Thursday, December 16, 2010

Question: What does natural mean?

I am regularly asked how to make natural products and I guess I'm having trouble figuring out what that means, so I turn to you, my lovely readers, to help me define what exactly you mean so I can write up some natural product recipes! 

When I think of natural ingredients, I think of those that I consider minimally processed. All of our botanical or natural ingredients have to be processed in some way so we can use them in our products. Bees and honey have to be removed from beeswax, olives have to be pressed, extracts have to be dried and ground into powder. So they aren't truly as nature intended as they have been interfered with in some way before we get them, hence the concept of being minimally processed.

When I look at things advertised as natural emulsifiers - for instance, Ritamulse (aka Natramulse, ECO mulse) - they don't strike me as natural (INCI: Glyceryl Stearate (and) Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate). The original source might have been coconuts, but we don't just scoop out some cetearyl alcohol along with the coconut milk; it has to be processed in some way to produce the various fatty acids, fatty alcohols, and so on.

I get similarly confused when I see surfactants listed as "derived from coconuts" or "derived from almonds" or "derived from sunflowers" because most, if not all, of our surfactants are derived from some kind of oils found in fruits, seeds, and so on. I see something like decyl glucoside being called natural, but I don't understand how the process to turn this sugar based surfactant is different than making something like disodium laureth sulfosuccinate (DLS mild), which is derived from coconut or palm oils.

When I think of a natural product, I think of lotion bars, whipped butters, lip balms, and body oils - in other words, I think of anhydrous products, and I've already covered those in great detail in both the posts and the e-book. I honestly can't see how anything containing a surfactant, a cationic quat, an emulsifier, a preservative, and so on could be considered natural. I think we could make a mostly natural lotion (let's say about 92% if we ignore the emulsifier, thickener, preservative, and fragrance oil) but I can't see how it is possible to make a 100% natural lotion!

I guess this is where I'm getting confused. I can't understand how something that has been modified in a manufacturer's lab - an emulsifier or surfactant - can be considered natural in the way beeswax or glacial clay could be considered natural. So I turn to you for some assistance here. When you are asking for recipes for a natural product, what do you mean? What ingredients do you consider natural? And why are some considered natural and some aren't?

An addendum to this post specifically to the people who have been writing to me asking for natural products - can you please e-mail me or comment as to what you mean by natural? I'm happy to do formulate some recipes, but I need to know what you are defining as natural! 


melian1 said...

i think the term "natural" is simply a marketing term. companies stirred up fear and distaste for something, then advertised that they have the antithesis to that. in order to boost sales - and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. similar to "new and improved" when nothing has changed except possibly the packaging.

i think if folks realized that many things, if used as taken from nature, was toxic or otherwise harmful they might not have the same outlook. if folks considered that they're falling for the advertising hype, they might have a different outlook.

"natural" and "all natural" serve as red flags for me. i immediately check to be sure they have got preservative and so on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,

I believe if someone asks for natural they might mean PEG-free, Silicone free, Mineral oil free. But I could be mistaken. Plants are considered "natural". Consuming a few leaves of Red Foxglove (Digitales purpurea)are deadly. Well, I guess one dies a natural death then.


Topcat said...

Oh, I am so with you on this Susan! A significant percentage of my customer base are looking for 'natural' products and I have given up trying to educate unless someone seems more switched on.

I have decided that for my customers natural mostly means "is this going to be good for me and do me no harm?" and that is how I approach my formulating and my marketing conversations now. I do my best to include ingredients that I feel are mild, gentle and minimally processed and focus on promoting that, rather than buy into the 'natural' discussion :)

Madeaj said...

That is why I don't sell my stuff. Rather the just getting the benefit of quality fresh ingredients, people think the words "all natural" is some kind of magical cure.

I'm like Melian1, if it says all natural, I'm checking the label for preservatives and if it says no preservatives I'm not buying it.

