I’m A Natural, You’re A PC

Everything comes from a natural source. Ok, I’m  good with that. But that overused statement doesn’t necessarily help those who are still trying to figure out, “what is natural?”  The other completely lame statement that gets overplayed and does nothing to contribute to an intelligent discussion of  the use of natural in personal care  is “even natural can be bad.” True, and standing in front of a fast moving train will cure all disease.

My students and others are always asking for help in understanding natural. In a way it does get monotonous, but this issue has for oh so very long been an ongoing source of confusion, and discussion, and debate and  . . .

So here’s my take on it. This version is edited from the explanation I include in my book, though my category titles are new. Like the book, I am still referring to natural in regards to personal care products. And I’m always up for criticism, challenge,  debate and further clarification.


Presently, a vague and meaningless marketing term. It’s established, all ingredients come from a natural source, even if the starting material is an electron, it had to come from somewhere.

I’ve given three categories for qualifying natural; Undeniably Natural, Still Natural and Not Even Natural. Each classification will, of course, have elements of stretching, fuzzy character and blurred lines.

Undeniably Natural

•Not extracted; completely unaltered and used in its whole, complete, form.

•Extracted by mechanical pressing, without the use of any other substance (such as water, heat, alcohol, etc.) Not isolated, chemically treated, heated, cooked or changed in any way


•Fresh or dried herbs, fruits, grains, flowers, etc

•expeller pressed vegetable and fruit oils (not hexane or solvent extracted) – Not Refined, Bleached and/or Deodorized (RBD)

•Squeezed juices

•Salts and minerals, acquired through a non chemical process, such as the drying of seawater

Still Natural

•The plant material is no longer whole, though the extracted portion has not been altered from its naturally occurring state.

•Extracted, and unaltered  from its composition within the sourced material, using only “natural” processes, such as heat, water, alcohol, supercritical carbon dioxide, hexane and glycerine (let’s not talk possible contaminants or quality of the solvents used)


•Essential oils, vegetable/fruit fixed oils and herbal extracts and supercritical extracts are examples of naturally derived ingredients.

Not Even Natural

  • Any extract or a defined natural compound altered from its original  extracted state and containing substances or compounds that are not found in the original source.
  • Any substance created that does not occur already in nature (is that too vague?).


Sodium cocoate and other “natural” or “synthetic” soaps and surfactants, cetearyl alcohol, vegetable emulsifying wax, and most vitamins and nutrients used in supplements and skin care.


Is chamazulene and the German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)essential oil a synthetic?

The compound chamazulene develops during a re-bonding of molecules in the distillation process of German chamomile becoming an active component in the essential oil – but does not exist in the living plant.

These definitions don’t solve all the confusion by any means. There are also no judgements regarding safety or effectiveness. This does not have anything to do with the synthetic VS natural argument, which I would be happy to see dissolve, as it is such a useless debate.  This is simply to give some basis in defining a natural. Here’s how this fits into the latest NPA natural guidelines, with my comments following each guideline. These are not criticisms and I do think the NPA is taking a step in a decent direction, though I also have reservations regarding the logic involved.

Natural certification guidelines and seal of approval: Natural Products Association

  • At least 95 percent truly natural ingredients or ingredients that are derived from natural sources

Can’t define 95% truly natural until natural is defined – and everything is derived from natural sources

  • No ingredients with any potential suspected human health risks

This is really vague; OK, so I have to go with the lame, “even natural can be bad”- damn, I hate that. My argument to the lame quote is, why would you put a potentially harmful natural in personal care? Naturals used in personal care should be the same naturals you eat, not poison ivy and other silly examples I’ve been given of “bad” naturals. So, why would avoidance of a potentially harmful natural (beyond individual sensitivity that does not count in this discussion) be necessary in natural guidelines? Unless you believe the EWG’s Skin Deep website, where everything, natural or synthetic, that has any active value to it is considered dangerous.

