Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Debate: Why does the concept of "natural" have to exclude science?

In this post, Anonymous wrote: Ok, this definitely bothers me. I hate when science people try to make nature people being seen as stupid. I thought science people were smart, but this just makes them seem childish and ignorant. I'll teach you what "chemical-free" means. Chemical-free, in the natural and organic world, simply refers as a product that is not manufactured with man-made, lab-crafted chemicals, which differ pretty much of naturally-occurring chemicals. Refers to a product that does not contains the result of a questionable science experiment. Or a product that contains natural ingredients that hasn't undergone through any, or only one (like saponification of oils) chemical process. A little example, processed foods are chemical-filled foods while organic fruits and vegetables are "chemical-free". Do you see the difference? Which one you think is healthier for you?

The same with natural. I often read scientists that say that things like petroleum, chlorine or ammonia are natural. We don't care, natural is not just about including earth-derived ingredients, is about including natural ingredients that have benefits for the skin but are not harmful for health, like many of their conventional counterparts. So, is not relevant that chlorine, ammonia or poison ivy are natural, they're not going to be included in a product just because are natural, is just a matter of common sense. I believe, however, that is much needed a definition of "chemical-free" and "natural", to help science people to understand what that means, because after all, seems like they're lacking of common sense and just relying on what science has to tell them. 

I'm alive! Do you have any scientific proof for that?

I take issue with a few comments here and I wanted to share with you four things that came up as I was reading this person's comment, and a concept that has been stuck in my head since last night. (And yes, I know that obvious troll is obvious, but I've had a few comments like this in the last few weeks, so I feel the need to address some of her points.)

The first point of interest is that my goal is never to make someone feel stupid. My goal is to offer information so you can make awesome products. If you read the post I wrote entitled Don't fear the science, you'll know that my goal is share what I've learned. I have nothing against those you call natural people; I do have something against people who choose to remain uneducated and rejoice in their ignorance.

I'm using the phrase natural people as per Anonymous's usage of the term. I hope it doesn't sound offensive!

The second point of interest is that no one should be using the term "chemical free" as it is inaccurate. (The goal for the 2011 Year of Chemistry was to take back the term "chemical", that it doesn't mean toxic but it means anything composed of atoms.) I've talked with lots of natural people, and they don't use the term to mean synthetic free. They know the difference between the two concepts and use the terms appropriately. I take issue with Anonymous for implying that people who choose to make more natural or minimally processed products don't use correct terms just because she doesn't.

My third point of interest is that chlorine and ammonia are natural. Chlorine is an element - you don't get more natural than that - and we find ammonia in all kinds of natural places, like our bodies or soil. If you've ever used a conditioner, you've used ammonia! I'm not going to put straight ammonia into any product, but to call ammonia non-natural is to have a complete lack of understanding about the most basic chemistry.

The fourth point of interest is the the idea that common sense trumps science. I've written about this in the past, so I'll keep it short. Common sense is a good thing, but it isn't the end all and be all of things we can rely upon when we need to make decisions. Science has so much to offer, and dismissing it in favour of one person's common sense is absolutely ridiculous...which is why I will not give this idea the breath of life any longer.

Can I prove Anonymous is alive through science? Um, yes. If we are taking about her body, I can watch her breathe, feel the warmth of her skin, listen for a heartbeat, take an EEG of brain waves, and so on. I'm really not sure why she wrote this last sentence because I can spend months, if not years, proving she is alive. If we're trying to figure out if she passes the Turing test, I would argue yes, I know she's not an AI based on the fact that an AI wouldn't make the mistake of calling something chemical free.

And finally, the point of writing all of this...Why is there an assumption that wanting to make natural or organic products and science are two incompatible things? I would think that a knowledge of chemistry would make it easier to make natural and organic products, the way it makes formulating conventional products easier. I would imagine that having extensive knowledge of the chemistry of various oils, butters, emulsifiers, essential oils, and so on would help any formulator not only make a more awesome product that fits within her personal philosophy. Wouldn't having all this knowledge mean you could make better choices about what is considered natural or synthetic? Wouldn't it help you to know how to create your own non-ethoxylated emulsifier? Wouldn't it help you adhere to the standards of the various agencies that determine what label you can put on your product? And wouldn't it help you choose ingredients from your suppliers and save money? I'm really not seeing a down side to learning more chemistry if you're a formulator of any philosophical bent. And I don't think those awesome formulators who choose to use natural or minimally processed products appreciate the implication that they haven't done their homework when making their products!

