One of the things that seems to draw people into this hobby the most is a desire to work with more natural ingredients and purge synthetics and harmful chemicals from their skincare routine and life. While this is a rather lovely idea on the surface of things (it really pairs nicely with the notion of shopping at farmers’ markets, baking all your own bread, and gardening), it is a surprisingly difficult thing to pin down. I’ve learned over the years that many people have vastly different definitions of “natural” and “chemicals”, and my notions about what I will and won’t use have certainly changed and developed over the years as I’ve learned more and tried new things. So, I thought we could have a bit of a discussion on the idea of “natural”.
What is “natural”?
This is a surprisingly hard question to answer. The dictionary defines natural as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.” We all have notions of what is “natural” and what isn’t, but when you start to pin them down, things get tricky. There are some things that pretty much everyone will agree are natural (trees, grass, milk, dirt, dogs, beeswax, olive oil, horse poop, snakes, etc.) and some things most people will agree are not (plastic, silicones, vaseline, polystyrene, bubble wrap)—but there is a lot of room between those two ends of that spectrum.
Is a wolf, for instance, “more natural” than a dog, which has been domesticated and bred by humans for thousands of years? What about corn, which has been bred by humans for centuries to create the plant we know today from wild grass—is that still “natural”? When we process that corn into cornmeal, is it still natural? What about corn syrup? High fructose corn syrup? Drywall? Splenda? Windex? Where is that line in processing where something that started out “natural” isn’t any longer? There’s a lot of room to poke and prod around at this “natural” notion!
Most people seem to agree that ingredients that are sourced from plants and animals and are minimally processed are “natural”. Pressing (many seed and nut oils), distilling (essential oils and hydrosols), and separating (waxes) seem to be ok. Solvent extracted seems to get a bit debatable. Mining seems to be ok, but only for some ingredients (why? I have no clue, but I have heard from many people who don’t like mica, which is mined, but love clay, which is also mined).
Ingredients that are synthesized are generally classed as “not natural”, but with strangely inconsistent application. I’ve heard from many soap makers who don’t want to use iron oxides in their soaps because they are synthesized, while those same soap makers are completely ok with using sodium hydroxide… which is also synthesized. There’s definitely a bit of a grey area when we encounter ingredients that are lab made (or refined), but started from a more recognizable source; ingredients like emulsifying waxes, stearic acid, some surfactants, and some plant based dyes. None of us would be able to make those ingredients in our homes (and they certainly no longer resemble the coconut they were derived from), but they often end up sitting on the “ok” side of the natural-unnatural ingredient continuum, for reasons I can’t clearly explain!
All this is to say that there really is no hard definition of “natural”. There’s some things that can be easily put on one end of the spectrum or the other, but there’s a whole lot of muddling confusion in the middle.
What is a chemical?
Everything. Seriously. Everything is made up of chemicals, so dismissing something because it is a “chemical” is completely meaningless. The word definitely has some negative connotations and some more “toxic” definitions, but considering how shockingly broad the term is, it’s much more useful to look at individual chemicals than the term on the whole. It’s sort of like how we were all concerned about carbs being evil ten years ago, but eventually broadened that out to recognizing that some carbohydrates have more nutritional merit than others. Brown rice and potato chips are both carbs, but after that the similarities drop off pretty quickly. The same can be said of carbon monoxide and dihydroxgen monoxide—both can kill you, but you need one to live!
Why do we care if something is “natural”?
Well, we’re the kind of people who care what we’re putting on and in our bodies. We read ingredient labels, bake bread from scratch, avoid BPA, and shun trans fats. We choose whole foods, so why not whole skin care? And what’s not to love about the idea of natural? Of using whole, pure plant oils and butters? It sounds wholesome, lovely, nourishing, and delightfully old-fashioned in the best way possible. Just like it’s far more appealing to eat a fresh apple than take a vitamin C supplement and a fibre tablet, the idea of using a plant-based facial oil that’s been used for centuries in Morocco is much lovelier (and easier to trust) than using a serum that’s been compounded in a cosmetic laboratory and marketed with a million dollar ad campaign and Nicole Kidman’s face. Perhaps we feel like we’re opting out of the beauty industry by going back to nature and using products that have been used for hundreds of years. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of it. Perhaps it’s the lower price tag.
