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Why natural is a matter of perspective.

May 27, 2011

The cosmetics world is OBSESSED with measuring naturalness. In fact, it is so obsessed that it is bordering on being quite…….well, un-natural and definitely unhealthy and that is because of our desire to fit a simple solution to what turns out to be a complex situation.

It is easy to come up with a headline grabbing, feel good definition of the word natural when it comes to cosmetics – Naturally beautiful, a natural looking finish, naturally smooth,  natural coverage all seem to be completely acceptable when applied to a particular cosmetic product.  Naturally pure, natural SPF, naturally safe, made with natural plant extracts,  100% natural again sound reasonable and very desirable when applied to a brands philosophy BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Well, that is where it all gets a bit weird, knotty and complicated.  You see, while we can all pretty much agree on what the word natural should ‘LOOK’ like when a product is applied to the face ie:  like you but better – so that people think you have no make-up on…….  However, when it comes to the chemistry part we all turn to jelly.

“Oh No”  you scream, “that is not true, we have rules, regulations, certifications and logic on our side”  you argue and I have to agree, at least I agree up to a point.

We are not used to thinking from first principles any more because we don’t often have to do it.  How many of us bake our own bread?  Wash our dishes with a cloth?  Dry our clothes on a line?  Grow and pick our own veggies?  Don’t think I’m sitting here all smug because I don’t do all of the above either………….

First principals thinking involves leaving nothing open to interpretation. Every aspect should be clearly defined, every term logically reasoned and every forseeable scenario should be able to fit into the process.  This is hard. Very hard and we are not very good at it.

Examples of not doing this:

  • Natural means ingredients that aren’t  synthetic.

Great, so now can you please tell me what synthetic means, in detail so that I could easily put my ingredients into each box.

  • Natural is safe.

Safe for what?  Where? When and how long?

Examples of where this has been applied (theoretical).

  • Natural cosmetics are those where 100% of ingredients used to create the product exist in nature either directly (such as aloe vera juice) or indirectly via physical or chemical extraction using approved processes (eg: hydrogenation, expression, distillation, fractionation – such as vegetable oil fractions, numerous essential oils, herbal extracts etc).

This description would have to come with definitions of what is a cosmetic (taken from existing legislation),  what is an ingredient (are catalysts or process aids ingredients?)

I am sure that there are better examples out there but as you can see, one question leads to another and another and another and before you know it, you have got yourself into all sorts of unchartered waters.  The people behind the various certifications that exist have spent years and lots of money getting to their definitions but that doesn’t mean to say that what they think is what you believe you are buying into. This isn’t because these people are evil and trying to trick you, it is because they have pulled their thoughts, knowledge, biases, market knowledge and realities into the mix and compromised as there is no point in having a standard that can’t be implemented safely.

Natural Cosmetics are a matter of perspective so don’t get angry, get thinking and maybe you will see something really eye-opening!

Happy musings.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2011 1:11 am

    Interesting. OK, so trying to think from first principles, what do people understand by ‘natural’? Risking tautology, I’d say, ‘from nature’. Well, everything’s from nature ultimately, so that doesn’t really do it – we need a bit more. How about, ‘from nature without being changed’? That doesn’t really work – we’d have to put bits of plant on our faces, or even whole plants… with soil still attached! Try, ‘from nature without being changed in an essential way.’ That’s shifting the burden of definition onto ‘changed in an essential way’ but even so, I think this is getting closer to a useful definition.

    I’d suggest that the kind of changes people would be happy with would be physical changes, whereas the kind they wouldn’t be happy with would be chemical changes. Of course, many people don’t have a very strong grasp of the distinction between physical and chemical processes, but I bet if you explained it to them they’d say, “Yes, that’s what I mean!”

    I was thinking that the list of processes in the definition above were all physical, but hydrogenation…? Surely that’s chemical? Oh well, I didn’t quite get the official definition from first principles, but not far off, and I bet most people wouldn’t reckon a hydrogenated product was natural!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      May 27, 2011 9:30 am

      Hi Rachel,
      Thanks for the great brainstorming above. What I waas getting at is that people who want to buy natural cosmetics would probably find it helpful if they sat back and worked through what natural means to them, filling in the gaps so that they could practially explain to others without room for misinterpritation. To do this properly does require a bit of scientific knowledge (the processed chemials bit) but even without that you can see that it is more complex and involved than it first looks.
      Hydrogenation (or adding hydrogen to a fat) is a chemical process but it is a fairly basic one that can be done with high temperatures and pressure. It is usually allowed by natural standards as saturated fats exist in nature.
      A short post like this will never explain everything properly but my point was to show that when we try to explain seemingly simple statements like ‘I want to make/ buy natural cosmetics’ it can end up being quite tricky.
      Thanks again!

  2. scienceisbeautiful permalink
    May 27, 2011 12:41 pm

    I’m a trained Chemist who has worked 16 yrs in beauty on beauty brands, but I hung up the labcoat after uni and worked entirely from a consumer and marketing perspective on creating some global brands. This is a VERY interesting article. Essentially, consumers have tick boxes that they either ‘like’ to tick or search for a product that ticks that box. And those boxes will vary, and their understanding will vary from well-informed to confused-but-interested.

    There are also fashionable trends in focus in this whole area of natural/organic, naturally driven by the investments of the big manufacturers at all levels-raw mats, extraction methodologies, plastics, production processes, finished goods.

    This obsession has been ‘how natural is natural’ and ‘how organic is organic?’-but I predict this will evolve to green packaging shifting away from recycling/% recyclable to ‘what is it made of?’. Consumers might pay a small fortune for their organic elixir, but what about the chemicals in the packaging, and ‘that smell’ that emanates from packaging. If P&G turn to sugacane to produce their plastics, well where the early adopters go, so herd the followers….

    The ingredient focus, I predict, will shift away from ‘how natural/organic’-to sourcing and biodiversity. The decade focus on this by the UN will ensure this is a focus for ‘right-on’, do-good companies being seen to do the right thing.

    Anyway, this is somewhat tangential to what you’re discussing above, which is a great debate but I’ll finish with this: I was the SINGLE scientist sitting in the marketing area of hundreds at major multi-nationals, so I can only say until MORE companies recruit people who understand this stuff in the marketing dept as well as at the lab bench…. where marketing generally instructs labs on what they want and what their research tells them consumers want…..then there won’t be a paradigm shift change.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      May 27, 2011 7:45 pm

      Thank you so much for the comment and feedback of life as a science based marketer. I can empathise with your position as that is kind of where we are – scientists working both in the lab and at the market interface. I have no problem with marketing being part of the ‘natural’ definition but what I am adverse to is this marketing being sold as science. It is not!
      I believe that what you say is true as we are seeing more and more suppliers focusing on sustainability, ethical sourcing (it isn’t ethical to divert food producing land to land producing chemicals for cosmetics), cleaner manufacturing and cradle to grave analysis of the total product. Things are changing but as with most things the marketing sometimes leads the science and that is not what we need.
      We focus on trying to involve the consumer in the process so that they are more able to make informed choices. That is the only way to shift the market as the market can’t make demands if they don’t understand the options.


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