In the end, Anonymous, what you are saying bothers me because you're assuming that formulators of organic and natural products shun science, prefer to use incorrect terms, and want to remain uneducated about the products they buy or want to make. And what an insult to them! Please lose the condescending tone. I strive to make this blog all about the learning - I learn from you, you learn from me, we all learn from someone else who comments - and bringing that kind of aggressive tone makes it unsafe to open one's mind. I encourage you to tell me when you think I'm wrong (click here for that post), but it needs to be done in a respectful manner.

Thus endeth the rant...


p said...

LOVE your paragraph on how knowing cosmetic chemistry makes it easier to formulate natural and organic products. That has totally been my experience, and I could not agree more! Thank you for educating people of ALL philosophical stripes, Susan!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi p! I was thinking of you as I wrote this post because I know how knowledgeable you are! You always have something awesome to share, and I learn quite a lot from your comments. How insulting to say that because you're a natural formulator, you like to remain ignorant!

Jessica said...

First of all, very nicely put! I agree wholeheartedly with your responses and I'm glad you took the time to write it. I feel so frustrated when I see/hear misunderstandings of loaded terms like "natural" and "chemical-free" (particularly when they are uses in marketing schemes - that really irks me!)

Secondly, I have an unrelated question. I was going to send an email but decided to post it here because maybe some others can benefit. I'm trying to make hair products using commercially-available ones as a baseline and I can across this ingredient: stearamidopropyl dimethylamine. I found a nice entry on it in "The Natural Haven" and it looks like a great ingredient to try. Unfortunately I can't find any sellers, so I'm trying to figure out a substitute (based on the description in The Natural Haven). Any ideas anyone?

Tara said...

I love Nature and I love Science, but I do not love everything natural, nor do I love everything scientific! I love to use what I think is the best of both in my formulating, and you have been the greatest in showing us how that can be done!

p said...

Awww, I'm blushing - thank you, Susan! :)

Littlebird said...

An excellent blog post. I love both naturally occurring ingredients, naturally derived one, and synthetics.

On a side note, are you on evacuation alert? I've been reading the newspaper XD

catherine said...

Here's a great article on natural ingredients:


It may cause a bit of controversy bc some of the natural ingredients cosmeticscop says to avoid are used in this blog. But to me that only highlights healthy differences of opinion from 2 different resources, both well thought out and researched.

Rae said...

Great post.

I realized one thing because of this. It's not the scientists who are close-minded, it's 'natural people' (as s/he named them).

Many natural people don't seem to open their minds. Many scientists on the other hand are open-minded, they are willing to check out something and if they find out that if it might work, they test it even more...

Anyway, developers of 'natural products' are scientists too. They are cosmetic chemists after all. They just make these cosmetics based on specifications and try to work with the limitations they have to work with.

Organa said...

The science and nature come together, I and many pharmaceutical drugs are made ​​from natural compounds in the same way that cosmetics do not think that without the chemical nature would be something, but all have the right to find what is best for ourselves . One thing I learned is that the difference between a drug and a poison is the dosage Great job Susan.

Stc and Company said...

Its frustrating to have a science background and even attempt to explain to the ignorant how incorrectly they are using certain terms. The incorrect use of the word chemical irks me and Professor Dunn explained this simply at the conference "Everything is a CHEMICAL. Water, air, propylene glycol" Another statement that irks me is "Vitamin E is a preservative"

I think its best to leave them to their ignorance. If they want a better understanding, they would go look it up themselves.

Jessica said...

Aha! Never mind about my question above (3rd post). I found two little paragraphs you wrote about this ingredient when you were duplicating products! Don't know how I missed them the first time I searched! It seems like stearamidopropyl dimethylamine is a cationic quaternary compound like BTMS. So I could just use a little more BTMS and leave this ingredient out! Thanks again for your fabulous blog!

allaboutlavender said...

Thank you Susan, I have considered myself one of those "natural" people and pretty much incorrectly used all those terms you're talking about, even "if you can't pronounce it, it must be bad for you". Thanks to your blog I have become much more educated on the subject and I appreciate it greatly. Like all things in life, the key is finding balance.

allaboutlavender said...

And, just found this article on the subject,


allaboutlavender said...

And another one


Bunny said...

