Natural is a very popular claim that can mean different things. Strictly speaking, “natural” should mean that ingredients are sourced from nature, are usually plant-based, and have been purified to some extent for health and safety reasons. A manufacturer can not responsibly use ingredients straight from a plant source without purifying or cleaning the material. Some examples of natural materials that are commonly purified according to government requirements are colorants and vitamins. Petroleum and/or animal by-products can also be considered natural, however, most people avoid using these materials for a variety of reasons.
When buying products the difficulty comes with determining which ingredients are purified and not chemically altered to such an extent that the final product is no longer natural. There are a few ingredients, polysorbate and sodium lauryl sulfate for instance, that are very hard to consider natural even if they are initially derived from a plant source because they undergo numerous chemical reactions to arrive at their final form. Additionally, there is no agreement on how many times a material can be purified and still be natural. A more straight-forward approach is for the manufacturer to state what percentage of the product is “natural.” This means subtracting out those ingredients that are not natural and identifying the percentage of the formula that is natural, thus stating “98.4 percent natural” rather than simply “natural.” Such an approach can indicate the degree to which a specific formulation is truly “natural.” Many regulatory groups are trying to determine possible guidelines for “natural” that would be acceptable for consumers and applicable to the cosmetic industry. For example Many of these groups are questioning whether or not water is natural since some form of distilled or purified water is used. Water comprises 60 to 95 percent of a skincare product. It seems the best way to identify what is meant by “natural”, at the moment, in any given product is to speak with the manufacturer and ask how the term is being defined and determined.
Is “natural” any better than “synthetic”?
Naturally occurring ingredients can be inconsistent from year to year. Thats why, until recently, cosmetic chemists considered natural products problematic. Active ingredients can vary based on sun exposure, rainfall, and other environmental issues, and they can contain materials that cause adverse reactions. We also have to consider the vast number of fruits and vegetables containing chemicals that are listed on some government agency sites as causing cancer. Natural ingredients are chemicals, too, and today it is easier to separate out the fractions or chemicals that provide the therapeutic benefit being sought. Everything that exists is made of chemicals, be it natural or not. There is no such thing as “chemical free”; the only possible question is whether or not the chemicals are derived from a natural or synthetic source. Using synthetic ingredients can be a way to remove unsafe impurities from natural materials while also purifying and/or concentrating active ingredients, thereby improving quality control and yielding more effective products. There is little to nothing indicating “natural products” are more effective than those that are “synthetically based.” In fact, they can often be less effective. Therefore, natural versus synthetic is not really a claim relating to efficacy; it is a statement relating to lifestyle choice.
With that being said, would you prefer a product with natural ingredients?