Is Natural skin care better for you?

“Sola dosis facit venenum” (English: “The dose makes the poison”) – Paracelsus

What does the term Natural mean?

The terms “natural” is not defined by the Food and Drug Administration.  The FDA regulates cosmetics under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) and “natural” is not defined in these laws or the regulations the FDA enforces under their authority.

So what does that mean for us the consumer?

It means cosmetic and beauty manufacturers have full license to define this term as they please.  Yikes!

Before we look at how this term has been interpreted within the cosmetics and beauty industry, maybe there is something to be learned from our sister market, agriculture, to see how synthetic vs. non-synthetic has been defined for substances.

The US Department of Agriculture has defined the following decision tree to help navigate whether a substance is synthetic or non-synthetic:


Based on this decision tree, the US Department of Agriculture has defined non-synthetic as any substance that has the following characteristics:

  • Is manufactured, produced, or extracted from a natural source
  • If it is extracted from a natural source,
    • It has not been transformed into a different substance via chemical change
    • It has not been altered into a form that does not occur in nature
    • Any synthetic materials used to separate, isolate, or extract the substance have been removed from the final substance
  • Has not gone through a chemical change that makes it chemically or structurally different than how it naturally occurs
  • If it has gone through a chemical change, the chemical change was created by a naturally occurring biological process such as fermenting, composting, enzymatic digesting, heating or burning

I think what this boils down to is that the term “non-synthetic” means a substance that is as close to how it occurs in nature as possible.  

How Has the Beauty Industry Interpreted Natural?

In the beauty world, this concept runs the gamut of brands making claims that their ingredients are sourced directly from the earth to retailers now keeping lists of forbidden ingredients in products they stock.

Some examples of how the term natural has been weaved into brands include:

Knowing that everything we put on our skin quickly absorbs into our bodies, we ethically source the finest raw natural materials the earth has to offer. With ingredients ranging from French pink clay to Brazilian gemstones, we formulate treatments that combine essential vitamins, minerals, and botanicals to restore skin to its optimum health and vitality.Herbavore Botanicals

RMS Beauty products are formulated with raw, food grade and organic ingredients in their natural state, allowing their living, healing attributes to penetrate and rejuvenate the skin. In their purest form, enzymes, vitamins, antioxidants and their healing properties remain fully intact, encouraging amazing potential for anti-aging effects. RMS Beauty has also taken extreme care in the use of minimal heat in the manufacturing process of this product in order to keep all nutrients and healing properties alive. All RMS Beauty products are free of harmful chemicals, synthetic preservatives, synthetic vitamins, and genetically altered ingredients (GMO) etc. RMS Beauty

Our non-toxic products will never make women choose between health and results or between natural and high-performance. Women shouldn’t have to compromise their ideals when it comes to beauty…Look for the High Performing Ingredients icon on your box and on our site to see just how many bioactive botanicals are working to make your skin beautifulTata Harper

On the retailer side, Sephora’s Clean seal is an example of how this term natural has now been applied to the types of products that they stock in this genre.

All brands with the Clean seal qualify are free of these ingredients: sulfates SLS and SLES, parabens, formaldehydes, formaldehyde-releasing agents, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan, and triclocarban.   Further, all skincare, makeup and hair brands with the Clean seal have less than one percent synthetic fragrances.

Credo, an online beauty retailer, is another example of a retailer that is creating new standards for brands that want to make claims about being natural or naturally derived.  Natural ingredients come from natural sources (not synthetic). This means that they can be found in nature in the same or mostly the same chemical form as the ingredient in the product (e.g. fruit seed oils, clays, essential oils). On the other hand, naturally-derived means the ingredient came from plant or mineral but has been processed and/or combined with other ingredients which may be synthetic (e.g. Zinc oxide that is coated, or Cocamidopropyl betaine from coconut fatty acids and synthetic feedstocks)

Is Natural Really Better For You?

Here is where I get confused.  There are plenty of substances in nature that are bad for you and in fact can even kill you, so why is natural ingredients better for me in the base case?  

I came across a really interesting article recently from The Guardian , posted in May 2014, that helps surface a core truth behind chemicals.  In the article, the author draws inspiration from an old adage “The dose makes the poison”.  It originates from Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, who coined a classic maxim in the study of toxicology “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.”  This concept is illustrated in the infographic below.

thedosemakesthepoison (created by Compound Interest)

The article goes on to highlight a non-profit group called Sense about Science who is aiming to dispel the misconception that chemicals are bad and natural substances are good.  In their guide “Making Sense of Chemical Stories”, they inform the reader that everything in the world is made of chemicals, synthetic chemicals are often much safer for human health than so called natural ones, and that unfound anxiety about chemicals is encouraging people to buy into ideas and remedies that make little scientific or medical sense.

naturalvssynthetic (created by Compound Interest)

I gotta say, I am 100% supportive of this perspective.  I think as a consumer it is up to us to look passed claims of being natural and understand more about the efficacy and safety of the ingredients in the products we use.  While it may be tempting to go for a product that claims to be natural, before you make that purchase ask some questions of the brands…what evidence do you have to support the claims that you are making?  what makes your natural ingredients better for me given that not everything is nature is good for us to begin with? what compromises to efficacy and aesthetics did you make in order to use natural ingredients?



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