One of the core assertions I hear from readers, see around the internet, and find in the general skincare community is that natural = safer and healthier, and that it has the potential to be just as, if not more effective, than synthetic ingredients, or more complicated products. And what’s not appealing about that? The notion that you can break away from a dependency on shop bought products full of mysterious ingredients is a really enticing one, and is basically the core reason I started this hobby and run this blog. I am the last person in the world who is going to tell you that using more natural ingredients is silly, or a bad idea, or not worth doing. I love working with more natural ingredients, and I love the challenge of re-creating products that use synthetics with plant based ingredients. It’s fun, and I love knowing exactly what’s in everything I make. I’m certainly not trying to imply or say that making more natural things is bad, dumb, or foolhardy. It is awesome, and great, and I love learning about all these amazing oils, extracts, and butters that Mother Nature makes.
The notion that something is safe simply because it is natural is complete hogwash, though. Asbestos, hemlock, smallpox, feces, botflies, scorpions, and poison ivy are all “natural”, but I don’t want those anywhere near me. Closer to home and this hobby—tea tree oil and wintergreen essential oil are toxic if consumed. Citrus essential oils can cause serious burns if applied to the skin before sun exposure (Tisserand is an excellent resource for this and all things essential oil safety). Bentonite clay contains levels of lead that occasionally lead to FDA warnings about particular brands. Just because something was squished out of a plant or plucked off a tree does not mean it is safe. The notion that natural = safe is known as the “appeal to nature” fallacy—it’s a common enough notion that there’s an entire logical fallacy for it!
So, I think it’s probably more accurate to say that what we care about is our products being safe. Sticking to natural ingredients is an appealing (if not terribly accurate) way to easily determine if something is safe. Ingredients like beeswax, almond oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter are simple, familiar, and easily evaluated on an ingredients label. Ingredients like Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Magnesium Stearate, and Boron Nitride are harder to immediately identify and evaluate without a chemistry background, but I love all of those ingredients, and they are perfectly safe. Don’t write something off just because it sounds chemically—dihydrogen monoxide sounds chemically, but it’s just water.
I will always choose safe and “natural” (whatever that means, haha) when given the choice between a natural and a synthetic ingredient that perform equally well, but safety should always be the top priority, not “natural-ness”. I’ve written more on things to consider regarding safety/toxicity here—it’s worth a read!
Organic vs. Inorganic
There’s a couple different categories here that seem to get confused. There’s organic vs. inorganic in the chemistry sense, and organic vs. inorganic in the farming sense. Don’t mix the two up!
In chemistry, something organic is generally defined as something that contains carbon, usually as a C-H bond or a C-C bond (though there is some debate on this). This means that all living things are organic. Trees, people, grass, broccoli = organic. Salt, water, baking soda = inorganic.
In farming, “organic” is all about how something was raised and produced. For broccoli to be organic in the chemistry sense it just has to exist, but for broccoli to be organic in the farming sense it must be non-GMO and raised without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Because salt, water, and baking soda do not grow, they will only ever be inorganic, so if you ever see “organic salt” on the shelf at Whole Foods, just chuckle and walk away 😝
These multiple meanings have lead to misunderstandings when people who want everything they use and consume to be organic, without realizing that it is completely impossible—you’d die of dehydration! You can definitely strive to use all organically raised ingredients wherever possible (many botanically sourced ingredients are available in organically raised varieties), though this typically increases the cost and reduces your selection of ingredients. As of this writing, 1L of organic almond oil is $44 at New Directions, while 1L of conventional almond oil is just shy of $10, and only 26 of the 92 carrier oils they sell are organic.
The decision to choose organic or conventional seems to be one made by one’s pocketbook more often than not, and is completely up to you!
When synthetic is safer
Some of the synthesized ingredients I work with the most are pigments. Iron oxides, chromium oxides, and ultramarines are all synthesized. While iron oxides do occur naturally, they’re usually contaminated with heavy metals. Ultramarine is synthesized for cost concerns (the original pigment source is lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone). The FDA does not allow the use of the naturally occurring versions of these pigments for safety reasons. “Natural” very often means “unregulated”, and while that is not always a bad thing, it definitely can be if the “natural” version of something frequently contains high levels of lead or arsenic.
