Saturday, January 7, 2012

To those of you writing to me about making natural products...

I feel as if I have to post this again because I'm getting a number of people writing to me asking about natural products, sending me links to the EWG or Skin Deep databases, and I feel like I need to clarify my position again, so I'm reposting this older post. I really encourage you to read the discussion when I posted this originally....And I really encourage you to read this post I wrote on "Are the ingredients I suggest on the blog safe", where I pose the question, "Would I use an ingredient on my mom, my husband, my dog, and the kids in my youth program if they weren't safe?"

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! 


Related posts:
How do you know your ingredients are safe?
Defining your products by what's NOT in it.
Why am I perceived at hating "all natural" things?
Much maligned ingredients!
What does "coconut derived" mean?
I'm chemical free! 
Celebrating 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry
How to research ingredients (and the Trifecta of Argh!)

15 comments:

Gillian Fryer said...

Thank you so much Susan for all your highly researched and well reasoned posts making cosmetic chemistry more understandable to those of us who were not chemistry majors in school! (OK, I was a geochem minor, so I had more than the average.) Your private comments to me have actually given me strength to stand up against people who are against synthetic chemicals.

I buy a lot of my supplies from places that claim the allusion that their ingredients are more natural because they are remotely derived from plant oils, but the bottom line is that no one who asks, "is your product all natural?" has any clue at all. If its scented of apples, its not going to be natural!

What they want is reassurance that it is minimally processed and safer for them than main stream products... we used to call them 'evil corporate lotions,' when I first started in this business. But even the 'healthy' companies are deceptive in their labeling... Shikai has a cucumber scented lotion and they claim to use 'natural fragrance' on their ingredient list. We both know that that is not an acceptable ingredient term-- perhaps they are using a proprietary blend of essential oils, but that isn't what they say, and I have NEVER found a natural combination that smells like cucumber! Anyone who has been around a while should have heard of the repeated mislabeling by 'Aubrey Organics.'

I do get customers who want to avoid parabens, formaldehyde releasers and PEGs, but they have all bought into the idea that the 100 million lifetime dose that kills a rat makes ingredient 'x' bad for them, but natural mold isn't to be feared.

It comes down to public ignorance and fear mongering by organizations with their own agenda. Hey, that sounds like politics! But most people don't want to be educated, they want to be mollified. Lulled into thinking that by buying an electric car (that is charged with electricity from a coal-fired plant) they are doing something good for the environment. In other words, environmental consciousness is only good if it is convenient.

I guess the trick is in finding a balance, so my answer to THAT question is, that my products are as natural as I can make them and still have them be safe, have a long shelf life, and the consistency that they want. Then I direct them to anhydrous products, all the while explaining that they lose something by shunning emulsions. 9 times out of 10, they buy what they originally said they didn't want... because it feels better.

The term 'natural' has degraded into just a marketing term, so it is abused by just about every company that employs it. And don't get me started on 'Hugo Naturals' ... who sells melt-and-pour soap!

zaczarowany pierniczek said...

In my opinion a main problem with all these questions is that people who ask them by saying "natural" they mean "of natural origin". Hence this misunderstanding.

I've noticed that those who are interested in so called "natural" cosmetics often don't understand the difference between natural and synthetic or organic and inorganic or natural and of natural origin (derived form natural raw materials).
Cognis made this nice Green guide to show a degree of naturalness of various ingredients in terms of origin of raw materials. It helps understand that not everything in cosmetic industry is black and white.

Miss E. said...

I agree with the other two commentors - people really don't know what natural means or what chemical means. One of the worst over simplification that I run into is the "I was told not buy products with ingredients I can't pronounce." Really!? I can pronounce a lot of words, that's a pretty subjective standard. I also truly hate the skin deep database - it has no truly useful or verified information in my opinion, but's designed to present everything in the most alarming light possible.

I'm actually produce a small "natural" line. But I depend on naturally derived products for certain functionality. The Greengredients website is a great help as I try and define where my products fall in the natural, organic, synthetic scheme of things.

Katie said...

