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Last updated on February 7th, 2017
As I am a researcher of, and a writer about, non-toxic and safe products, not an hour goes by without my coming across natural products. In the world of 82,000 chemicals, most of which have not been properly studied for health and environmental safety, the word “natural” has become something for us to grip onto to feel safe. As much as we want to trust and relax, I believe we have to stay vigilant even when read the ingredients of natural products. Here are 5 reasons why the word “natural” does not always mean safe.
There is no legal definition for the term “natural”
The term “natural” is not legally defined. In other words, if skin care/personal care product makers say that their products are natural but they are not, there is no authority to stop them from making false claims. Product makers understand that the word “natural” sells, which means that the word “natural” has become a common marketing term.
In fact, I am from this point forward, going to market this blog as “All Natural.”
Most skin care/personal care ingredients are not truly natural
I am not saying the manufacturers of natural products are liars. Many may simply be searching for a quick word that connotes safety to consumers or have their own understanding of natural, which may or may not coincide with your definition. So what is natural?
I have looked into ways to define it for me and I like the explanation given by the USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture) Organic. For an ingredient to fall into the “natural” category, the maximum change the biological raw material can undergo is fermentation, composting, enzymatic digestion, heating or burning. In other words, not much can be done to the original biological matter.
By this definition, most ingredients of natural products are not “natural.” My personal definition is that a natural ingredient is derived from biological matter in a one-step process without the assistance of any chemicals.
Toxic solvents can be present in so-called natural plant extracts
There are several different methods of extraction: expression, absorption, maceration, and distillation. If any of these processes involve introduction of a chemical, it would not qualify the final product to be “natural,” according to the USDA Organic or my definition. Unfortunately, a lot of extracts on the market are extracted with solvents that leave toxic residue in the product (which explains why airport security detected hazardous chemicals on my mother-in-law’s hands when all she did was to put on a hand lotion). While CO2 extracts technically are not natural under the USDA Organic definition, they are considered one of the safest among common extracts because they do not leave any residue.
So-called natural surfactants (foaming agents) do not exist
There is a proliferation of so-called natural surfactants (foaming agents) used in facial/body cleansers and shampoos. A lot of them are derived from coconut oil, actually fatty acids derived from coconut oil. My strong belief that the mere fact that the coconut oil was a starting point for a lengthy process of multi-step chemical reactions involving other substances does not constitute natural.
Here is an example for you: sodium cocoyl isethionate. It may appear natural because it is derived from coconut oil. However, the derivation process is not so simple. The surfactant is derived by combining the fatty acids of coconut oil with isethionic acid. Isethionic acid is created by combining sodium bisulfite in an aqueous solution and ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen. Traces of ethylene oxide can remain in the product, along with its byproduct, carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane. It doesn’t sound very natural anymore, does it?
And lastly, even truly natural products may be harmful
Truly natural does not mean safe. Poison ivy and lead are absolutely natural but I wouldn’t recommend sprinkling it on your toddler’s oatmeal. Some natural ingredients may cause allergies, skin irritation or sensitivities in some individuals. Particularly, essential oils should be used carefully. While the plants used to make essential oils are not toxic (unless there is a poison ivy oil out there somewhere), essential oils may acquire some harmful qualities about them because they are very concentrated. There is the whole science of aromatherapy behind it with dosage and methods of application.
Conclusion About Natural Products
In conclusion, natural products do not always mean safe both because facts may be misrepresented or misunderstood and because nature in its concentrated form may be harmful too. I encourage you to ask questions of manufacturers of natural products. It is as important to know how naturally sourced ingredients are derived. There simply are not enough of us asking tough questions so manufacturers can easily brush off the outliers. In numbers there is power. Please subscribe to my blog so we can get some answers together.
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