Most preservatives also aren’t “natural”, and the ones that are more natural don’t really work that well. However, if you’re working with water, you need a preservative. Without one, you’re setting up a delicious buffet for an all-natural mould, fungus, and bacteria party… and I don’t think that’s the kind of natural we’re interested in!
When natural just can’t measure up
There’s a lot of things that pressed-from-a-nut/picked-from-a-tree/stolen-from-a-bee ingredients cannot do (I’ll call this category of ingredients “crunchy” from here on out). Whether we’re talking about the thickening powers of stearic acid, the amazing gentle lather of Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, or the colour potency of iron oxides, there are a lot of things that more crunchy ingredients will never be able to do. Can you get by without using synthetics? Definitely. But you cannot do everything using barely refined, plant-sourced ingredients.
I am asked A LOT about using ingredients like beetroot powder, turmeric, and rosehip extract instead of iron oxides. The potency, stability, shelf life, and consistency is just not there. Those are all really important characteristics when formulating cosmetics and most other applications where you want long-lasting, dependable colour. I made a video comparing some different colorants here so you can see the difference in potency. If you want to make cosmetics, you need iron oxides and other pure pigments. Additionally, most plant based/spice colour “alternatives” people suggest are not approved by the FDA, and while the FDA is not fussy about many things, they are majorly fussy about pigments. If you use turmeric to colour your foundation it is considered “adulterated” by the FDA in the same way it would be if you’d used tartrazine. Obviously we don’t all live in the USA (I don’t), and if you aren’t selling any of your creations in the USA you aren’t under the regulation of the FDA, but it is worth knowing.
If you’re wondering how “organic” cosmetic brands get by without—most don’t. Take a look at the ingredients; the start of the list will be things like beeswax, shea butter, and almond oil for creamy cosmetics, and arrowroot starch and corn starch for powdery things. Hop on down to the “may contain” section at the bottom, though—the vast majority of time that’s all iron oxides and other pigments (often listed as Cl+a 5-digit number, like CI77499, CI77492, or CI77491). And those ingredients are definitely in there—no “may” about it! The “may contain” clause in labeling laws is there to allow manufacturers to print a single label for every different colour of lipstick or shade of foundation they make, so that “may contain” list will contain every pigment they use across their entire line of lipsticks, but you can be guaranteed that at least some of those are in the lipstick you’re holding—it just is unlikely to have all of them.
You can definitely get away without using surfactants, and I certainly did for many years—soap is fantastic thing! I have been having fun playing with some gentler surfactants lately, though. Some people find that the higher pH of soap doesn’t agree with their skin and/or hair, and that’s where surfactants can really shine. I’m also having lots of fun adding some bubbles and lather to concoctions that usually wouldn’t lather, like clay scrubs and bath salts.
Some of the functions synthetic ingredients perform are nice-to-haves, and some are necessary for performance. This can be dependent on the ingredient, and on the project. If you really want a fruity scent, you generally have to turn to fragrance oils—definitely a “nice to have” (in my opinion , at least). Two percent dimethicone in a lotion gives it a silkier slip, but isn’t required. Some people, however, find they really need dimethicone in their hair care to keep things under control. Nice, light lotions really need a complete emulsifying wax—the more “natural” beeswax/borax pairing makes heavy, waxy lotions. I am definitely no expert in using synthetic ingredients, but from the reading and experimenting I have done, they can do some amazing things that either can’t be done with crunchy ingredients, or can’t be done easily. It’s not hard to see the appeal.
The gist of this section seems to be that if you want to stick to 100% crunchy ingredients, there will be a lot of things you won’t be able to do. And that may be ok with you (that may even be why you got into this hobby in the first place!), but it’s something that needs to be acknowledged.
Many people who get into this hobby want to do things more naturally/safely, but ultimately don’t want to sacrifice performance or negatively impact their life. The number of women I’ve heard from who still use their old store bought shampoo because cold processed shampoo bars just do not work for their hair is not at all insignificant—and I can’t blame them! If my hair looked and felt awful when washed with CP shampoo bars, you better believe I’d be backing off that particular “natural” track pretty fast. Nobody dives into this hobby thinking “I don’t care if my acne flairs up and my hair frizzes like mad—I just want everything I use to be natural!” We seem to hope and assume the opposite will happen (“my skin will be so much happier with natural oils and soaps!”), but if it doesn’t, most people go back to what was working for them before, and I can’t blame them.