Am I the only one who's bothered by how the word "science" gets thrown around? I tend to shun every article that starts with "scientists say". Who, exactly? Scientists aren't some superbreed of people with masterminds, working in some super secret laboratory. They're normal fallible human beings, which is why it's useless to talk about "science" as something that's "right" or "wrong". If a quality study has been made, then you can trust that as what is our current knowledge of a particular subject. If the study has been poorly made or lacks integrity, i.e. "cargo cult science", then the knowledge might be worthless.

Sorry about this mini-rant. It kind of has nothing to do with the post, but it just gets to me when it's "science vs. nature" or "science vs. religion" or what ever. It makes no sense to me! Grr! :-)

Lise M Andersen said...

" I do have something against people who choose to remain uneducated and rejoice in their ignorance."


This was (yet another) a great post Susan. You've also had me thinking about trying to 'define natural' lately. It's a tough one!

Alexa said...

I consider myself both a 'natural' formulator and a scientist - i.e. I have scientific degrees but only want to prepare formulations that incorporate 'natural' products as I want to apply the precautionary principle to what we put on our skin. Nonetheless, I am very much of the opinion that using a natural ingredient requires a scientific approach - as you rightly point out, you don't want to slap any old 'natural' product on your skin, do you? You need to research your ingredients properly - the scientific way.

Gen said...

Thank you so much for your post. I recently was told that I was being a smartass because a person told me they wanted to make their lotions and body products chemical free. When I explained to them that was highly impossible and explained to them about chemicals, they told me I was a smartass and was most likely the only person in the world who believed that everything was made up of chemicals. They said some other rude things, but I don't want to tarnish your lovely blog with their crazy rantings ;) I'm so glad there are other people out there who are helping inform people that chemical does not equal bad for you.

Mychelle said...

Susan, you do not make anyone feel stupid. In fact, this woman who failed algebra four times is signing up for chemistry in the fall and I am confidant I will pass it - because of you. I have made products for 14 years, but since finding you in '09 I have developed a love of understanding the chemical make-up, structure, interaction, and everything else about the ingredients I use. You taught me not to be scared of math. And my products are a million times better because of you! You make us normal people feel smart, and I am grateful to you for that.

Nancy Liedel said...

"Natural," means nothing in the world of science. Sorry. It's not about snotty scientists trying to mess you up, or take you down a peg. It's about coming to grips with natural is a non-word for scientists. We are interested in safe, sane science that is not, "from the gut." We love prof and well thought out theories that can be double blind studied to make sure we're getting good answers. It's not overnight. It's not a word anyone can agree on, because the government has no definition of, "natural," and without one, you can scream all you want that you have it, but scientists cannot use it. It's not personal. It's that we like things clearly defined and placed into boxes so we can make safe products for consumers. With wonderful and well worked studies that show the product is effective and safe, while being acceptable to consumers. We're not against natural. It's not a war. It's a scientific definition.

I get tired of people thinking I'm, or someone like, Sue, is trying to put out a bunch of hoo-hah, trying to pull the wool over the eyes of everyone because natural is such a hard word to define. Is a carrot natural? Maybe. While it's in the ground. When you pull it out of the ground. Now, you place it in a solution to remove the dirt on the carrot, because there is e-coli in the dirt (really, there is). If there was e-coli on the carrot it was from manure used to treat the soil to use a natural fertilizer. In a word, you're getting the poopy off. You used the chemical H2o to remove the poop, the e-coli and to make a safer carrot. Since the carrot cannot do that for itself, technically, it's no longer natural. Cook it? You're breaking it down. That's a chemical reaction. Mixing salad dressing? Chemicals, no more all natural, even if you're using organic vinegar. That vinegar needed a mother and it's probably placed there by human hands. To ensure it's organic.

There is no Science guy out there trying to mess up words, misunderstanding you, and trying to confuse you. Nothing is that black or white. You cannot define a word to leave out things that are natural that are dangerous and say, in effect, "HAHA!!! Although the spider that bit me is natural, I will not accept it as natural and those chemicals you want to give me to save my life are manipulated by man, so no thank you." In the end, it's about EVERYONE trying to be safe. I formulate with safety in mind first and foremost, and so do almost all the formulators I know. Sue is a great teacher and she has her head on straight.

There are closed minded peeps in every thought system, belief system, all of it. Closed minded scientists, religious types, how to educate, how home education will free you, or how it will destroy your child. For every thought there is someone out there demonizing it. That's life. It makes it interesting.

There are a lot of people on either side who are going to think I'm a moron for believing that safe and science, along with natural is possible. Put anything out there and someone will plant e-coli with your carrots.


Robert said...

