Last of the series of guest post by industry expert Simon Mortimer dedicated to natural ingredients on cosmetics:
Natural, what is it, what does it mean….well to be cynical, whatever you want it to mean!
There are a few “rules” but these leave a pretty wide field for manoeuvre, labelling claims and suggested benefits. Put simply a “Natural Product” logically is made up from “Natural Ingredients” but it is practically impossible to find products that are wholly constituted from ingredients that have not only been derived from nature but also undergone no synthetic processes to arrive in the finished product.
Just think how would such a product look, a bottle of berries floating in water? The fact is even the most natural products will have ingredients that once harvested will have to undergo some sort of processing and likely some form of purification or separation from the bits/constituents you don’t want in your product even if unaltered synthetically. Additionally it will be a rare product that does not contain at least trace constituents providing often vital tasks such as preservation whose role will actually be greater in keeping a natural product safe as it will likely have a microbial load to defeat even before preservation. Its also more likely natural materials will undergo irradiation to kill off their microbial load before inclusion into the product, not often mentioned but then its safe imparting no actual radioactivity to the product, just not very natural?
Now from here you are on the slippery slope, by which I mean we can begin to deviate from this path of purity implied by natural products towards all those horrible unnatural products with all their terrible effects, only what is worse for you?
If anything starts as natural and undergoes any processing, even just heating to allow mixing or even just mixing itself with other constituents what are the products, we are now performing chemistry, it’s sounding a bit unnatural already! What is more, natural products are very variable in their make up, now you might say a berry is a berry but is a grape a grape, if nature is so consistent how do we end up with different wines, with different flavours and colours and tastes sometimes from the same vineyard?
The salutary thought is that a cosmetic ingredient produced from equally controlled precursors in a nice stainless steel vat under controlled and defined conditions will almost certainly have a more consistent and pure outcome than anything derived from nature, and remember it’s not generally the substances that are the subject of the synthesis themselves that are an issue in areas like allergies, rather the trace constituents and combinations of these are often far more likely to be an issue, and if you take the natural product and clean it up by any one of a variety of synthetic processes you have more or less arrived on the same spot just by a different route!
So consider the general idea that Natural=Good and Chemicals (synthetic)= Bad. This is too simplistic, the simple fact is sometimes the complexity of a natural substance is the very thing that makes it work, (whatever “working” happens to be!) and other times purity is to be embraced. Remember that even the use of the terms is misleading and we lend them a meaning often undeserved, e.g. we never hear of a “natural substance spill”, rather we hear of “chemical spills” which always implies “something nasty” but one of the most damaging substances to spill into water courses and waste water systems is...milk!
Now you might be thinking at least if I use cosmetics labelled “natural” then they are from the world around me and as mother nature intended and mankind grew up with and it is all better for me but I am afraid all “natural” can mean is that the constituents in a product are found in nature and not derived from nature. In other words if the substance made synthetically can be found in even the rarest and most obscure places anywhere in the biosphere then they are naturally occurring and qualify as natural even if they have never seen the light of day. Ah, you might say but if its organic then it must be really natural and pure and good for me? Well I think like with organic food if it makes you feel better to buy and eat it then hey mission accomplished, it doesn’t matter whether it is any better for you or not! In reality even in food, which you eat in large quantities (relative to cosmetics you put on your body) and ingest there is very little real evidence of higher nutritional content or safety from pesticides etc. So if at best organic food has a debatable nutritional value and safety profile what can be the advantage of small quantities of organically grown constituents in cosmetics? The simple truth at the bottom of most claims on packaging whether its extolling all the things it contains or does not contain is that it’s a marketing exercise and not a scientific claim, in fact when you really consider the claims closely they often claim very little but superficially sound great!