A friend argued for "all natural" products. I had to remind her that poison ivy was all natural, but I'm not rubbing it on my body or putting it in a smoothie.

sheri said...

Love this post! And I am guilty myself of saying I prefer "natural". Well, personally I don't find "CCT's" as natural, yet many do, and frankly they are GREAT. There is so much misinformation out there today and it is our job to educate the consumer if we are using natural for marketing as to what that means but as the others say they may mean free of certain ingredients. It is unfortunate but even the words "chemical" free are so misleading, afterall essential oils are pure chemical compounds. :)

Zenobiah said...

I agree that all natural products have to be anhydrous, but even so, I prefer my products "as natural as possible". A lot of it I think has to do with the fact that I am not a chemist, so lotions with few and understandable ingredients SEEM more natural to me than lotions with long, confusing chemical-sounding names since I have no idea what these substances will actually "do" to me.

That said, I loooooove silicone-based products. :D

p said...

Ok, I'll bite! :) While I certainly agree that there are plenty of substances found in nature that are harmful (foxglove, poison ivy, bacteria in unpreserved products, etc.), I don't think those who seek all-natural products are necessarily uneducated idiots.

There are good reasons to avoid new and novel, more processed chemicals - they're new! Long term effects on health and the environment just aren't fully known. The history of the chemical industry is littered with examples of chemicals that were once commonly used and thought safe, that have since been banned because of their harmful effects. Carcinogenicity, effects on the tiniest critters on the food chain - these things are hard to suss out and take time, and occasionally the chemical industry and scientific community miss big stuff. Do we really have good reason to believe that some of the chemicals of today - and their users - won't see the same fate?

So I think it makes sense to opt to use ingredients (in cosmetics, in foods, in building materials, you name it) that have a long history of use - and these tend to be "natural" - unless you have to choose otherwise. And sometimes you do have to choose less natural options... The pharmaceutical industry comes to mind - to alleviate suffering now, we have to make our best guess about treatment, and occasionally those best guesses end up being really wrong. But you're damned if you do, damned if you don't - watch people suffer, perhaps needlessly, or take a risk and go with a new, promising treatment. These kinds of choices are necessary when the stakes are high. But why do we have to choose formaldehyde releasers in our cosmetics? If you can't find a natural product that can do the job right, and if the job is really necessary, go with a more processed chemical - but really, how many cosmetics are really necessary? Are the phthalates in synthetically scented products necessary or are they for fun? Is it worth using this stuff just for fun? How about nanoparticles? Is it worth putting aside the precautionary principle? Not to me, and I'm guessing not for many other people who seek out all-natural products.

All-natural isn't good enough to guarantee a product is safe - ingredients have to be well-chosen (no poison ivy in my lotion!), recipes have to be well-formulated, etc. But this is true whether a product is all-natural or not, you know?

As an aside, I definitely agree that the term "natural" is basically impossible to define in a meaningful way. Everyone has their own dividing line... but I think one can identify a large class of ingredients that everyone would agree to call natural (oils, essential oils, waxes, extracts, clays...), and there are companies that use only these sorts of ingredients. Dr Bronner's comes to mind, because lots of people know them... I've mentioned Dr Bronner's lotion before - here's their ingredients list:

Aqua, Organic Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil*, Organic Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Organic Ethanol, Organic Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil, Organic Cannabis Sativa (Hemp) Seed Oil, Organic Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Oil, Organic Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil, Organic Quillaja Saponaria Extract, Xanthan Gum, Tocopherol

I'd certainly call this a 100% natural lotion. There are lots of other companies who'd also meet the standard, not fly-by-night, sketchy ones either. Some companies make lotion using beeswax and borax for their emulsifiers, ethanol to preserve, essential oils to fragrance, and that's how they stay 100% natural.

Thanks for raising the issue, Susan!


p said...

[hops off soapbox and ducks!] :)

Dee said...

