100% Natural? . . . . Almost 100% Certainly Not

When trawling through various discussion groups, especially on LinkedIn, one of the most common claims companies make for their products is “all – natural” or “100% natural”. Depending upon my mood at the time of reading, I am sometimes moved to visit the web site and check out the ingredients in these “100% natural” products. It is no exaggeration so state that they are NOT 100% natural in well over 90% of cases. Whilst I must admit that I am talking about a fairly small sample size (tens, rather than thousands), it is clear that a large proportion of one sector of the market are making inaccurate claims. Is this serious? The answer depends upon whether or not you feel the consumer should be given the truth. Does it have an impact on safety? Not directly, but it is still misleading consumers.

I have seen it written that there is no clear definition of “natural” and, also, that there are many interpretations of “natural”, but I believe that this is being confused with “organic”, and that a definition of “natural” is both clear and simple. Only two questions need to be asked:

1) Does the substance exist in nature?

2) Is the substance extracted from nature without any chemical modification?

Only if the answer to both questions is yes, can the substance be truly described as “natural”.

If the substance does not exist in nature, it cannot be described as “natural”, even if natural substances have been used exclusively in its manufacture. This can only be described as “nature-derived”. However, taking the definition of “nature-derived” to its logical conclusion, unless you actually create new matter, everything is “nature-derived”; the only question is to how many stages of processing has the substance been exposed. This introduces the concept of “degrees of processing”. Given that so few cosmetic ingredients are truly natural, how many degrees of processing are acceptable to keep the ingredient as close to “natural” as possible? This is where it becomes entirely subjective, and crosses over into the realm of “organic” criteria, where there is an increasing number of different commercial organisations each promoting their own (subjective) view of what constitutes “organic” for cosmetics. This creates confusion for consumers on two levels. The profusion of different standards is an obvious source of confusion, but it seems to me that many people confuse “organic” and “natural” – a situation not discouraged by those involved in the market sector. These terms are NOT interchangeable. A high proportion of ingredients certified as “organic” (by one or more certification bodies) are NOT natural, as they don’t exist in nature and, therefore, a certified “organic” product cannot automatically be promoted as “all-natural”, unless it truly is, of course!

Another trap for the unwary claimant is the use of “nature-identical” substances. Can a “nature-identical” substance be described as 100% natural? I think that this is, at best, debatable. Part of the consideration here should be the source of the raw materials used to manufacture the “nature-identical” moiety. There are two common examples of the use of “nature-identical” ingredients – potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. As far as I am aware, there is no natural source of these ingredients and all the usage in cosmetics is from synthetic production. Moreover, both are manufactured from unequivocally petrochemical sources and, despite petroleum/oil being entirely natural, many companies using these ingredients also claim “no petrochemicals”. The use of petrochemically-derived substances invalidates such claims.

I have absolutely no personal bias/preference for natural, nature-identical or nature-derived ingredients, but I do have issues with misleading and false claims made for those ingredients, and products containing them.

If you see a claim for “all-natural” cosmetics, the chances are that it’s not true, unless you are VERY forgiving in your definition of “natural”.

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