It’s hard to pick up a bottle these days without being bombarded with “Natural” claims. Words like eco-friendly, sustainable, natural, biodegradable and even organic are all being shouted out. What’s real and what’s just BS marketing fluff? Here is a quick guide to help you navigate the claims.
But First: What is Natural?
For many people natural includes compassion and the minimizing of the exploitation of people and the planet. This human drive to empathy gave rise to modern anti-exploitation economic policies, private fair trade programs, cruelty free claims and vegetarian/vegan consumer products. Compassion is considered an intrinsic part of defining natural in the Western world today.
A company might generously support a many of their customers believe in. These folks are also marketing to empathy. Compassionatarians are those consumers who want their purchases to do as little harm and as much good as possible. Bravo! Cause marketing is most often associated with selling products to the natural minded sector.
If a product hits the compassion bullet points but is even mildly poisonous it does not deserve to be called natural. So let’s all agree that for whatever else is on the table:
Natural means safe, nontoxic and wholly made from plant-based and non-exploitively obtained ingredients.
Are Fragrances Natural?
Sometimes yes but usually just no. If the ingredients list the word “fragrance” it almost certainly contains artificial fragrances. These scent molecules are delivered in solvents. It is the solvents like petroleum-derived toluene that make these fragrances so hard for sensitive people to handle. Instead, look to natural essential oils and genuine herbal extracts for aroma.
Fruit fragrances like green apple, pear and coconut are nearly always fake. Most rose and vanilla scents and also lilac, honeysuckle, and many other flowers are fake. In nature these flowery scents come from molecules called esters. Esters contain alcohol and as such evaporate away easily and are difficult to capture and put into a bottle. The rule is that if it sounds like an ice cream flavor, it is probably not natural.
Lavender, lemongrass, citrus family (lemon, lime, grapefruit etc), fragrant woods like cedar and pine (but not amber) and many other plant oil based scents ARE natural. These are made from steam or CO2 distillation of natural plant materials.
European products are labeled a bit differently than here in the States. If there are any potential allergens in the scent they are listed by chemical name at the end of the ingredient list. Lavender becomes Linalool which sounds a lot like a fake chemical. In this case it means lavender oil which is natural. Yikes!
What about Foamy Stuff?
Things that foam are either true soap or chemical detergents. Soap is considered to be much more natural than detergents, easier on the biology and it can even be certified USDA food grade organic. Detergents are usually made from petroleum and may or may not contain carcinogens depending on who you ask and what grade of product is being tested. Better quality detergents are plant- or bio-based. These are not as natural as organic liquid and gel soaps but are somewhat more natural than their petroleum derived cousins. When you can, choose soap over detergents.
What about Preservatives?
Our planet is a self-sustaining, intertwined and endlessly renewable ecosystem. Nothing designed by humans has ever come close. Light, oxygen and the entire ecology relentlessly break down and recycle carbon based molecules (the natural stuff). This is important or we would be wading through dinosaur doo doo on our way to work instead of refining it and putting it into our tanks.
Preservative bundles work to interrupt the cycle of renewability by retarding the growth of mold, fungus, bacteria and rancidity in our natural stuff. Since we are all part of the biology of the planet this means that mixing humans with common preservatives is often a bad combination over the long term. We could all avoid a lifetime of exposure to cosmetic preservatives by keeping our personal care products in the fridge. Forget the ketchup and pass the deodorant and shower gel please!
It is important to understand that Natural is a process and not a result. There is no Green-land in the sky, unless you count the one melting into the Arctic. The best we can do is to be mindful. Mindful to minimize the poisoning of our bodies and the body Earth, mindful to minimize exploitative business practices, and mindful of the interconnected web of modern human life that links that small child on the other side of the planet to the health and beauty products in our shower right now.