Skin care products and cosmetics are not a modern-day invention. In fact, we humans have used various substances to cleanse, protect and change the appearance of our bodies for thousands of years. Nature has always been the best source of inspiration, after all many ancient civilizations are known to have used mixtures such as exfoliants made with alabaster powder, honey and salt, and antiwrinkle creams made with cypress extracts for example. However, although the ingredients used can either be natural or synthetic, almost all of them have to go through some sort of ‘process’ before we are able to use them. So, with consumers nowadays leaning more towards products labelled as “natural”, one can’t help but ask just how natural are our beauty products?
Unfortunately, natural has become a marketing buzz word for many skin care companies as the industry lacks a clear definition of the term, and it can therefore mean anything. This has led to quite a number of products on the market being incorrectly labelled as ‘natural’. Why? Because, although all ingredients of natural origin have to go through a chemical process in order to be used or extracted, there are certain processes and substances that are later added that automatically disqualify ingredients from being considered natural by the beauty industry and certifiers. Let’s have a look at some of the most common processes used and which methods are excepted in the natural beauty industry.
These oils are obtained via a method called ‘cold pressing’, where the raw material is actually pressed and filtered to give us the oil. This process is considered natural. Oils can be also obtained by complex distillation processes depending on the part of the oil that needs to be obtained. Plant based oils can be deodorised in a natural way too.
Botanical extracts are created by soaking plant parts in a solvent over a certain period of time, depending on the method used. The first doubt arises as to whether an extract can be classed as ‘natural’ due to the type of solvent used. For example, a solvent such as propylene glycol is synthetic, whereas glycerin or water are considered natural. Another step that could disqualify the extract from being classed as natural comes after the mixture has been filtered, where the final weight or volume is made up by adding either more of the same solvent or a different one (which may or may not be natural!). The final make or break comes in the guise of the preservatives added to extend shelf-life. Now, the extract may be preservative-free but if it does contain one, it could very well be artificial instead of a natural. And let’s not forget about extract quality and purity…but this is all together another post!
This is a chemical process used to alter consistency in beauty products and the end result may be naturally or synthetically derived, depending on the origin of the starting material. If the raw material is natural, a hydrogenated substance is excepted for use in the both the natural and organic beauty industries. For instance, I use hydrogenated oils in the Clementine Cleansing Balm, as this process not only gives them a fabulous texture, but they are also less prone to oxidation, so it’s a clever way to protect the formula.
One of the largest areas of cosmetic chemistry, esterification is the combination of a fatty acid and a fatty alcohol using a catalyst. However, just like in the process of hydrogenation, the resulting substance (ester) can only be considered truly naturally derived if both the fatty acid and alcohol are of natural origin. Examples of natural esters are jojoba ester and glyceryl stearate, which I quite like to use as these processed natural oils are similar to the esters present on our own skin.
This controversial chemical process is one of the main reasons why we should all ask ourselves just how natural are our beauty products. Ethoxylation is where ethylene oxide is added to a substance (sometimes many times over) resulting in a surfactant with foaming, cleansing or solvent properties. In other words, ethoxylation makes a substance either more water loving or extends its range of use. Ethoxylated ingredients are NOT considered natural and any products containing them should not be labelled so. Clean skin and hair care formulas will use saponified coconut oil and other, milder surfactants and fatty acids that may be more expensive but are much more skin-safe. How to spot ethoxylated ingredients on the label? Look for anything starting with PEG, PPG or finishing in -eth.
Those of you who have followed me for a while will know that I always like to stress the importance of getting to know the brands you use, the philosophy behind them, the ingredients they use and what they consider as ‘natural’. For me, natural beauty products are ones made from effective yet safe raw materials sourced from nature, such as plants and minerals and are derived from renewable ethical sources. It’s paramount for me that these raw materials go through the least amount of processing possible and that these processing methods have the very little environmental impact. This is my definition of clean, natural, conscious beauty.