Gillian is correct in stating that most customers don't want to be educated - they want to be mollified! Susan, keep doing what you do on this blog, because you do a tremendous amount to educate those of us who sell to a small market. It is our job to educate our customers. If it makes them feel better to know the emulsifier is derived from coconuts or the cleanser is derived from sugar, than that is all it takes. There is no reason to give them a chemistry lesson unless they really want one!
It is a good idea to let people know that 100% natural is cold-pressed oil, plain and simple. We can't bottle up papaya pulp without a preservative, or it will go moldy. Most people get this. People understand that if we want to make jars of jam or salsa, we need to eat them right away or do some sort of heat and hold plus a little citric acid if we want to give them away as Christmas presents! Keep telling people that all natural is just like food; if you want it to have a good stable shelf life, it's going to need a few adjustments! The more we remind people that 100% natural needs to be kept refrigerated and used within one week of purchase, the more they will understand! So keep doing what you do, and for those of you who deal with concerned customers, make sure you have simple and straight-forward answers ready for them when they start inquiring. Just keep passing the knowledge on and eventually it will take!

Anonymous said...

Well although you might argue on what you consider natural and not. If I am given a choice between something that is completely synthetic or something mostly natural minus a mild preservative I am going to choose the latter of the two. Many of these fake ingredients you seem to love using cause terrible reactions with skin. The more mild and natural they are the better you are. And in my personal opinion why would I waste my money on synthetic crap your are selling at top dollar when I can just buy the same thing at walmart for much cheaper. You can sell your fake crap but I think I will stick to something more natural and better on the planet than questionable lab created ingredients.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Anonymous. Thanks for sharing your opinion! I don't sell my products, so I don't sell "fake crap" or even all natural things to anyone. I have no financial interest in any ingredients anyone wants to use: I provide this blog for free to people as a way of sharing what I've learned and sharing with the community. Just wanted to clarify that.

Which ingredients are you referring to as "fake crap"? Which ones do you think cause skin problems, and can you provide any information from reputable sources showing that synthetic ingredients cause skin problems?

But most of all - what do you consider natural? I'm still trying to find an answer to this question. Where would you buy your natural products, because I can assure you that I've seen products I would consider natural at Wal-mart (like the unpreserved aloe juice that went bad on me within 2 weeks of opening) and really processed products at health food stores.

Jane said...

Thanks for your balanced and reasoned approach on this topic, Susan. There is so much animosity, bias and misinformation on both the pro-natural and the pro-synthetics side that it's a really frustrating topic.

I started out making skin care products for myself and friends/family some time ago, attempting to go all-natural. And I came to pretty much the same conclusions you have. There is a spectrum from 'natural' to 'synthetic', ranging from cold-pressed oils on the one hand, minimally processed ingredients, the naturally 'derived' substances, through to fully synthetic. Personally I don't categorize highly processed ingredients 'derived from' natural sources as being natural, and I don't think most people would either, if they were fully aware of the processes involved in their manufacture.

Yes, people are misinformed and want to be reassured, but I guess I operate on the principle of what most well-informed people would consider to be genuinely natural. And, for the manufacturer, ultimately it comes down to honesty and integrity. I now sell my products on a small scale, mainly because I became really angry at the many, many products out there that (I believe) falsely claim to be natural, and I wanted to offer a genuine alternative. All my products are anhydrous and freshly made in small batches. My conscience simply wouldn't allow me to slap a '100% natural' label on something containing preservatives and emulsifiers.

But of course most people don't really understand all this, or haven't thought about it very deeply. And that's where the manufacturers, who do understand, have a responsibility to educate and be honest instead of slapping on a label to capture a market segment. I think (hope?) there is slowly slowly a rising awareness of what these companies are doing.

Sadly, on the internet this natural/synthetic debate often degenerates into "all synthetic chemicals are evil" versus "everything's a chemical, natural chemicals can be toxic, therefore the anti-synthetic crowd are idiots". Whereas, of course, there are many legitimate and much more nuanced perspectives other than these extremes. Meanwhile, people who (for whatever reason) simply want to reduce their levels of exposure to synthetic chemicals are not really offered much of a choice at all.

yolande said...

