50 Shades of Natural

Is my cosmetic ingredient natural?

Is My Cosmetic Ingredient Natural?

One of the most frequent questions I’m confronted with, both as a tutor and as a formulator is people asking me: “is my cosmetic ingredient natural?“.

The answer is almost always: it depends on your definition of natural. The term natural is not predefined (at least in the cosmetic industry) and it really depends on your overall concept and philosophy.

Individual associations and certifying organizations have different definitions of the word natural. One particular ingredient considered “natural” by one organization might not be accepted as “natural” by another.

You may define “natural” as :

  • existing in nature
  • not synthetic
  • coming from nature
  • derived from natural resources
  • natural-identiacal
  • being made with no chemical reactions

and so on.


Marketing vs. Science

Depending on which definition you choose, the outcome might be quite different. In addition to that, the marketing and the scientific language are quite different. I’ve often met or heard formulators who are ashamed of the way their marketing staff defines “natural” or argues that a certain product or ingredient is natural.

By saying that a natural ingredient must exist in nature for instance, allows you to claim that mineral oil comes from nature and is considered natural. Or you could argue that silicones are made from sand and are hence considered natural (these claims do exist, don’t think I’m telling you a fairy tale).

Or by saying that an ingredient can be nature identical in order for it to be “natural”, is yet another definition that leads to more fanciful arguments. You probably know that parabens exist in nature so does that make them a natural ingredient? After all, we eat parabens in our daily diet, not as contaminants but as inherent ingredients in fruits such as apple. How do you feel if somebody tries to convince you that a certain product preserved with parabens is 100% “natural”?


This freedom of interpretation allows marketing experts to have a unique definition of “natural” .


The Purist View of Naturals

On the other hand, if you belong to the group of “purists” who exclude everything that’s chemically processed as “synthetic” or “not natural” , then you would be left alone with some plant oils, extracts, infusions, essential oils and hydrosols to formulate.

There is nothing wrong with this point of view but you should be aware that your ingredients and consequently your products would be rather confined. Excluding ANY chemical reaction means you shall exclude soap from your list as well, because soap is the product of a chemical reaction between lye and plant oils or fatty acids.

This is why we always focus the importance of defining your point of view and concept before even starting searching for ingredients and ordering them. As long as your definition of natural is not clear you may find that the next time you ask the question “is my cosmetic ingredient natural?“, you are confronted with fanciful and misleading claims from suppliers trying to sell you mineral oil as a “naturally derived” ingredient.