Adding manufactured substances to our skin is pretty unnatural, when you think about it. Even the most “natural” skincare products have their ingredients extracted, chemically formulated, and processed in some sort of industrial facility. It’s become popular to call some commercial skincare products “clean” or “natural” in contrast to others, but the terms actually don’t actually mean much.
There is no official definition of “natural”
“Natural” is one of those words that regulatory bodies have chosen not to precisely define. By contrast, there’s an exceedingly detailed definition of “organic” — you can’t just call your product organic without being able to prove that its ingredients were farmed and produced according to the USDA organic standards.
Under U.S. law, the FDA regulates cosmetics and their labelling. They have strict rules for when you can call a product “economy size,” and which body washes can legally be called “soap.” But they have not created a definition for “natural.” (The Federal Trade Commission has, however, cracked down on a few companies for claiming that products are “all natural” when they clearly contain synthetic components.) A Natural Cosmetics Act was proposed in 2021 to define the term “natural” for cosmetics, but never passed.
These one-ingredient skincare products are about as natural as you can get:
- This unrefined shea butter is the buttery stuff inside shea nuts; you can rub it into your skin like a lotion.
- Colloidal oatmeal is a powder made of oats that mixes smoothly into bath water.
- Dead sea bath salt is just what it sounds like — just salt.
“Natural” is term used for marketing, not safety
Companies call their products “natural” because those products can look more attractive to consumers. There are a variety of “standards” for what counts as natural, but these don’t agree with each other. For example, COSMOS requires that 95 per cent of a skincare or cosmetic product’s plant-based ingredients be certified organic, as defined by the USDA. On the other hand, Allure magazine has its own “clean beauty” seal that they award to products that avoid 15 classes of ingredients.
Skincare products often market their products as being “clean” or otherwise good because they avoid certain ingredients, but there’s often no logical argument for avoiding these ingredients, and certainly not as a group. There isn’t even a good colloquial definition of what we mean when we use the word “natural.” As Chemists Corner points out, crude oil is a product of nature, and thus petroleum products are arguably natural — but almost nobody thinks of them that way.
Reasons for calling a product “natural” or “clean” don’t always make sense
Companies, influencers, and publications will talk about clean or natural skincare products in terms of what they don’t contain, but these ingredients don’t have much in common. They aren’t necessarily bad for you, and they aren’t necessarily more unnatural than ingredients that don’t make such lists.
For example, products are often marketed as “paraben-free,” and parabens are among Allure’s disqualifying ingredients. But the FDA points out that there is no evidence (yet) that parabens have any effect on human health, and that if you want to avoid them out of caution, that introduces the concern that whatever you replace the parabens with might have health effects itself. It’s fine to avoid an ingredient for any reason you like — I’m no paraben apologist — but it’s worth remembering that plenty of natural items can be bad for us as well. Knocking a synthetic item off an ingredients list doesn’t necessarily make a product safer or healthier.
To take another ironic example: Allure’s list of ingredients that disqualify a product from the “clean beauty” seal includes ingredients that they admit do not pose any serious health considerations, like sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate. They correctly point out that the American Cancer Society has debunked the myth that SLS causes cancer, and that the worst it can do is irritate some people’s skin (as can many cosmetic ingredients). But it’s on the list anyway.
Sunscreen is another example: Even though you’ll sometimes hear the argument that mineral-based sunscreens are more “natural,” both mineral and chemical sunscreens must be manufactured to careful specifications before they can act effectively on skin. Both chemical and mineral sunscreens are overwhelmingly considered to be safe and both have minor potential safety concerns. One is not categorically better or more natural than the other.
Ultimately, “clean” and “natural” skincare products are more marketing than science, and cutting through the jargon can save you a lot of time, stress, and money.
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