Quite sadly, it has been my observation that the demands of the consumer for 'natural' (whatever this means) ingredients has led to 'fudging' of the ingredient directories in commercial products particularly in the health food market.

As an example, over the years, I have seen many products which listed a sorbate as the only preservative. Since the sorbates protect mainly against molds and yeasts and not against bacteria it is almost a certainty that many/most of these products contain an undeclared preservative (such as phenoxyethanol) to protect against the growth of bacteria.

Hopefully this practice is changing now that there are more broad spectrum, more 'natural' preservative systems (such as NeoDefend/Geogard Ultra, ect.) available.

Nancy Liedel said...

Robert, the only issue I have with that, is there are no definitive studies to show parabens are a problem. If there were, they would be off-market. End of story. I've had my nose in every study I can get my paws on about them and it's a bad study, every time. The study cannot be duplicated, or the substance was in the body to begin with. I want better studies. Consumer demand has forced me to use, "more natural," preservatives that have not been tested over time. That makes me very nervous indeed.

Anonymous said...

Wait, did I ever said that ammonia and chlorine are not natural?
And exactly, the term "chemical-free" is inaccurate, I think the same too, but still has a meaning to natural and organic formulators and consumers. So, why not better to say straight that "chemical-free" is a wrong term and shouldn't be used, or maybe try to figure out what it means to them and then decide if it's wrong or right? No, you're just fooling them, as you obviously showed on the post I commented. As a natural and organic consumer, and as a person that knows that everything in nature is chemical, I personally felt offended. And also amazes me that you treat me as condescent and disrespectful when your post is exactly what showed up of yourself.
By the way, I haven't asked you if you have any scientific proof that I'm alive. You should understand it as a scientist saying me if I have any scientific proof that I'm alive, because to such scientist is not enough seeing me alive (ironically, of course).

One last thing. I encourage you to read this: http://chemicaloftheday.squarespace.com/todays-chemical/2010/2/2/polysorbate-20.html. Here, at the comments, the blog owner makes a good explanation of what for her "natural" means, though she doesn't explains what "chemical-free" means, it will definitely help you to understand better.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Anonymous - I have a theory...There's a point in every argument when we realize that we aren't making sense any more, that we're arguing in circles, that we started with a faulty premise, that we're making the other person's point, or that we're just plain wrong. We really don't want to argue any more, but we don't want to give in and be seen as a loser, so we start arguing harder and harder. I think you've forgotten your original position or the reasons you started this debate. Your most recent comment is at odds with your original comment, and your writing is really hard to follow and unclear. I've decided I'm not going to engage in this discussion any longer with you as I feel it isn't going anywhere and isn't going to offer me any opportunities for learning.

Thanks for starting this interesting debate.

Kelli Spears said...

I know this is an old post but I just now saw it and this Anonymous person really annoyed me. How can someone bash Susan, or anyone for that matter, when they cannot even produce a legible paragraph. I could barely understand this persons comments due to such an incorrect and horrid use of the English language.
My advice Anonymous is that you simply forget about "natural" and "chemical" and or "chemical-free" and direct your complete attention to English 101 until such time that you are able to form a legible paragraph.
Finally, whatever anyone wants to call "natural" or "chemical free" we need to remember that it's every person's own choice to use what they want. Just because something comes straight from nature does not mean it is without harmful effects or allergic reactions to at least one person. I try to be as nature oriented as I can be but I firmly believe that were it not for science we would not have the technology or many of the great ingredients that we have to date.

Melanie Klar said...

This is why "chemical" gets a bad name! Look up chemical in dictionaries! They all say something like "a substance having to do with chemistry (wow that just clears it up doesn't it?!) and they add: a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, especially artificially. one even added as an example, "chemical weapons of mass destruction." !! Really?! How can people be educated when dictionaries such as Websters and Oxford say these things? Who wrote this definition?

annabella said...

Oh Susan,

just read this depressive, ignorant post from ''anonymous'' - I am not even going to bother on what they said. I get this response from idiots all the time as i make soaps. the questions i get asked sometimes are plain ignorant.

I love your ''rant'', you are such an eloquent writer and such a pleasure to read a piece well written and intelligent.

Unfortunately there are those in this world who refuse to budge on their ideas of what ''natural'' actually means. I doubt if it is adding years to their life. And I feel exhausted when I am around such people, my brain just wants to explode.

You are so kind to even respond to the ignorami out there. But thanks anyway, your point of view is always informative and amusing at times.