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What is "Natural?"


Dave asks: Is it bad to have synthetic ingredients, if they are derived from natural ingredients?  I guess I always thought synthetic meant "fake" or "bad"?  Could you explain what synthetic means?

Patrick comments: This eternal moaning about "chemical" and "natural" points out how little people understand about their physical environment. Nature also synthesizes substances because everything that exist has once been made, created or synthesized. So "synthetic" is natural and vice versa. All materials belong to our physical dimension and it's all just a matter of rearranging atoms. It appears as if people think that chemistry is some kind of man made evil invention but nature can not circumvent its own laws of chemistry and physics. Nature IS chemistry.

So: What does "synthetic" mean?  How can one tell if something is "natural?"  And does being synthetic always mean "bad" and does being natural always mean safe?

Answer: There really is no legal definition of the term "natural."  One could argue that everything in the world is natural.  Humans are natural beings, so what we create is part of nature.  Just as a beaver would build a beaver dam, our creations are natural, too.  By this definition, oil refineries, plastics, BPA, pesticides, and GMO crops are all natural.  And, as Patrick points out, synthesis is the basis of life.  Anything that has been created, has been synthesized.  So, anything alive is "synthetic" because it has been synthesized by cells and DNA and enzymes.  Thus, by these definitions, natural is synthetic, and synthetic is natural. They are one and the same.

But in the realm of personal care products, the divide between natural and synthetic is much more specific.  Because our bodies are fragile systems, we want to put things in them and on them that are beneficial and that work within our own bodies' systems. For this reason, a differentiation between synthetic and natural must be made because it can be a general guide for health and wellness. (I say general, because, as I explain below, not all natural things are safe, and not all synthetic things are dangerous).

I consider an ingredient to be natural if it is a raw material or is only one chemical reaction away from the raw material. So, for instance...

Coconut oil is a raw material.  It is physically extracted from naturally-occurring coconuts. Coconut oil is natural.

Coconut oil is used to create soap.  There is one chemical reaction that occurs: coconut oil combines with lye to create a new compound we know as soap.  

Coconut Oil > Soap

One step, one chemical reaction.  By my definition, soap is natural.

Now let's take a look at a chemical that I consider to be synthetic: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.  Sodium Lauryl Sulfate takes many more steps to create from the original coconut oil.  First, coconut oil is reduced in to lauryl alcohol.  Lauryl alcohol is then reacted with sulfuric acid, then reacted with sodium carbonate.  The chemical steps look like this:

Coconut Oil > Lauryl Alcohol > Hydrogen Lauryl Sulfate > Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Here we have four chemical reactions that occur, so I consider Sodium Lauryl Sulfate to be synthetic.

Some companies will bill it as natural because it was once coconut oil.  But, by my definition, it is a synthetic because of the numerous chemical reactions that have to take place in order for it to be created.  So, let's take a look at another example. 


Tocopherol is extracted from soybean oil via a vacuum.  There is no chemical processing, this is a simple physical method.  No chemical reaction has occurred from the original substance.  So, by my definition, Tocopherol is natural.

Tocopherol acetate

Tocopherol is turned in to tocopherol acetate through 7 different chemical reactions, which you can see here:File:Synthesis Tocopheryl acetate.svg

Thus, by my definition, Tocohperol acetate is synthetic.

Does "Synthetic" mean "Bad?"

Synthetic doesn't always mean bad. We use one synthetic ingredient--decyl polyglucose, in our salt scrubs as a lathering and cleansing agent.  Other salt scrubs are just salt and oil, so they don't clean and they leave an oil slick in the bath. We wanted to make ours cleanse, so we used decyl polyglucose.  Of course, there's castille soap, but when you add soap to salt it turns to mush.  So, because we couldn't use soap, we use the polyglucose. It's made from sugar & corn, has no known risks, has been tested extensively for safety, and scores a 0 risk in the Cosmetics Database.  

In make-ups, there are synthetic mineral pigments and there are natural mineral pigments (iron oxide, etc).  Oxides created in labs are generally considered to be more safe than natural oxides because they have a higher level of purity.  Natural oxides can contain traces of lead, which, even though it's a naturally-occurring substance, is toxic to us.

And natural doesn't always mean that an ingredient is safe. There are several essential oils that are highly toxic.   Uranium could be considered natural (it occurs naturally in the ground) but it's obviously not safe. 

