Natural cosmetics are thriving and we’re not complaining! Between some sometimes subtle nuances and confusions cleverly maintained by greenwashing, it’s not always easy to understand what you’re dealing with. Like, do you know the difference between a natural ingredient and an ingredient of natural origin? We might think that they’re one and the same: after all, both of them are derived from nature, right? In reality, the difference can be substantial…
No official definition or label
There’s no legal, or even official, definition, nor a label or a controlling authority on naturalness. What about organic certifications? Well, organic and natural are not synonymous: an organic ingredient is always natural, but a natural ingredient is not always organic. And an organic skincare product doesn’t always exclusively contain natural ingredients (are you still following?).
We recently told you about the ISO 16128 standard. Its aim is to internationally define what makes an ingredient or product natural/ organic/ of natural origin. A commendable aim… That has changed next to nothing! The result is a tailor-made standard to make conventional cosmetics a little greener. A nice little gesture by manufacturers on the natural cosmetics market. To find out more about this, you can read our article on Natural cosmetics standards.
Today, there is nothing that regulates the name natural and no obligation – particularly in terms of traceability – imposed on manufacturers who decide to apply this label to a product. We pride ourselves on our good faith. Clearly, those who are as close to natural cosmetics as industrial fast foods are to haute cuisine use and abuse them. Enriched with natural extracts of… or XX% natural origin… Are used to decorate products, with no real meaning behind them.
Natural, from natural origin or synthetic?
So, how do we define them?
By reversing them: neither natural ingredients nor ingredients from natural origin are synthetic. The latter are produced by heavy chemistry, and don’t exist naturally: their molecules are produced artificially.
Next, by what they have in common: both natural ingredients and ingredients from natural origin have to come from nature. Plant-based (the most common and useful), mineral, and animal all fit the bill.
Finally, by what differentiates them: a natural ingredient preserves its raw properties and characteristics while an ingredient from natural origin has undergone some transformations to its chemical structure. And this can change a lot of things!
Natural ingredients are living, rich in precious nutrients, and that’s what makes them powerful active ingredients. If they need to be extracted (from leaves, seeds, nuts…), exclusively physical and mechanical procedures, allow this to happen without changing them: steam distillation for hydrolats or essential oils, cold-pressing for plant oils, sieving for plant extracts… It’s by being cold-pressed that argan oil can be so reparative, regenerative and antioxidant: it leaves its amazing content of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E and argan tree kernels almost intact.
Ingredients from natural origin have gone through a chemical transformation. Either because they can’t be used in raw form, or in order to change their characteristics. Clearly, they lose some of their characteristics during this operation. The most widely known example? Esterified or hydrogenated plant oils. While they come from the same plants as fabulous plant oils, the petrochemical treatments, solvents or heating to very high temperatures strip them from all of their precious vitamins or fatty acids. The objective? To improve yield and preserve them, change their texture, colour or odour to integrate them more easily into cosmetics. Economic and polluting incentives which do nothing for your skin: these oils are not just useless filler ingredients. And they’re far too common in cosmetics that claim to be natural and are even labelled organic.
Is natural always better?
So, for our skin as well as for the planet, should we be using exclusively natural ingredients? Clearly, it’s not that simple.
First of all, chemical is neither synonymous with synthetic nor harmful: nature is full; of chemical reactions. Everything around us is chemical! An ingredient from natural origin can be obtained via petrochemical, pollutant, irritant, and toxic solvents. Yes. But there does exist an alternative green chemistry.
Its principles: excluding all procedures that are harmful to the environment, all use on non-renewable resources with effects on our health that are controversial at best, saving energy as much as possible, without producing any pollutant waste. The procedures involved? Esterification, saponification, fermentation, hydrolysis, ionic exchange, and neutralisation.
With green chemistry, we can produce or extract molecules by using plants (starch, algae, straw, oleaginous fruits…) or minerals (caustic soda…) instead of hydrocarbons and product ingredients that do not exist in nature in the same way. In natural and/or organic cosmetics, these are tensioactives, generally gentle and respect the skin: cold-saponified soaps which are the best things we can use to wash are a great example. Green chemistry also allows us to obtain all of the ingredients necessary to preserve, stabilise and maintain quality of cosmetics that contain water, which is very vulnerable to contamination. Radish fermentation produced an antibacterial preservative, the esterifying of coconut oil produced glyceryl caprylate emulsifier.
These ingredients from natural origin can, even when not labelled, be organic or sustainably harvested. So they are ecological, respectful to the environment, our body and our skin. In short, they can be perfectly safe.
On the other hand, a natural ingredient can contain synthetic chemical substances if it has been farmed using pesticides, fertilisers, GMOs, or on contaminated land: hello heavy metals, hormonal disruptors and other fun stuff. It can even participate in environmental devastation like the famous palm oil. Basically, for our health as well as for our skin, natural doesn’t mean risk-free: some natural active ingredients are carcinogenic, hormonal disruptors, and so on. Aluminium salts in deodorants, even when natural, are just one example. Yikes, it was already complicated, but it’s getting even harder!
How do I check how natural my cosmetics are?
Today, a skincare product can claim to be natural without containing entirely natural ingredients. But also with no transparency relating to its ingredients and with no obligation in terms of their source or how they are made. The manufacturers aren’t lacking in inventiveness or audacity. Water is natural, that’s certainly true. But taking it into account so that a product that is 60% water is natural? Seriously?
The difficulty is knowing how all of these ingredients of natural origin were produced. In our eyes, although organic labels have less stringent requirements than those that we apply voluntarily, they still have one major use: they draw up a list of acceptable transformations. But they only really prohibit the heaviest processes. And this is the problem: knowing where to point the finger. What about sulfation? It allows you to turn castor oil into an emulsifying tensioactive from natural origin, but one that is irritant. In the same way, what should we think about procedures like hydrogenation which sometimes rely on heavy metals?
Basically, we always end up coming back to the same idea: be wary of marketing slogans. For each ingredient, ask these questions:
- Is it natural or from natural origin?
- If it is natural, is it organic or sustainably harvested?
- If it is from natural origin, how is it obtained, which procedures does it involve? Do they reslect my health, and the environment? In which ways do they alter the original substance? Is the ingredient obtained credible and beneficial for my skin and health?
It’s not always easy to be an informed consumer! Which ingredients should you trust? The INCI list, charts, brands that are transparent when it comes to their specifications and the origin of their ingredients. And if you are missing some information, ask. At oOlution, we only use organic or sustainably-harvested and natural ingredients and only our preservatives and stabilisers from natural origin. All of our ingredients are obtained through green chemistry, without the use of palm oil which is, unfortunately, still used far too often in green chemistry. Being transparent right until the very end, on our product indexes you can identify all of our ingredients in a flash. And if you still have doubts, we would be more than happy to respond to any of your questions!
This post is also available in french.