Since "Natural" as no official definition from the FDA (despite cosmetic products being regulated by FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition), I guess - and it shows here in the previous comment - that "Natural" is a matter of, well, taste. :)

To me, the best definition comes from USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS):
"A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural."
(this is actually for the labeling of meat and poultry products).

I don't even look at "Natural" anymore, since pretty much anyone can claim its product to be Natural.
I look for "Organic" with the USDA Organic seal. At least, there, I know there are strict rules to have that label on a packaging.

kontakt said...

"Natural" has no good definition, no. But "natural cosmetics" - if that is the term, "naturkosmetik" in Swedish and something similar in German - has definitions, created by the industry behind it. I read a book about the subject, which didn't convince me but was very enlightening.

The German organisation BDIH is the strictest. It lists 700 ingredients, which you are to choose from if you want to license your product with them - it's like products labeled with symbols that they are not bad for the environment, I guess you have them in Canada too? The focus is on organically grown stuff, low degree of processing, and avoiding certain types of ingredients like PEG-modified stuff and mineral oils generally percieved as unnatural. Fragrance should not be synthetic, but from essential oils. They list what surfactants they accept, realising that the surfactants can not meet the criteria they use on other ingredients since then you would end up with no surfactants at all. The point with this is largely to find an instrument to define their line of companies against companies like the Body Shop and Fleur de Sante, who market themselves as close to nature/herbal etc. but actually make standard cosmetics with a little extracts in them.

But then of course your readers probably have blurred opinions on what "natural" means, not necessarily matching those of BDIH. I think you can safely assume they who say they want "natural" products don't know what they mean (which probably was the point of your post, anyway...)

Tara said...

How does Dr. Bronner's lotion even stay emulsified? I don't see an emulsifier in the ingredients list, or am I mistaken?

Tara said...

Most of my concern comes in the form of what many of these chemicals and the production of them does to the environment. Using oil from an olive rather than from a fossil might down the road protect some fish somewhere. Or maybe I am just being naive.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Thank you to everyone who commented. These were really well thought out, articulate comments, and it's clear there's so much confusion about what "natural" really means. I think I'm more confused than I was when I wrote the post!

I'm with you, Tara. I don't see how the Dr Bronner's lotion can be emulsified? I think it's the combination of the xanthan gum and the Quillaja Saponaria Extract that keeps it emulsified, but I'm not sure. And I don't understand why 20% to 30% alcohol as a preservative is considered better than 0.5% of something like liquid Germall Plus? Alcohol is so drying to your skin.

I know Whole Foods has a list of things you can't use, but I simply can't abide the list. There is no internal logic to it, and they don't show any evidence why those ingredients shouldn't be used.

I'm happy to try to make some natural products as per requests, but I have no idea where to start and it seems that if I do make something, someone somewhere is going to find something objectionable in it!

But keep the information coming!

Mychelle said...

To me, "natural" applies to anhydrous products made with minimally processed ingredients. I understand that everything is processed, but the general public makes a large distinction between shea butter and cyclomethicone - though I love them both! If I see a lotion labeled "natural" I am suspect of its ingredients - if it has preservatives and emulsifiers it is not technically natural, and if it doesn't then I am not buying it! But the term, in my opinion, can be rightfully applied to anhydrous products with minimally processed ingredients, no preservatives, and no overtly chemical ingredients. My favorite lip balm formula uses shea and cocoa butters, beeswax, and a combo of olive and sesame oils. This I can confidently call "natural" as it fits my understanding f the term. My favorite lotion? Silicones, esters, oils, fatty alcohols, emulsifiers, the works. Wonderful? You bet! Natural? Not so much.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,

I ask that question myself. Although the other day I was looking through a catalog for J.R.Watkins products. It gives certain guidelines for their "natural" products. After reading your question I decided to look on their website for further definition. From there I went to the "Natural Products Association" founded in 1936. They describe in fairly good detail what is considered natural and synthetic. It takes a while to look through all of their regulations but I think that this would b a fairly good definition/description for what people expect when purchasing a "natural" product. I would also add that Burt's Bees and similar companies is what most would define as "Natural" products. I agree with the post including Dr. Bronner's soap.

