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The Hypothetical Nature of Natural

By: Steve Herman
Posted: June 5, 2009, from the June 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

“For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

The New York Society of Cosmetic Chemists (NYSCC) held a seminar on “The Greening of Cosmetics,” with topics such as “What is a Natural?” and “Natural Preservatives.” Big deal, you say, green is all over the place.

Well, this seminar was held on April 1, 1992. Seventeen years later, the questions are still being asked, with no end in sight. What takes so long?

Well, consider that fundamentally different types of questions exist. “What is the temperature conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius?” is the type of question with one basic answer upon which all reasonable individuals can agree: subtract 32, multiply by 5, and then divide by 9. Now, consider, “What is a Natural?” It has no such universally accepted answer, and reasonable and rational people can rightly disagree. One thing that is certain in the natural arena is that disagreements will continue unabated for the foreseeable future.

The Natural Products Association has a definition of natural personal care products that allows “environmentally friendly and benign synthetic materials.” Any definition of natural that allows synthetics reveals how the subject is painted in many shades of gray rather than pure black and white.