Many manufacturers state that their products are "natural", but what does that really mean?
A good starting point is the definition of natural used to classify goods for duty or regulatory purposes. Here is one definition used for some food products
A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.
What does this mean? Basically, it means that if you process something that starts off natural (i.e. from plants, animals and minerals), then it remains natural as long as you don't change its chemical composition. For example, if you extract an essential oil from a flower, the resulting product is still natural. However, if you subject a natural ingredient to a chemical process, then the result is synthetic.
Health Canada has also published a list of natural ingredients pertinent to the cosmetic industry:
One way this definition differs from the first is in item 6, which includes synthetic duplicates of natural ingredients. In other words, by this definition, a synthetic compound can be called natural on a product label, as long as it duplicates the natural ingredient.
These definitions are just two examples. Other definitions go for a more restricted definition of natural. For example, they exclude processed natural ingredients if the resulting product is not normally found in nature. For example, if you process juice, sugar and yeast to make wine, then since the ingredients were natural and since wine is found in nature, the man-made wine is natural, too. However, if you process flour, sugar, butter and yeast in an oven to make a cake, then even though the ingredients are natural the cake is artificial, since cakes don't exist in nature. At the other extreme, the synthetic oil manufacturers want to exclude from the definition of synthetic oils any oils that are created by merely splitting naturally occurring hydrocarbons.
Even within these definitions there can be disputes. For example, olive oil is pressed (an extraction process) from olives, and comes in many grades. Extra virgin is the least processed, then virgin then regular. These oils can be further refined (processed) to cosmetic grade, resulting in a clear oil. Are all of these olive oils equally natural? What if the olive trees were sprayed with pesticides and grown with chemical fertilizers, is the oil from those olives as natural as the oil from organically grown olives?
These definitions only try to classify what is or is not natural. They do not state whether natural ingredients are better or worse than synthetic ones. On their website, "Health Canada considers natural ingredients in cosmetics to have no particular advantage over synthetic ones." The synthetic vs. natural battle over cosmetic ingredients is similar in nature to the one between synthetic drugs vs. natural herbs. In both industries, the synthetic manufacturers point to their clinical trials proving safety and efficacy, while the naturalists point to their anecdotal evidence and centuries of testimonials. Following are some of the more specific arguments put forward.
Those that support synthetic ingredients point out that natural ingredients are complex compounds with hundreds of components, and that to get the benefit of one component you risk the negative effects (allergies, in particular) of the others. They also argue that a processor doesn't just duplicate a natural ingredient, they improve on it. (The resulting super ingredient can't be called natural, but that's not an issue since the manufacturer wants to trademark it.) Finally, because synthetic ingredients must undergo thorough safety testing, they are safer than natural ingredients which do not have to be tested.
Those who favor natural ingredients also point out that natural ingredients are complex compounds with hundreds of components, and that's why they're better. These components can have a synergistic interaction that makes the natural ingredient better than the sum of its components, or just the one component in its synthetic counterpart. Furthermore, they argue against synthetic ingredients because they can be tainted by the undesirable chemicals used in their manufacture. Finally, they say that natural ingredients have been tested by virtue or their safe use for hundreds or even thousands of years - far longer than synthetic ingredients.
There are some things both sides agree on. Ingredients are not safe or good just because they're natural. For example, poison ivy is natural, but you wouldn't rub it on your skin! Also, organic natural ingredients can spoil, so they must be preserved if they're not used right away.
The choice between a natural or synthetic ingredient is not always based on its skin care benefits. For example, synthetic ingredients can have a longer shelf life. Also, since synthetic ingredients are usually less expensive than their natural counterparts, cost is also a factor. On the other hand, natural ingredients appeal to consumers who are concerned about using products made from renewable resources and by companies that produce less pollution.
We think there's some truth to all these arguments, and that the consumer has the right to choose their skin care products based on what works best for them. There's an abundance of products available containing synthetic ingredients, so at Lotus Blossom we offer consumers alternative products made mostly with natural ingredients. The main ingredients in our products are lightly processed natural oils and naturally derived emulsifiers, and our essential oils are natural and of the highest quality.
Are our products 100% natural? We use preservatives in our products, so no, they're not 100% natural. By law, we are required to adequately preserve our products to ensure your safety. Anything less would be irresponsible. Our products contain less than 1% preservatives. You will find that some companies use GSE (grapefruit seed extract) as a natural preservative. The FDA does not classify GSE as a preservative, and we don't use GSE because it doesn't preserve products adequately. As of today there are no naturally-derived preservatives that are effective. However, there is on-going research to develop one.
Are there other synthetic ingredients in our products? Yes, some of our fragrance oils are synthetic, and so is the AHA used in some of our products. We know that our customers appreciate the range of scents we offer, but ultimately you can choose whether you want our products with a natural essential oil, a fragrance oil, or unscented. Also, our products that contain AHA are also available without it.
So far we have only talked about ingredients, but this article is about natural skin care products. We think that a product is more than just the sum of its ingredients, and that the term natural product connotes more than just a product composed of natural ingredients. Most of the people concerned about the source of their ingredients are also concerned about the conditions in which organic ingredients were grown, the quality of the ingredients, and how the ingredients and the product were tested. At Lotus Blossom, we've carefully selected products from environmentally conscious, cruelty-free companies that avoid artificial ingredients and unnecessary chemicals. Most ingredients, synthetic and natural, are available in various qualities at different prices. We strive to use ingredients of the best quality.
In summary, since there's practically no regulation of the word "natural" for skin care products, its meaning is subject to interpretation. Manufacturers are free to use the word at their own discretion, even if only a small percentage of the ingredients in their products are natural. What is regulated is that all products must list their ingredients on the label, so the best way to check whether a product is truly natural is to check the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance, so, if you see all the good stuff at the end of the list, chances are they represent only 1-2% of the product.
Once you know what's in the product, the Internet is a great resource to research the benefits and drawbacks of each ingredient. Since everyone is different, some products will work better for you than others. We can't claim that our products are best for everyone - no company can. However, we can claim that our products contain high quality natural ingredients and that the good stuff is at the top of the ingredient list.
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