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Unpacking What “All-Natural Beauty” Really Means

by Orven Mallari | July 29, 2020

Photo credit to Nkululeko Mayiyane

As part of the current movement towards more sustainable cosmetics, many terms have been created to easily define sustainable practices: cruelty-free, ethically sourced, and more. However, there has been one term that has become a consistent source of confusion among consumers and manufacturers alike. The FDA notoriously has no formal definition for what cosmetics can be termed “natural”. Besides a vague notion of “natural” as an absence of synthetic materials and processes, it has been a grey area for many. In this blog we will take a closer look at Grantas’ definition of “all-natural” as it pertains to contexts of chemistry, public health, and an environmentally-conscious culture.

Four Shades of Natural

Lacking official definitions to provide guidance, we instead look to Formula Botanica’s ideations on what “natural” beauty really means. The organic skincare school came up with four perspectives on natural skincare that can be interpreted as either contradictory, complimentary, or both. 

Naturally-Extracted

As the “purist” perspective, this definition of natural states that an ingredient or product can only be deemed natural if and only if it is harvested from its original source with no alterations. In other words, no chemical reactions can be involved in production that would alter the inherent structure of the part of nature being extracted. This leads to a relatively short list of ingredients. Essential oils are the most obvious examples of this, as the processes that involve producing them (for example, cold-pressing orange peels to extract their essential oils) do not involve any chemical reactions. The process of extracting shea butter, especially traditional ways of grilling uncovered Karite Nuts and boiling them to expose the rich, yellow-ish oils, also makes them naturally-extracted.

Naturally-Derived

This definition of natural includes products that are initially retrieved from natural resources, but may undergo chemical processes. For example, fermentation is a somewhat common way to manufacture ingredients in Korean skincare products such as fermented seaweed and bamboo sap extract. Moreover, while many anhydrous formulations can be easily made from only naturally-extracted ingredients, products such as creams and lotions require an emulsification process, meaning that chemical reactions must be performed to enable the oily ingredients to coexist with the water-based solution. It is more difficult to achieve 100% USDA Organic Certification for naturally-derived products, since many of these reactions necessitate some sort of emulsifier or stabilizer ingredients.

Photo credit to Bee Naturalles

Nature-Identical

Nature-identical ingredients or products are initially discovered as natural compounds, but are actually manufactured synthetically. This is likely the most common type of “natural” ingredient you will find on the market, simply due to the lack of transparency in the current market chain, from consumers all the way up to the retailers that simply distribute the product and do not know if it is actually naturally-extracted or not. While many common ingredients can be found in nature (e.g. citric acid in citrus fruits, salicylic acid in willow tree leaves, sorbic acid in rowan fruit), as technology has improved, it has become much more pragmatic to synthetically produce these chemicals rather than extract large amounts of plant matter from nature.

Retrofitted from Synthetic

The most bizarre perspective of the four, this definition of natural encompasses the previous three classifications in addition to materials that, while extracted from natural resources, serve to mimic compounds that were originally discovered as a synthetic. For example, propylene glycol, a preservative booster used in deodorants and skincare products, was first derived from mineral oils from fossil fuel sources. Soon, however, companies such as Tom’s of Maine switched their sourcing from natural gas to plant-based glycerin using a process called hydrogenolysis. This retrofitting philosophy applies to animal-based products as well, as with the case with collagen. Said to create benefits for skin and joint health, techniques such as hydrolysis and and even genetically engineered yeast and bacteria are now used to produce vegan sources of collagen found in supplements and cosmetics.

Standing Our Ground

Caught in a sea of philosophical preponderance surrounding the term “natural beauty”, Grantas believes it is important to provide its own clear definition of what natural beauty is to the company. Grantas believes “all-natural” cosmetics should not have:

Parabens - these preservatives are used in many foods, drugs, and cosmetics to prevent bacterial growth. However, while studies of the effects of parabens on human health have been inconclusive, it is important to note that there is evidence of parabens penetrating skin and staying within body tissue for long periods of time. Parabens’ longevity also presents harm to marine environments when we dump our waste unto the sea.

Phthalates - Pronounced “thal-ates”, this group of chemicals have been used in nail polishes and hairsprays, but Dibutylphtalate (DBP) and dimethylphthalate (DMP) are now outright banned in the European Union, while diethylphtalate (DEP) is often hidden in ingredient lists as part of “Fragrance”.

Animal-Derived Products - There are many common ingredients in skincare and cosmetic products today including, but not limited to, beeswax, carmine, milk, and collagen. Many of these ingredients can now be replaced with vegan alternatives, providing Grantas with the ability to produce products that are 100% vegan.  

Petrochemicals - Petroleum-based chemicals are pervasive in everyday products, and cosmetics are no exception, from paraffin wax to the aforementioned mineral oil-derived propylene glycol. Grantas makes its products without using any petrochemical sources, in an effort not to participate in the tight grip that the fossil fuel industry has on our society and our economy.

Delineating these unacceptable ingredients is important in standing our ground. We define natural cosmetics as products that maintain the balance that the natural world provides, thereby producing the least harm possible to our consumers and to the planet. Definitions might be nebulous, but it is up to us to take real steps forward to move towards our vision of a more sustainable world.

 

About the Author: Orven Mallari is currently a senior at Yale University. As an Environmental Engineering major, they are passionate about pursuing sustainable solutions to tackle global issues. When not reading up on environmental justice, they spend their time watching Premier League soccer, dreaming about visiting  every National Park across the U.S., and cooking pasta.

Tagged: natural beauty, thoughtpiece

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