compound 1,4-dioxane, a component of Agent Orange, may be created. So although some SLS may be derived from coconuts, the chemical is anything but natural.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and its family members have been widely used in personal care products such as shampoo, toothpaste, mouthwash, shaving cream, face cleanser, and body wash. It is a surfactant, detergent foam booster, and emulsifier. I have seen companies state that their SLS is derived from natural coconuts. What they mean is that they are getting the raw material needed—in this case, the lauryl alcohol from coconut oil. Lauryl alcohol can come from petroleum, but it can also come from coconut oil--so I guess that makes it better.
No matter where the alcohol comes from, SLS is synthesized in the lab and the result is a chemical that is a long way from the original coconut oil. Companies know that consumers feel better using something that originated from coconut oil rather than from petroleum.
Another example is Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE), often used as a "natural preservative" in natural skincare products. Although it may originally come from nature and is often called "nature's preservative," studies have shown it is far from anything natural. While the lowly grapefruit seed does have some antimicrobial properties, commercially available GSE is made from grapefruit seeds, glycerin, and synthetic preservatives, primarily benzethonium chloride, blended together. Many scientific studies have shown that the antimicrobial activity in GSE is from contamination with synthetic antimicrobials, not the grapefruit seeds. Source: The American Botanical Council 2012
I think you get the point--"natural" is complicated!
It's What We Don't Know That Worries Me!
In June 2010 CNN aired “Toxic America,” a special investigative report detailing the pervasiveness of hazardous chemicals we are exposed to in our everyday lives.
Dr. Phil Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine stated that, "For 80 percent of the common chemicals in everyday use in this country we know almost nothing about whether or not they can damage the brains of children, the immune system, the reproductive system, and the other developing organs. It's really a terrible mess we've gotten ourselves into."
Making sense of skincare ingredients is quite challenging. One website or study will tell you an ingredient is safe and another website or study will tell you the complete opposite. When you do research on ingredients you often see that some are considered safe in the small doses used in skincare products.
But when I think of the various products I use on my skin each and every day, I can’t help but wonder how much is "a safe small dose" after 62 years. The fact is, that although some chemicals, like Phthalates (found in artificial fragrances) have known dangers, no one really knows how these synthetic chemicals will affect us over time, and that is what worries me.
You are probably saying to yourself . . . this is not news, so what got Ida so riled up?
I will share the brief story. Ben, our Chagrin Valley Soapmaker (amongst other things), was extolling the virtues of Chagrin Valley Soap with a fellow classmate when she pulled out a bottle of her new “natural” soap.
His first reflex was to turn the bottle over and read the ingredients (our Chagrin Family is well trained). This is a list of the ingredients in the natural soap:
Ingredients: Water, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, PEG 80 Sorbitan Laurate, Sodium Trideceth Sulphate, Vegetable Glycerine, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Juice, Sodium Lauroamphoacetate, Ethylene Glycol Monostearate, PEG 150 Distearate,(and some lovely essential oils)
Ben came into work the next day in quite a state. Angry and frustrated he asked me why and how does a company call something a natural soap when clearly it is not. So he decided to research the ingredients.
What he discovered was that the ingredients you cannot pronounce, are synthetic foaming agents, synthetic emulsifiers, and synthetic surfactants, (detergents that reduce the surface tension of something so that it more easily mixes with other ingredients). PEG stands for polyethylene glycol which is a petroleum-derivative compound that is made from ethylene glycol the main ingredient in antifreeze (pictured left).
Polyethylene is a common form of plastic, and when combined with glycol, it becomes a thick and sticky liquid that is used as an emulsifier and surfactant.
A little aside: This product is advertised as "A natural soap," but whether a product is a “soap” or is really a synthetic detergent, is defined by the FDA. This concoction does not even fit the legal definition of soap. Source (But that is for another blog!)
Back to my story. Now Ben not only makes our natural soap and shampoo bars, but he also manages and sources all of our natural and organic ingredients. He knows first hand the painstaking effort that we go through in order to research and source the purest ingredients from a few trusted vendors.
Ben knows that the word "natural" has meaning here at Chagrin Valley Soap and insists that it simply isn't right or fair that companies can slap the word natural on anything they choose. Of course, I agree!
If you do the little exercise that I described at the beginning of this blog, you will discover that there is a lot of confusion and most of us find it difficult to define exactly what "natural" means.
I hope you know that this is right where the food and personal care industries want us to be--totally confused. One thing is perfectly clear—the word "natural" sells. Beautiful labels with a bunch of pretty flowers and herbs and the word “natural” catch our attention.
According to a survey done by 1000 people by Consumer Reports National Research Center in June 2014, "The claim 'natural,' which is stamped on countless food labels, is widely misunderstood by consumers."
"Nearly 60 percent of people look for the term when they shop for food, probably because they think the products labeled natural are better for them than products without that claim.” And I am sure this holds true for skincare products as well. Consumers read the word “natural” to mean "better" and "healthier."
Now, I assured Ben that our customers are pretty savvy (that's why they are our customers) about misleading labels.
But what about everyone else? The reality is – “natural” is a term that can be placed on a label without meeting any standards at all. So, if the word has no meaning--let's do away with it! As consumers, we should not be required to interpret what our food and cosmetic labels “really mean” when they say “natural.”
If the word natural has no meaning in consumer products--then why do we not only use it but continue to place value on it? The FDA has been under some pressure to define "natural," and the agency has been petitioned by Consumer Reports to ban its use on food labels. The FDA has so far done neither.
What To Do? It's All About Ingredients!
I no longer look at packaging or advertising hype--I go directly to the ingredients. When I see the word “natural” on any product a red flag goes up and I immediately check out the ingredients. And while it obviously does not work for all ingredients, I try to avoid putting anything on my skin that I would not eat.
When I am really concerned about ingredients or growing practices, I stick with products that are Certified USDA Organic. I admit that organic certification tells you nothing about whether the skin care product is effective--it does not mean that it will get rid of wrinkles better than a non-organic product.
What Certified Organic skin care does tell you is that . . .
- the product is made of plant-derived ingredients that are grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or GMOs
- the product contains no synthetic fragrances, colors or preservatives and the integrity of the ingredients is carefully monitored through the manufacturing process to the shelf.
I know that organic is not perfect, but it does provide a way to hold food and personal care product manufacturers accountable.
One further note. While this blog has been all about the word "natural," sadly the word "organic" has fallen into the same fate in the cosmetic/personal care industry.
The word "organic" by itself, without USDA certification, has no meaning when slapped on the label of a personal care product! The word "organic" is not the same as USDA Certified Organic.
Unfortunately, the word "organic" on personal care products is not held up to the same rigorous standards as organic labels on food. While some companies simply do not understand the labeling regulations, others are taking advantage of the increasing demand for "organic" to sell their products and intentionally mislabel to lure the customer. These infractions, whether intentional or not, go unchecked because there is no “organic police” for the personal care industry.
Only those companies that are "USDA Certified Organic" have the "organic police" watching over their shoulders!
When looking for real organic products, look for the USDA organic symbol or the words "Certified Organic by..." For example, our labels will say, "Certified Organic by OEFFA," which is our USDA accredited certifying agent. It is the only guarantee that your skincare products are free from harmful synthetic chemicals!