Thanks so much for your website!!
Viola, KS

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Viola! Thanks for the website - I'm not going to spend a ton of time looking through it as there's a lot of information and I really would like to hear from people who want me to make natural products what they want specifically. But it's a great resource.

Natural Products Foundation

I agree that there are some things that are obviously synthetic - silicones, esters, and so on - but it's the emulsifiers that get me. How can anything be called a natural emulsifier, other than beeswax & borax (and I'm not making those lotions)? This is where i get confused!

p said...

Susan, I've looked into natural emulsifiers.... There are a wide variety of ways to create a natural emulsion, but, apart from beeswax and borax, it's not as simple as adding 2% of ingredient X. Dr Bronner's lotion seems to use Quillaja saponaria extract and xanthan gum, but I bet they fiddled with formulating that product for a damn long time before they got the amounts right (and I wonder if the fact that the coconut oil is solid at room temp is key - i.e. I wonder if it separates in hot weather!). Other producers use various combinations of natural gels (pectin, algins, aloe, marshmallow extract, stuff like that), natural sources of saponins (the Quillaja saponaria is an example), lecithin, and/or xanthan gum - Dr Hauschka comes to mind. Here's an old patent on a composition for a stable natural emulsion using either a combination of aloe & saponin or aloe & lecithin:

So it is possible to create an emulsion without using purpose-made emulsifiers, without beeswax & borax - I've made some stuff like this myself. And I've made a stable cream using beeswax w/o borax (stable for 1.5 years and counting), but I did have to get my remaining ingredients just right. Way fiddly, though! It would be such a dream for me if you applied your knowledge and research skills to the whys and hows of these types of formulations! I realize that's not likely at all... but it is nice to daydream! :)

p said...

(p.s. I should have said, I've never heard of Dr Bronner's lotion separating, and I've read a number of reviews online. Probably my idea about the solid fats in the lotion is off base, but I still wonder.)

Will said...

Artificial -> Organic Cocos Nucifera Oil

Natural -> Coconut Oil

Or it's natural if it says it is.

Most people don't think anymore, they repeat what they've seen on info-mercials. And if you're a target demographic for a particular commodity, it's worse yet.

Perhaps a tad bitter, but...


patrizia said...

Natural is not a regulated term. There is no governing body that regulates the usage of the term 'natural' in bath or body products. Therefore, 'natural' can be used to describe anything and has no integrity as a term. Recently, I noticed Johnson and Johnson came out with their own baby products as certified Natural. Who certified their products? I believe J and J have certified their own products as 'natural'. This is not to say their products are not good, but just that perhaps the fox is watching the hen house.

In my view, the term I look for is "Certified Organic" by a recognizable body, like USDA. I will also look at a ANSI Standard for "natural", which I believe has to be around 75%. Otherwise, like when you purchase food goods, you have to turn the product around, look at the ingredients, and try to decipher what the heck is in there that you will be rubbing into your skin and therefore into your blood stream.

daniel said...

That's an easy one. Natural is if you know how its processed from start to end.

Bread technically is not natural. It is highly processed. But, it's a simple procedure. (Even though I admit, I am only vaguely sure of how yeast is physically produced in a factory or lab in daily practice.)

There are alot of well meaning people who are very sure they know how things are made, and even sell these things as "natural". They tend to copy/ paste manufacturers description of an item and not use inci.

Any oleo chemical is highly processed. A simple example is the solvent extracted grapeseed oil you mention. Do you actually know how this procedure is done, what machines are required, and what inputs?

It's a very complex world we live in. But that's the beauty of it, no?

My personal view of natural is certified organically grown agricultural items. So that would exclude wax and oils. After that, my view probably falls with yours of defined as "minimally processed".

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