Yes, I would like "natural" products. I would put it in a tier system.
Anhydrous Products: Most natural, it can be mostly made with minimally processed ingredents, no chemical preservative needed.
Cold press soap: natural ingredents, essential oils versus fragrance oils, no chemical preservative needed, still processed, can be drying. (I find that I am a bit of a ingredent snob and value higher quality ingredents like shea butter, mango butter, coconut oil, olive oil versus using crisco (yes it can be used to make soap))
Liquid Soap: natural ingredents, still processed, no chemical preservative needed (as far as I know), essential oil versus fragrance oils
Lotions (water/oil products): "natural" part- oil, water, some thickeners, some additives, essential oils versus fragrance oil. "non-natural" part - preservative, emulsifiers, some thickeners, some additives, fragrance oil.
Surfactant based products (shampoos & conditioners): least "natural", mostly highly processed ingredents though I think there is a good, better, best hierarchy here as well; preservatives.
My question is: Can I make a nice product (skin loving, nice texture, nice smell, does its job) at the most "natural" level. So can a make a anhydrous shampoo, NO, can a make a cold press soap shampoo, supposedly you can BUT it can depend on a number of factors (your water hardness, hair type, etc) though I have not tried these soaps but have heard that they can be drying, stripping too much oils and you can have frizzy hair. So for myself, I personally would find this "natural" product comes with too much of a compromise, if you are willing to take the disavantages of this product instead so that you are using a "chemical free" product that is up to you.
I also evaluate products on will it be on my skin for a short time or absorbing in. i.e. Shampoo is on dead hair and going down the shower drain. Lotion or whipped butter is going to be absorbed by my skin.
A side note on fragrace - a chemical fragrance can be a lot safer than an essential oil, as essential oils have their own contraindications and safety hazards.
I differ to those with more experience if my information is incorrect as I have limited experience. I am just stating on how I evaluate a "natural" or non-natural product.
Hope this helps you.

yolande said...

ingredients not ingredents. sorry for the typo that is repeated over, & over, & over again. laughing at myself

P.S. I don't know if you have already but it would be nice to have a scale of how "natural" a product is in its own category: surfactants, thickeners, extra additives ( like hydrolyzed protein, panthenol, honeyquat). With the criteria being its processing level & what its "derived" from, etc.
thanks again for all your work & researching & making this helpful info available to us

Anonymous said...

I'm a newbie product maker who was spurred by two main things:

1) Animal testing in the name of beauty is simply unacceptabe.

2) As someone with naturally curly hair, most of the stuff sold in stores (even the "natural" ones) either didn't perform as promised or were too harsh for my curly hair. (My hair is not altered in any way at all.)

Those two things brought me to the world of formulating my own products.

Natural to me means something that is derived from nature and was not created in a Frankenstein-esque way in a lab.

To try to take away from natural formulating by using the term minimally processed is taking away from what the purpose of going natural actually is.

Natural is indeed natural. It comes from nature and contains no synthetic bits.

The fruit we purchase at the grocery store is to a degree processed (it's picked, packaged, sprayed with wax sometimes to protect it and sometimes manually watered.) Does that make it less natural? I don't think so.

If water is filtered does that make it unnatural?

We're splitting hairs by trying pin natural terminology as "minimaly processed."

I want to use something that came from the earth in one way or another.

I think the term "natural" simply means something that first came from the earth, not a lab. And that item, whether it's turned into an oil, powder or something else, is stil from the earth and will not cause me harm if ingested (allergies aside, of course.)

I've learned a lot since starting to formulate and mix products. I've come to realize that some of the scary words like "alcohol" and "preservative" can mean a wide variety of things - good and bad.

The main thing for me is not harming any animal becaue I want shiny or moisturized hair. It's wrong.

If something has to be tested on a a helpless animal to make sure it's safe after it was ceated in a lab, then I think any consumer should think twice about using it.

To me it doesn't matter if it's been proven to be safe and you then choose to use it on your own family. That doens't say much really.

If trace formaldehyde can be cleared as safe (DMDM Hydnation, anyone?) to use in hair products, then we're missing the point about chosing to use "natural" instead.

