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How ‘Natural’ are Natural Beauty Products?

Defining Natural

“Natural” is probably the most ambiguous term used in cosmetics marketing and is therefore a frequent source of confusion and misunderstanding. Citing gives us the following three definitions:

  • “Growing spontaneously; without being planted or tended by human hand, as vegetation.”

Sounds great but that basically only permits us to source raw materials from weeds, grasses or wild areas – not very practical, quite ecologically damaging and hard to maintain quality standards.

  • “Having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives.”

Now this is getting somewhere. There is a growing band of people who wish to limit their exposure to manmade chemicals and additives, and with allergies on the rise, this is understandable. It is quite possible to source raw materials for our natural beauty products directly from plant and some mineral materials without the need for chemical additives. However, this definition is often poorly understood and many companies then go on to market products as “chemical free” – a statement that is physically impossible!

3) “Having a real or physical existence, as opposed to one that is spiritual, intellectual or fictitious.”

Probably a bit deep for today’s purposes but we get the picture, we must be able to touch it.

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So, from the above definitions it seems that number 2 is most practical, but does the cosmetics industry agree? Well, yes and no.

Global Picture

How 'Natural' are Natural Beauty Products?

There is no one umbrella definition of what natural means to the cosmetics industry; indeed, the question has caused much debate and controversy as each sub group of the industry tries to stake their claim as the most wholesome and all-encompassing ‘natural’ brand.

There are hundreds of certifying bodies of which around six have a global reach (USDA, NaTrue, EcoCert, NASAA, BDIH and the Soil Association). The problem is not so much around what ‘natural’ versus ‘synthetic’ means as all parties agree that ‘natural’ materials should come from non-manmade sources such as plants, minerals and sometimes animals.

The problem has more to do with what you do next. For example, take palm oil and distil it into its different fatty acid chain lengths and you get a mixture containing ‘natural’ chemicals such as oleic acid, linoleic acid and stearic acid without having to do anything else.

But if you take the stearic acid from the palm oil and react it with sorbitol to produce a new chemical, the food grade emulsifier, sorbitan stearate (or E 491), is it still natural? In this case it is cut and dry, but it is not always that simple and debate is still raging over the extent to which a plant can be processed and still retain its ‘natural’ status. This is the “green chemistry” debate.

So, if the industry can’t agree, what chance has the public got in making sense of it all? Not a lot, but looking out for any of the above certifying bodies will give you the peace of mind that at least you are going in the right direction.

Is Natural Best?

How 'Natural' are Natural Beauty Products?

In the absence of a unanimous vote on what ‘natural’ actually means, the question is hard to answer. But common sense does tend to lead us down the natural path, even if it is somewhat blindly. Here are some possible reasons why.

Firstly, allergies are on the rise. According to the December edition of Pediatrics magazine, food allergies in children have increased by almost 20% since 1993. Indeed, one can observe this phenomenon in everyday life – next time you drop the kids off at school or playgroup just take a look at how many children are on the anaphylactic shock watch board; the numbers are frightening.

Now, while it is scientifically irresponsible to lay the blame for this epidemic on synthetic chemicals, a group called the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Organisation is taking this issue to heart and raising awareness of some common chemical triggers in our environment.

Environmental concerns are another reason why more people are getting their beauty fix naturally. Petroleum-based surfactants and mineral oil creams may have been the answer to our insatiable appetite for innovation back in the 50’s and 60’s. Today’s consumers link the oil industry with pollution, environmental destruction and toxicity (in relation to the chemical processes employed in refining the oil feedstock).

Further to that are the worries about downstream contamination. The shampoo’s, moisturizers and sunscreens that we all use have to end up somewhere and we have all heard the stories about gender bending chemicals in our waterways, coral bleaching due to sunscreen actives and heavy metal contamination in our soils.

Finally, we see a growing trend towards people wanting to get back to basics and simplify their lives. This is being driven in part by the global financial crisis but also by a move to regain a sense of connection to the planet that we call home.

Veggie gardens have come back into fashion; home cooking has replaced the endless round of take-aways and restaurant meals; and recycling, swapping and sharing is feeding our soul. As we become more self-sufficient the interest in making our own natural beauty products is growing in a bid to cleanse and care for our bodies in a more thoughtful and natural way.

But is natural better for the environment? That is a question of supply and demand and again, there’s no simple answer. Take our earlier example looking at a fatty acid derived from palm oil.

Stearic acid is 100% natural and can be easily extracted from palm; however, palm plantation managers are coming under much scrutiny from environmental groups for the part that they are playing in rain forest destruction.

Around 30 million tons of palm oil is produced each year, providing much needed income to the rural economies of South East Asia, Central America and parts of Africa. While the majority of this material is used in food production, the cosmetics industry takes a considerable chunk in its bid to feed our appetite for natural cosmetic products. It is estimated that we already consume 30% more resources than the planet can sustainably produce and this is not good.

While it is clear that people want ‘natural’ products, it looks likely to be a long time before the global cosmetics industry agrees to how ‘natural’ natural is. In the meantime, it would seem that the only way to guarantee our move to ‘natural’ benefits everyone is to become conscious in our consumption and to truly value the resources that surround us.

This article is from Science’s archive, originally published on an earlier date.


  • Branna, Tom. “It’s Not Natural.” Happi Magazine. Accessed 17 Nov. 2009.
  • Natural.” Accessed 17 Nov. 2009.
  • What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.” Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Organization. Accessed 17 Nov. 2009.
  • The Issue of Palm Oil.” Realize Beauty. 5 Feb. 2009. Accessed 17 Nov. 2009.

About Amanda Foxon-Hill
Amanda Foxon-Hill is a cosmetic chemist who's formulating, marketing and sales experience spans over ten years and three continents. Since leaving the corporate world Amanda has been consulting and teaching with the Institute of Personal Care Science, facilitating workshops with sustainability hub The Watershed in Sydney and bringing cosmetic science to the masses via her Realize Beauty blog, lectures and workshops.