What does “Natural” Beauty Mean?
One Term, A Thousand Meanings
It’s a word you see everywhere. You see it on food, clothes, energy, cosmetics, and whole bunch of other consumer categories. It’s a word that has no legal definition, so its interpretation is largely based on who is using the word and in what context. A natural food for one person could be completely unacceptable as natural for another. The same is true in natural skincare. Speaking very generally, most people lump “green” beauty, “clean” beauty, “holistic” beauty, and others under the umbrella term of “Natural Beauty”. The problem with not having a universally recognized definition of “natural” is that it can be used for ingredients that you find in any generic non-luxury cosmetic product at your local drug store.
So while the fact that “natural” has such a wide interpretation is a problem, I think it’s good that the more the conversation is had, the more there can be a generally accepted definition that helps the term actually mean something. Regarding skincare, thanks to my studies at Formula Botanica and my personal research, I see four main ways to look at whether or not an ingredient is, in fact, a natural one:
1. The ingredient is obtained from a natural resource and its original chemical shape and structure is maintained. This is probably the most widely accepted form of a natural ingredient, and is probably what most people believe when they read that an ingredient is natural. This pertains to almost all plant-based oils, butters, waxes, essential oils, hydrosols. Take the walnut, for example. If you grind it up and cold-press it, the oil that results has the same chemical structure as it did when you picked it off a tree. (Sidenote: obviously all the oils I use in my formulations are cold-pressed for this reason)
2. The ingredient is “nature-derived,” having undergone some sort of chemical reaction process. This could be heating a plant-based ingredient, fermentation, hydrolysis, etc. This pertains to many of the “functional” ingredients that formulators use like solubilizers (which make a substance (essential oils) soluble or dispersed in a medium (water) in which otherwise it wouldn’t be soluble), emulsifiers (help two immiscible substances blend, like oil and water), and preservatives. If you want to create creams, lotions, milks, or, really, any water-based product, you need to use these kinds of functional ingredients. And your choice is either to use those that are nature-derived, or those that were synthetically manufactured. So, like me, any natural beauty based formulator will use the nature-derived ingredients.
3. The ingredient is “nature-identical.” This refers to ingredients that are not derived from nature, rather they are synthetically processed, and yet they are identical in chemical structure to the same ingredient that is naturally derived. A great example of an ingredient like this is citric acid, which is used in both the cosmetics and the food industries as a pH balancer. While it is possible to get this compound from the peels of citrus fruits, it is much faster and less costly to produce it in a lab. Because it is so prevalent in the world, in order to switch to 100% nature-derived citric acid in our products is not only inconceivable and extremely costly, it would be completely unsustainable in that you would need millions and millions of tons of citrus fruits to produce the necessary amounts of citric acid. Personally, I do try to stick to nature-derived ingredients, however if the production of an ingredient has a heavy cost on the environment, I may use a nature-identical version to minimize my impact on the planet, particularly if the ingredient performs identically to its nature-derived counterpart, and it’s been thoroughly tested for its safety.
4. The ingredient is obtained from plant material, but mimics a synthetic molecule. This is an interpretation of “natural” that probably causes the most debate and biggest divide amongst natural cosmetic formulators. A good example of this would be glycol, a mineral oil derived substance that was developed in a lab decades ago and is used in all sorts of industries: pharma, paint, and yes, cosmetics. It can be used as a humectant, dispersant, and solvent, and it reduces water activity, thereby acting as a preservative or preservative booster. Now, due to the demand of natural beauty formulators and chemists, there is a plant-derived glycol (primarily from corn). That being said, it is still not an ingredient that you can find naturally. Personally, this is a category of ingredients I do not use because these types of ingredients usually do not add any value to the performance of my formulations on the skin, they are primarily functional ingredients, and I prefer to use the nature-derived functional ingredients.
Aside from these, there are some people who say that “natural” can apply to anything that comes from the earth. This is ridiculous since that could then apply to literally anything, unless it comes from like, Mars. I stick to the first three points listed above. I use ingredients that are sustainably harvested from plants. The only ingredients I use that are made in a lab are those that are chemically identical to the plant-based version and where the plant-based version is unsustainable to produce.
As I mentioned at the top, the term “natural” is still open for interpretation. The more consumers understand how things like skincare products are made, the more they can influence the market with their wallets and demand products that aligned with their personal and ethical beliefs. Personally, I love this conversation because it helps people think about these things! I’d be curious to hear if any of you have opinions on this, so comment below if you have some thoughts!