Sure there are many tings found in nature that are terribly unsafe, but the point of a natural product maker is to find the items that are safe and use them as an alternative to anything that's created in a lab.

It doens't have to be a war between formulators. Instead it should be a question of principle about how those products are made and at what cost to other living ceatures....including us!

Innovation and science are marvelous tools and we wouldn't be anywhere without them. But we have to stop and think about what we're doing, why we're doing it and at what cost.

Is it the pursuit of money? For many, yes. Is it the pursuit of eternal youth and perceived beauty? For most, yes. (I'm no different!)

We look to products to fix our problems instead of trying to figure out what habits we can change first that may actually be causing our issues.

Hopefully the term "natural" is a little more clear after that short novel I wrote :)

I would love to see some formulations on here using natural products. I really don't want to use synthetic items, but I do find the overall information on this blog beyond helpful.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Thanks for sharing your opinion, anonymous. It goes to show that the term natural can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One product that can't be made naturally is conditioner - there are no cationic quaternary compounds that should be considered natural ingredients - so that poses a problem for anyone who needs to use a conditioner regularly (which should be everyone, if I have my way!).

Not to be negative, but I find that almost all of us set out as newbies to make the most awesome natural products, but quickly find that we can't make what we want or can't preserve our products without using non-natural ingredients, and we turn to those you describe as Frankenstein-esque (a term with which I strongly disagree). For instance, you cannot make a natural conditioner, so you have no choice but to turn to ingredients that have been altered in a lab. You really can't make a natural lotion because our emulsifiers are processed quite a lot, even those that are Ecocert. You'll end up being very limited to making anhydrous creations or making lotions every three days so they'll stay good. I think it's a noble philosophy, but I do encourage you to stay open to all options and learn about all the ingredients you can to make awesome creations. I wish you all the best in finding that balance between those ingredients you think of as natural and those you don't.

I do disagree that the term minimally processed takes away from natural. I can't think of an ingredient that we use that isn't processed in some way. Filtered water isn't a great example because something like olive oil has to be processed to be used, and it's not a simple process like filtering it. You have to decide if you want an oil to be cold pressed, solvent processed, and so on, so there are differences even in something one might consider really natural, like vegetable and seed oils.

Rebecca Montanica said...

I'm just starting to learn about formulating cosmetics, and there is so much to learn. Thank you, Susan, for your well-researched and fascinating blog. One thing I'd like to see included in the discussion of what's considered "natural" is biodegradability. Silicones are a concern to me because they don't biodegrade, and bioaccumulate in the environment. Some surfactants are claimed to be biodegradable. Then again, I'm not sure what manufacturers have to prove in order to claim the rather vague word biodegradable. Frustrating. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Thank you tremendously for having a very scientific approach to skincare and cosmetics.

I am someone who often looks for "natural" skincare, simply because it tends to play nice with my skin. So far, my skin seems to have declared sodium lauryl sulfate and all of its relatives to be mortal enemies. It's also not on good terms with most lotions. Oh, and excessive silicone seems to make me itchy (mind, excessive tends to mean things like Smashbox makeup primer, which is pretty much entirely silicone). Thus, I've learned to seek out oils and butters for moisture, and soaps for cleansing (and then I have to add vinegar or lemon juice into my skincare routine to deal with the resulting pH issues). Obviously, that leads you more towards the natural products.

Only recently have I dared to venture back into the world of not super natural skin stuff. (Keep in mind, that I turned up my nose at the "natural" lotions, and shampoos with "sodium coco sulfate" previously, because my skin doesn't see the difference between those and the less "natural" versions). While my skin probably will never embrace the popular sodium lauryl sulfate (which I do sometimes use, just only when I necessary), it has gotten along pretty well with some products that don't seem remotely natural. It has no complaints with the parabens (which, I'm going to claim could be considered natural. I remember reading that blueberries contain small amounts of methylparaben), and gets along with a host of other obviously synthetic things. It just has serious complaints with some of the most common ingredients found in skincare that isn't trying to be natural.