Natural vs. Organic

Ingredients that are considered natural can still be genetically modified, grown with pesticides, boosted with fertilizers, or otherwise processed with synthetics.  When an ingredient or product is organic, it means that it has been grown, harvested, and processed without these things.  With USDA certification, you can be sure that companies are fully disclosing their ingredients and not sneaking in synthetics under a natural-sounding name, like Japanese Honeysuckle Extract which contains synthetic butylene glycol, or Grapefruit Seed Extract which is actually a quaternary ammonium compound.  Organic also means that the product is 95% or more agricultural ingredients.  Certain clays, salts, and other minerals can be present in an organic product, but they do not count towards the organic content. 

Natural Certifications

There are several natural certifications that cosmetic companies can have.  BDIH, NSF, EcoCert, NaTrue, COSMOS, Demeter Natural Products Association, IOS Cosmetics Standard, Whole Foods Premium Body Care.  Each has their own particular standards (and I'm working on an article that will outline the basics of each "seal").  As a general trend, they do allow synthetic ingredients, but the ingredient must have once been an agricultural product (vs. petroleum) and may not have gone through certain synthetic processes, (like ethoxylation).  As opposed to USDA organic certification, they, for the most part, allow micas, mineral pigments, hydrolyzed proteins, and hydrogenated oils (each standard varies and has their own rules) and ingredients may or may not have been grown with pesticides (depending on the certification.) 

The Bottom Line

Something being 100% natural doesn't always mean it's safe.  Something that's 100% synthetic doesn't always mean it's dangerous.  But as a general rule of thumb, natural is better for our bodies.  Our bodies are designed (by evolution or creation, whichever you prefer) to intake foods that are grown from the earth.  Eating an organic apple is obviously more healthy than eating a piece of plastic.  Our bodies are designed to digest an apple and use its nutrients and energy.  But the body lacks the enzymes, cells, and DNA to get any nutrition or benefit from a piece of plastic.  This is where the "natural" vs. "synthetic" difference really comes in to play. While, existentially, plastic could be considered natural, because we as natural beings created it, it has a limited place in aiding the body for health. (One exception would be a prosthetic limb, which generally increases the quality of life for a person.)  Thousands of synthetic chemicals have been created and marketed over a short span of time, and much is not known about their safety to our health.  And the mentality of the cosmetics industry regarding synthetic chemicals seems to be "innocent until proven guilty."  (Take for instance, Dene Godfrey's series on parabens, where, in the face of the SCCS lowering their suggested acceptable concentration of parabens in a product, he heralds it as a victory for the safety of parabens.)  Many people prefer to stick to foods and personal care ingredients that have a hundreds of years as their track record for safety, than to use a synthetic substance that has controversial or conflicting safety data.  The bottom line is, we all have our own standards for what we personally feel comfortable putting in and on our bodies.  Researching and educating yourself about the ingredients around you is the best way to find your personal balance of synthetic vs. natural. 


Do YOU have a question about an ingredient?  Post your question here and I'll give you my take on it!

Reader Comments (9)

Terrific article! It's frustrating when companies falsely claim that their products are natural and organic, when nothing about them is so! Because there isn't a legal definition in the cosmetics industry from natural, this term is often misused. The consumer needs to be aware of this and ignore the claims, and simply read the ingredients list. That's really the only way you can know what you're getting. Thanks for simplifying things and for being so dedicated to producing high quality products. You are providing a terrific service!

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheSilverLining

Is Grapefruit Seed Extract and Grapeseed Extract the same?

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercmiller

Thanks for your support! :)

Grapefruit Seed Extract and Grapeseed Extract, (s long as the label isn't a typo), are completely different things. Grapeseed extract is from grapes, while grapefruit seed extract is a synthetic chemical derived from grapefruit seeds (the citrus).

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Then Grapeseed Extract is safe? :)
Thanks again Stephanie for taking the time to clear this up for me.

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercmiller

Great article, Stephanie! It always fascinates me that doctors, nutritionists, etc. talk about the importance of eating natural whole foods for health and weight loss, but this mentality hasn't carried over to personal care products. It seems like common sense to me!

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffry

@Cmiller-yes, as far as I know, Grapeseed Extract is safe.

@Jeffry--so true!

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Great article Stephanie! As you know, years ago when I founded the Natural Ingredient Resource Center (which I am no longer affiliated with) I created a definition/criteria for natural and a corresponding "seal" - which is not the same thing as a certification; the seal is used with the "honor system" and unfortunately is being used by more than a few companies whose products do not meet the criteria for natural at all! I wish I had some control over that situation but sadly, I do not. I wish the new owners would address this situation but again, sadly, the organization does not seem to be very active any longer in the cosmetics industry. But for historical purposes, here's a link:

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSue Apito

Thanks for the link, Sue--yes! Your article is a great resource as well!

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Fantastic Article. Thank you so much for posting this information for us consumers!

Fri, January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal Lorree

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