Cosmetic Terminology 101: Natural
Updated: Jul 19
We present the second article in our cosmetic terminology educational series.
The term “Natural” has become popular in personal care segment because of consumers’ greater health consciousness as also rising awareness about environmental sustainability! However, “Natural” has distinct meanings in different regions. Thus, “Natural” means real ingredients and non-artificial material in Asia and North America while in Europe it means preservative-free and synthetic-free production.
What is the definition of “Natural” in personal care or cosmetics?
There is no widely used - or standard – definition of “Natural” in the personal care products domain. As a result, a variety of definitions and labels for natural cosmetic products have been created at local and global levels. Unlike definitions of natural ingredients as being from origin in nature, criteria for natural cosmetics are different. For example, Ecocert and Natural Products Association allow 5% of the finished products to be synthetic ingredients including synthetic preservatives. There are additional requirements on manufacturing process, packaging material, environmental impact, etc.
The criteria of NATRUE (The International Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association in Brussels) seem more interesting where natural substances, derived natural substances and nature-identical substances are allowed in production of the finished products. We explain below these terms:
Natural substances are unmodified substances from nature obtained physically or from microorganisms (e.g., fermentation). 
Derived natural substances are substances modified from natural ingredients using allowed chemical reaction processes. However, these derived natural substances must come from 100% natural ingredients. 
Nature-identical substances are reproduced in the lab but that can be found in nature. There are no structural or chemical differences between the two and they look and behave the same way under a microscope and in the body, despite their different origins.
Are “Natural” products better?
In general, yes because these are made without ingredients which have been shown - or susceptible - to be harmful to human health. Examples are hormone disruption and carcinogenic: these are environmental-friendly, and some are identical to the components of the human skin.
What are the common misconceptions about “Natural” products?
Natural products = Certified organic products
While certified organic products must be natural products, all natural products may not be certified organic. Certified organic ingredients must be completely natural, grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and test free of synthetic chemical residues. There are additional requirements such as manufacturing process for organic products to be labelled as organic.
Natural products = Non-allergic
Whether natural, certified organic or synthetic, there is always chance of a product causing skin irritation, sensitivity or allergy, albeit less so from natural and organic products. It is similar as many people being allergic to different food items, eg, milk, orange, cinnamon, etc. Cosmetics products made from natural ingredients should be subject to the same safety evaluation for skin allergy.
Natural products = Vegan
This is not true as natural ingredients can also come from animal origin. For example, bovine and marine collagen are from cow and fish respectively.
Natural products = Cruelty-free
Simply because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean it is always cruelty-free as well. While the finished products may not be tested on animal, there are still many ingredients being tested on animals.
Natural products = Sustainable
Some certifying organizations specify that the allowed natural ingredients also be renewable and not cause risk to the environment. Nevertheless, natural ingredients can be endangered and thus unsustainable, eg, agarwood and rosewood oil.
Should you rely on producer’s claims?
Given the varying definitions by different certifying organizations, producers can also have divergent definitions for “Natural” products. While it is difficult, though not impossible, to speak to a producer’s representative, you can always check their ingredient list to see if they meet your expectations.
Remember the rule, “Devil is in the detail”.
We will review why different ingredients are used by cosmetic manufacturers in the upcoming blog. Sign up for our mailing list to keep updated.