Wednesday, 17 July 2013

What is ‘natural’? (Or: Help! My natural hand cream contains 1% rose oil and 99% hydrochloric acid and now my hands have fallen off) (editorial)

  • The word ‘natural’ actually means very little in relation to cosmetics, except for one thing--it helps the product sell
  • According to philosopher Mill's definitions of 'natural' one cannot claim that a product is natural, and therefore better, because by his first definition all products are natural and by his second definition all products are unnatural
  • Instead, when choosing products, each ingredient should be taken on its own merit

My all-time favourite contender for oddest marketing ploy was the short-lived, now-discontinued, anti-radiation mist by Clarins. It existed, they said, to protect wearers from the alleged ageing radiation from computer monitors and television sets. Yes, really, they were trying to promote that as the new ‘thing’. 

Some of the most widespread, over-blown marketing claims, however, come under an altogether more common guise with companies promoting their products as 'natural'.
Why do cosmetics companies promote their products as 'natural'?

Browse the shelves in drug stores or beauty halls and you’ll find product after product that claims to be natural. They use the word because of its influence; it is highly emotive and astoundingly powerful. Whether something is deemed natural or unnatural is used to judge good from bad and right from wrong, in relation to everything from cosmetics to the judgement of acts committed by murderers and rapists. 
Skincare and ingredients © teena137 - Fotolia.com

Cosmetics companies promote their natural products as being healthier, wholesome and more effective. You might find in any department store some products that are labelled natural, but seem to differ entirely in their ingredients. One might consist nearly entirely of plant-based extracts and another might contain two or three plant-based ingredients amidst a host of chemical-sounding names. How can both claim that their products are natural when, it seems, from the ingredients list at least, that one is far superior? How can the latter get away with it? Simply, because the word ‘natural’ actually means very little in relation to cosmetics, except for one thing--it helps the product sell.

What does ‘natural’ mean?

Whilst a dictionary might define natural as ‘existing in or caused by nature’ (New Oxford American Dictionary), this leads to further ambiguity. Philosophers have sought a more accurate definition. One of the most comprehensive discussions on the matter is John Stuart Mill’s essay On Nature. In it, he argues that there are two meanings of the word nature, and by extension, what is natural

Mill’s first definition encompasses everything in the universe, including human beings, and everything that they create. By this definition, any skincare product, whatever its action, would be natural, because every possible ingredient is taken from natural origins (though some might require more processing than others): Whilst rose oil is extracted by humans from rose petals, petrolatum is extracted by humans from crude oil, both of which are naturally occurring.  Neither rose petals nor crude oil are more natural by this definition, so to make a judgement on which is better due to their naturalness is an error. A hand cream made from 1% rose oil and 99% hydrochloric acid that would make your hands fall off would be as natural as can be, though highly undesirable. 

Mills’ second definition encompasses the world as it would be, aside from human interferences and actions. By this definition an undiscovered woodland glade would be natural and an urban ASDA car park unnatural. However, it is also the case that since creating any skincare product involves human interference and action, a skincare product can never be natural.  One might argue that it is the reduced level of processing which makes a product natural, but one would also find problems because creating an ingredient such as denatured alcohol used in many skincare products may involve less processing than the extraction of some types of ingredients from plants or flowers. Where is one to draw the line? 

By either definition, one cannot claim that a product is natural, and therefore better, because by the first definition all products are natural and by the second definition all products are unnatural. That’s how cosmetics manufacturers can legally use the word; whether it applies to their formulation or not. It doesn’t aid us at all in deciding whether a product is better (whether ‘better’ means more effective, less likely to irritate, or whatever else we are looking for). 

How can I decide what products are likely to be good for my skin?

Each ingredient and product should be taken on its own merit. There are many websites that provide an analysis of cosmetics ingredients. All of our reviews on Beauty Insignia contain a full ingredients listing so that you can conduct your own research.

Are all products that claim to be natural a scam?

No, not at all! Some are brilliant. In fact, they are a good place to start, because manufacturers know that consumers who are concerned with the naturalness of a product might also be concerned with things such as organic status, animal testing, amount of plant-based ingredients and extracts, and a bare minimum of unnecessary ingredients like colourings. You’ll sometimes find these things together in one product, with the word ‘natural’ being used (incorrectly) as an umbrella term. However, you're just as likely to find companies using the word natural as a marketing ploy, so don't judge a product by its advert and instead delve into the product information. 

Should companies stop using the word 'natural' in their product description?

That's a hard question. If they did, it would remove any ambiguity and prevent poorly-formulated products from being represented as necessarily better. Let's face it, we don't all have the time to study cosmetics packaging to see how their claims represent reality. And, of course, nobody (especially people who are fans of plant-derived, organic, not-tested-on-animals products) wants to see poor quality products being launched under a natural label that is fake and exists only to make money through deception. 

Is this a debate about science versus nature?

No, not at all. Such debates are a false dichotomy; it is an illusion and neither is necessarily better. The two are too intertwined to make an accurate division. Even the best science cannot recreate accurately all plant-based ingredients within the budgets of a cosmetics company. By the same token, plant-based ingredients need a little science to aid in their extraction. 

If we are to separate the two, for the sake of a demonstration, we might on one hand have natural products which are, on the whole, portrayed as pure and vital. On the other hand we might have scientific products, which might be portrayed, due to their advanced techniques, as cutting-edge and effective. Both of these descriptions are unreliable, though marketing companies will argue otherwise in their expensive adverts. 

Where does this leave us? 

One must look to the individual ingredients and judge the product from there. This is part of the reason we created an ecology rating for our products: It is a system which goes to consider multiple factors such as the organic status of ingredients, whether or not it has been tested on animals, the likeliness of an ingredient causing irritation, the percentage of plant-based ingredients, and the damage to the environment the product might cause. These things are in some cases highly subjective and may be hard to judge where a manufacturer does not provide full information. However, we believe that this is a fair and comprehensive way to score products. 

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