What if I’m still suspicious?
Do some real, proper research and be open to accepting your discoveries. Gut feelings do not mesh with science. Look for recent peer-reviewed scientific studies. Critically evaluate your sources, and look at the methodology of the study. One I hear about frequently is the study that implicates titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogen, but if you look at the methodology of the study, it isn’t hugely applicable to humans and our uses of titanium dioxide.
Here’s some good resources for research:
A lot of people coming to me with a laundry list of perfectly safe ingredients they are hell-bent on avoiding because they “don’t trust them” or they “don’t like the sounds of” them. Honestly, I don’t know how to tactfully address that. If you can’t provide me with vetted, scientific proof beyond your gut feeling that something is legitimately harmful (to users, animals, the environment—something!)…. I don’t really care that you don’t want to use them, and I’m really not interested in helping you make some sort of alternative soap-like concoction from a paste of yucca root and foundation from cornstarch and mustard. You are obviously free to make any decisions you want about what ingredients you want to use, but please don’t expect me to agree with you if you can’t provide proof of why those ingredients are unsafe.
This is a lot like my flat out hatred of olives. I think they are gross, and I don’t want anything to do with anything that has olives in it. Seriously. If a casserole has a smattering of olives on top, those nasty little things have infested the entire casserole and it is ruined for me. That doesn’t mean that olives are poisonous, and I’m certainly not going to go seeking out a blog focused on cooking with olives and ask them to do extra work to develop new, olive-free recipes to accommodate my (entirely personal) hatred of olives.
What can I make if I want to stay 100% crunchy?
Anything 100% oil based and anything designed for immediate use. Balms, salves, lip balms, body butters, body oils, sugar scrubs, deodorants, clay masks (for immediate use!), and oil-based serums are all easily made from ingredients like plant based oils and butters, beeswax, clays, plant waxes, herbs, and essential oils.
If you want to stray into soap, you’ll need to be ok with using sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, both of which are synthesized. Once you’re ok with NaOH and KOH there’s loads of herbs, essential oils, butters, botanical extracts, oils, and other fun crunchy ingredients you can work with. Thanks to the high pH of soap it is self preserving, so we can work with a lot of typically tough/impossible to preserve ingredients (herbs, botanical powders, clay).
Once you want to start working with water (lotions, toners, mists, creams, etc.), you need a preservative (I recommend liquid germall plus) and emulsifiers. There are lots of different emulsifiers to choose from, and I encourage you to do your own research into which ones you want to use. Looking at the MSDS (material safety data sheet) for your ingredients is a great place to start; any good supplier should provide them, otherwise you can google the ingredient name + MSDS (polysorbate 20 MSDS, etc.).
If you want to make cosmetics, quite a few minerals and powdery ingredients become necessary for good performance. Oxides, magnesium stearate, boron nitride, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, micas, and other ingredients give us cosmetics with good colour, slip, and adhesion, and in my extensive experiments with DIY cosmetics, you really won’t get worthwhile results if you don’t want to use those ingredients.
If you’re interested in further explorations and experimentation with synthetic ingredients like surfactants, silicones, and polymers, I highly recommend checking out Point of Interest—Susan has forgotten more about DIY skincare than I’ll ever know!
- There is no hard definition of “natural”—most of us create our own, and they can vary wildly from person to person
- Everything is made up of chemicals, so don’t write them all off—research individual ingredients
- Sometimes synthetic ingredients are safer than their “natural” counterparts
- Synthetic ingredients can do many things that crunchy ingredients can’t
- Not wanting to use an ingredient for no reason other than “not trusting it” is completely baseless, and I’m not interested in developing recipes based around ingredients you don’t like on gut feeling alone.
- If you want to completely avoid synthetic ingredients you can still make a lot of skin care products, but there are many things you won’t be able to make
- Safety is paramount, not “natural-ness”!
Ok, that’s enough rambling from me! Where do you draw the line? Do you have one? How do you decide if you are ok using an ingredient?