Let’s see if we have this straight:
Natural can be organic, but organic is natural.
Natural can be synthetic, but organic can’t be.
Chemicals can be natural, except when they’re synthetic.
Correct? Yes. Confusing? YES!
When you’re shopping in the produce section of the supermarket, it’s pretty easy: Everything there is natural. If it’s also organic, buy it (if you can afford to). But when you’re in the beauty aisle with products made with dozens of ingredients – some natural, others not – it’s not so easy.
When you search for “natural” shampoo, you’re looking for healthier alternatives, right? That’s a worthy intention, but there’s a catch: 100% natural shampoo doesn’t exist unless you’re whipping it up in your kitchen.
Here’s the issue: By law (in the US at least), a product can be labeled “natural” even if it contains as little as 1 percent naturally-sourced, plant-based or mineral ingredients, and up to 30 percent synthetic ingredients. And, the term describes such a broad array of substances that it’s a fairly useless guide for making healthful choices: substances like petroleum, arsenic, mercury, and mushrooms are technically natural but potentially harmful.
Petroleum, arsenic, mercury, and mushrooms are technically natural but potentially harmful.
You might also look for labels that say “synthetic-free.” Theoretically, a product labeled that way contains no man-made ingredients to speak of and contains 100% naturally-occurring elements or compounds. The term “plant-based” might be a little more flexible but generally indicates that the product is made with botanical ingredients. Both terms, however are unregulated!
Senior Chemist Michael Slayton says, “I think it is somewhat inaccurate to refer to a ‘synthetic-free’ product as containing no man-made ingredients as some of the ingredients invariably go through a ‘man-made’ process.” Is a naturally-occurring ingredient better for you than an equivalent made in a lab? Mr. Slayton doesn’t think so: “I do not believe a ‘naturally-occurring’ ingredient is better for you than one made in the lab as there is greater consistency in materials made in the lab as opposed to those from nature.”
Additionally, most products require some level of preservatives that are often synthetic; 100% natural products will have a significantly shorter shelf life.
Organic? That’s a whole other bottle of bubbles. Learn more about the differences between natural and organic here.
Sniffing Out Fragrance
In a category all by itself is that often single item on ingredient lists: “fragrance.” Federal law doesn’t require companies to list any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture on product labels (but Hairstory does anyway, and our fragrances are 100% natural, which is unusual – and expensive). Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top five allergens in the world.
Don’t judge an ingredient by its name.
The INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) requires that names appear on product labels in Latin. That means that you may not recognize names for familiar things – Simmondsia Chinensis is how Jojoba is listed; Mentha Piperita is Peppermint. Also, names that may sound ominously chemical may be ordinary things; sodium cocoate is processed coconut oil; sodium chloride is merely salt, citric acid is found in lemons and other citrus fruits. Remember that ingredients are listed from highest percentage to lowest, so purists generally aim to pick a product where synthetic ingredients are mainly at the bottom of the list.
Ingredients are listed from highest percentage to lowest, so purists generally aim to pick a product where synthetic ingredients are mainly at the bottom of the list.
Natural Products Certification
The good news: The NPA (Natural Products Association) serves to independently certify personal care and home care products in the United States. The association requires that certified products must: include at least 95 percent ingredients from natural sources, excluding water; avoid ingredients with health risks; don’t use animal testing; include biodegradable or recycled material in the packaging; list all ingredients on the package label, and contain 100 percent natural fragrances and colorants. NPA has certified more than 1,200 products and ingredients since 2008. Look for their seal on packaging.
Is New Wash Natural?
Yes, and no. It’s true that our hero product, a detergent-free hair cleanser wouldn’t be certified by the NPA, because we don’t think a formula that qualifies would be as effective. Yes, an abundance of ingredients found in nature are the core of the formula, some certified as organic. Avoiding unhealthful ingredients was a part of our company vision. It was never tested on animals. All ingredients are listed on the box, and all fragrance ingredients (also listed) are natural. No colorants are used.
But, some ingredients we included – often derived from plants – are refined in a laboratory. Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, for example, is a name that sounds scary to some people. But it is a substitute for the conditioning properties normally provided by silicone – which we elected to avoid – and it is derived from vegetable oils. Gluconolactone is a moisturizer, a UV protectant and free-radical scavenger made by removing the water from gluconic acid, a substance naturally produced by mammals to metabolize carbohydrates. It can also be produced from corn. You get the idea: many ingredients that aren’t technically natural have natural origins.
Non-Toxic is the Goal.
The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) selected non-toxic at the word most appropriate for 2018. Our skin is our largest organ, and it’s porous; some ingredients applied to it are absorbed into our bloodstream and lymphatic system; “It has a lot to do with the size of the material, type of material, area of the body to which applied, other ingredients/components of the product,” says Mr. Slayton. While the FDA maintains that chemicals typically used in beauty products (parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, petrolatum, phthalates, synthetic polymers, synthetic fragrances) are safe in small quantities, their long-term effects are not necessarily known.
When companies claim to be creating non-toxic products, they are specifically referring to leaving out ingredients linked to neuro-disruption, hormone disruption, cancer, even death. For example, phthalates give products a uniform consistency and make them easier to pour; formaldehyde is found in nail polish, hair gel, and color cosmetics; petroleum is found in moisturizers and lip balms; lead acetate is found in hair dye and lipstick; coal tar is found in hair dye and anti-dandruff shampoo. But: Are those ingredients natural? Yes. Point made.
Your Choices Matter.
“There has been a lot of study on the long-term effects of certain chemicals on the body,” says Mr. Slayton. “The issue is that certain studies are misinterpreted and sensationalized while ‘real science’ sometimes get twisted or neglected.” So what to do and what not to do? Don’t trust marketing. Do read ingredient lists. Go for organic where you can, although truly natural products are a step in the right direction. Make conscious and healthier choices by avoiding toxic chemicals, giving the planet a helping hand, saying no to animal cruelty and supporting progressive companies who are trying to do the right thing.