Wednesday, November 18, 2009Learning to read labels

When "natural" is not... that simple!


What is a "natural" cosmetic product? What can be understood from a "natural ingredient" label? What is the difference with an ingredient of "natural origin"? What about this "origin"? In brief, what does the "natural" word deal with in cosmetics? When the "natural cosmetics" mention is everywhere on labels, is it not natural to have a look at it?

Reading time
~ 7 minutes

You will not believe it: while natural cosmetics are ubiquitous in the shelves of the shops, there is no official definition of them. There is only one paper, written in 2000 by a European experts Committee , which outlines what it is, without many details, but it did not become the law.

The different bodies that are responsible  of the "natural" and "organic" labels and the manufacturers themselves have established the criteria used to claim that this or that product is "natural". Indeed, there is no regulation of this mention that may hide very different things.

Natural ingredients

A natural ingredient is a vegetable, mineral or animal ingredient, directly produced by farming, an industrial exploitation or picking, and supposed not to have been processed. With a small reservation: There are almost no natural substances that can be used as such. Therefore, simple but badly needed transformation processes (such as grinding or filtration) are considered as not detrimental to the "natural" origin.


By essence, it is natural. Nevertheless, this is not enough to define its quality, as it shall meet purity criteria for use in cosmetics, and it may be from different origins: only drinking water, or spring water, thermal water; or water produced by distillation or osmosis …

Except for those derived from fossil hydrocarbons, ingredients from mineral origin are considered as natural raw materials. They are used mainly as powders or for their colouring effects.
Be aware that natural is not synonymous with "harmless": heavy metals are found in mineral substances … These products are neither environment-friendly: mining processes of these non-renewable raw materials, are not that often environment-friendly.

Animal ingredients
Eggs, milk, honey , beeswax or propolis … even snail slime (well, don’t worry, some cosmetics comprise it as an active ingredient in their formula!) all are natural ingredients that can be taken without any harm for the animals that produce them.

However, the "natural ingredient" mention may also deal with ox suet, used in a soap, or with an emulsifier, the stearic acid , taken from its fat … that both need the animal to be dead.

Ingredients from natural origin

Even an egg needs to be cracked open so that a part may become an ingredient in cosmetics. Further, an extraction processed shall be used if only its albumin or its proteins are of some interest.
The situation is similar with vegetable ingredients. Almost none can be used as it. A flower, a seed, a fruit bark…shall be processed to get an extract, a vegetable oil or an essential oil

That is why vegetable ingredients can claim only a "natural origin". Origin, origin, yes … but the processes back to the true origin may be vastly different … The processes used to transform raw materials, though necessary, are so many …

"Natural transformation" processes

Squeezing a fruit to get its juice, grinding apricot stones to powder, which is a base for an exfoliant … these are very simple processes, mechanical or physical, which do not alter the "natural quality" of the ingredient.
Among the processes that are considered as natural, pressing, crushing, grinding, distillation, filtration, centrifugation, brew, infusion, soaking, fermentation … are the most widely used.

More complex processes

Other processes are far more complex, coming from chemistry, technology or synthesis. Esterification, hydrogenation, sulfation, alkylation, ethoxylation … and so many other processes …
What about the "natural origin" mention in such cases? Obviously, strictly speaking, it is not untrue … but it may likely mislead the consumer about the true characteristics of the ingredient.

Let us go to the Sodium laureth sulfate. This surfactant , widely used in shower gels and shampoos, may be of "natural origin", when extracted from coconut oil. Nevertheless, its manufacturing process includes its ethoxylation, which is a pollutant chemical reaction between ethylene oxide (a very reactive and a harmful gas) and the raw material, at very high temperature and high pressure. What can be called “natural” after such a process?

Mixing ingredients
The "natural origin" mention may also be used for some ingredients that are, indeed, a mix of several raw materials among which at least one is of natural origin.

Let us consider an emollient , Dimethicone PEG-7 Olivate. Its "natural origin" is due to its fatty acids extracted from olive oil … even though it comprises also a silicon, the archetype of a synthetic substance that lacks biodegradability, also needing ethoxylation for its synthesis …
There is no mandatory percentage of « natural ingredient » in a product…

Natural fuzziness and pitfall

The "natural" and the "natural origin" need to be deciphered to be rightly understood. Further, they are "polluted" by many hotchpotches and widely held notions that often make it even more difficult to "translate" them the right way. Some examples will help:

It is natural, hence it is harmless

The "natural" mention is a growth market in cosmetics (natural and organic) and implies a vegetable formula, opposed to synthetic ingredients often criticized for their potential pollutant effect and their harmfulness risks. In fact, that is how it is generally perceived by the consumer … The manufacturer, with the "natural" word on the label, sends a message: "this cosmetic product is environment-friendly and harmless to your health".
Not always true, you bet. Though natural, the death angel, a toadstool, which kills, shall not be consumed. All things being relative, it is the same way for cosmetics: some natural active agents may be advised against for some reasons, or be allergenic
In addition, as seen above, a "natural origin", if somewhat dubious, may not help in meeting ecological criteria.

It is natural, hence it is organic
Not true either inevitably. When "organic" labels are a better guarantee that the "natural origin" is more important, by weight, than in "standard" cosmetics, the vegetable ingredients claimed as "natural" may not come only from organic agriculture. Jojoba oil is always of natural origin, be it organic or not.

It is "natural-like", hence it is natural
Beware, the "natural-like" is nothing else than … "really synthetic". We have sometimes to call a spade a spade, and a copy of a natural molecule, manufactured in a laboratory … is a synthetic ingredient. It is natural-like, yes, but it is not natural. Some manufacturers claim "100% natural" for some of their products, thanks to the ambiguity of the idea …

It is "with Argan oil", hence it is natural
A natural ingredient is not a synonym with a natural full formula. A fragrance may be natural (i.e. mainly based on essential oils ) but a small ingredient in a synthetic cream. Sweet Almond Oil , of natural origin may be advertised in a shower gel the surfactants of which come from petro chemistry. One hundred percent natural active ingredients may be added in a base that is 2% natural in the finished product. Better to understand what is really natural (at which percentage in the formula) and what is not natural at all …

The soon-to-come COSMOS frame of reference may be of some help for the consumer, especially thanks to its new notions of "physically processed agro-ingredients" and of "chemically processed agro-ingredients". Of some help …

© CosmeticOBS-L'Observatoire des Cosmétiques
© 2009- 2020  CosmeticOBS