Also, about the whole "only use what you can pronounce" idea... There are natural ingredients with names I consider unpronounceable, particularly those with names from languages I'm not terribly familiar with, while, as someone who has taken some chemistry classes, many of those names are incredibly easy to pronounce. I'd rather try to say "dimethicone crosspolymer" than "Echinacea". I have to admit to being tempted to claim that "dimethicone crosspolymer" therefore is carcinogenic only to the ignorant.

I dunno. I think many of us will see that our skin reacts better to "natural skincare" and assume that it's a result of regular products containing toxic chemicals, while it's really a result of the natural products often using more of the nourishing butters and oils or a sensitivity to a small handful of synthetic ingredients.

I dunno. I've seen that products emphasizing that they are "natural" tend to be much, much more skin friendly, even if they utterly fail at being natural. At minimum, I usually prefer the scents used, because they tend to be clean or herbal.

Emer said...

My viewpoint on what is "natural" has undergone a few changes since I started making my own skincare and reading a lot about ingredients. (I started out with the idea that I will be able to make creams without any chemically derived ingredients but have since come to realise that is only possible for anhydrous products).

My position now is that for a product to be natural it has to use ingredients that have the bare minimum amount of processing i.e. using organic, unrefined, cold pressed oils and butters wherever possible and keeping the chemically derived ingredients to the bare minimum required for the product to still have the consistency and shelf life that would enable it to serve its purpose.

Also I am strongly convinced that essential oils are far superior to a synthetic fragrance not only because they are more natural but also because essential oils can add beneficial effects of their own to the recipes although they do need to be used with caution. But then artificial fragrances can cause irritation also.

Bottom line for me is how safe the ingredients are. Anything that could be irritating, damaging or increase chances of cancer (however tiny the percentage may be) I do not want to be putting on mine or anyone else's skin. It is poor consolation for the 1000th rat that died that it only had a 0.1% chance of dying.

Emma J said...

I'm new to making my own products, which I do because I enjoy making things with my hands, and because I have environmental concerns. (I'm willing for medicine to have an afterlife in a river to a certain extent - but a bubble bath, shampoo, dishwasher tablet? Seeing the large rainbowy beautiful-in-their-own way scum-rimmed bubble colonies pulsing at ten metre intervals on a remote Italian stream when hiking once was a wake-up call). Also I'm frugal, and hate to pay 'woman tax' on skincare and cosmetics, whose prices are across-the-board inflated.

I tend to think that anything a human being does or makes is 'natural'. Every animal acts out its own particular 'creatureliness', its set of possible behaviours. We just happen to be the most inventive creature that has existed on our planet. Chimps make tools; a stick becomes something else. Honey is a 'synthetic' compound made by bees. And, as humans, we're more inventive even than a honey bee, and so we have laboratories. Any chemical or substance, whether in a raw or extracted or 'combined' state - whether it's been 'found' or 'made' - is a product of an (human) animal and of the earth. So I think, when it comes down to it, that a lot of energy gets thrown into slinging around fallacies about 'natural' and 'unnatural', especially online, as though we had any possibilities or could make anything that wasn't bound utterly to our time and place i.e. the earth; as though there were an 'unnatural' reality we could construct.

What's more useful, I think, is to make decisions according to ethical (rather than epistemological) considerations, and to judge things according to their effects. Do I want a sentient thing to suffer so that I can darken my eyebrows? There's an ethical one. And as for effects, is the combination I'm using easily processed by my body, which evolved in a certain way, and is it easily processed by the planet of which my body is an interdependent part? Most answers to both those questions often fall, for me, into favouring the 'minimally processed' category of products. Minimal processing seems to be easier on the body and on ecosystems, which makes sense in terms of what those systems (and the body is an ecosystem in itself) are made of and what they do. We're not unique as animals in processing things from their raw state: think of the bees, think even of animals who partially digest food and then regurgitate it (ruminants) in its altered state, or with which to feed their young (birds). You could even consider lactation a 'processing' of sorts, if you wanted to get down to it.

So: the better poles these debates could revolve around could be the ethics/effects one above, or to ask, how much 'humanisation' of a substance is helpful in a particular instance? And what do we gain or lose by it?