  • No processes that significantly or adversely alter the purity/effect of the natural ingredients

RBD and other “natural” refining methods alter purity and effect – read my Whole Food Philosophy in Skin Care. Most natural products that would likely be certified under these guidelines would fail this qualifier.

  • Ingredients that come from a purposeful, renewable/plentiful source found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral)

Hmm, purposeful? I think  sustainable source is what this one is about.

  • Processes that are minimal and don’t use synthetic/harsh chemicals or otherwise dilute purity

How is a minimal process defined? Synthetic and harsh chemicals? Natural soaps use sodium hydroxide, extremely harsh (and can be natural or synthetic). This statement certainly needs to be clarified. Essential oils use a very harsh chemical as well (yes, just stick your hand in steaming water to find out). This one leaves a lot of room for discussion.

  • Non-natural ingredients only when viable natural alternative ingredient are unavailable with absolutely no suspected potential human health risks

This is vague, but understood in light of  these certification guidelines still being confused about what natural is. And how is “human risk” measured? By the EWG guidelines or the industries self-policing body the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel? Too much self-serving intention and political greasing (this would include the EPA, CDC or FDA; and the EU regulatory bodies) to completely trust, not necessarily the research, but the interpreter of the research.

Well, that’s my take on natural. Have at it.



  1. Thank You! I need your book. We just opened our business, a bath and body shop dedicated to carrying items that are not harmful or toxic. We began looking at companies that support organics and sustainability and of course natural products. We were recently asked to teach a class to cosmetologists who have some of our products and wanted to understand how they differed from the traditional chemical laden salon products. The questions and debate that has arisen from customers, suppliers, etc. is mind boggling. If we carry a product that has items not listed as organic, we get blasted from one end of the spectrum. If we carry a hand made bar soap, again the outcry. I have heard people say they only wanted to put products on their skin that they could eat, but does that mean every product should be edible? Yes, say some.
    Does the use of a preservative then prevent a company like ours from carrying an effective perhaps less toxic skin cream or treatment item? What about vegan? The list goes on and on. I think I will eliminate “natural” from the business verbage altogether. I am wading my way through the stream of confusion here and appreciate this blog.
    L. Whittingam

    • Hi Lisa – Welcome to the whacky world of natural personal care. Where no ones knows what it is or what it’s supposed to be. It is impossible to do 100% organic. Well, you can, but the same people who scream they want it will complain about it being too oily, or smelling funny or some other comment about the natural feel and scent of real and organic. Total organic would be mostly an oil base product, no water. That means not a cream, lotion, soap or body butter. Even though there are attempts to change the guidelines so that synthetics (by my definition of a substance created that does not occur in the plant source or in nature through a process involving human intervention) can be used in the organic formula.
      Once you involve water and try to make a cream you bring in emulsifiers – not organic and not natural, though they can be real close to natural and acceptable, safe and even moisturizing. Then there’s the preservatives. I like to use non-denatured (not a SD alcohol), organic alcohol (grape over grain but grape is more expensive). Non-SD means it’s the same stuff you can drink, in the pure grappa or everclear sense. Here you get the crazy’s screaming about alcohol drying and . . . it’s just endless the misinformation that is so accessible to everybody.
      Now, natural is a little more achievable, if you don’t mind stretching the meaning of natural. There are so many misconceptions about good, bad, natural, synthetic, and safety. Watch out for the EWG’s Skin Deep website, that can really put out fear-based misinformation. They say everything – natural or synthetic – that has any activity at all is dangerous. Their evaluation is not good or helpful to anybody. Too bad, because the intention is admirable.
      I have produced and launched a couple of “the best I could do” skin care lines – natural as can be, organic as can be, and most importantly, as really good for the skin as can be (which is the one thing that seemed to be OK with everybody once they used it) and still received lots of negativity from every side. Most people just don’t get it.

      What does it mean for a product to be edible? I’ve seen what product manufacturers claim are edible – and I’ve seen what people are willing to eat and call food. It’s a nice marketing ploy but irrelevant in the real world of personal care. Wish it were easier. It is my goal to be a voice of sanity within all this nonsense.