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The Hypothetical Nature of Natural

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

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Under the Natural Standard for Personal Care Products, allowed ingredients come or are made from a renewable resource found in nature…1 Made how?

In 1990, it was possible to get rose oil that was generally accepted as a natural product. There can be no controversy about a rose petal itself being natural. But the oil was extracted by solvents, and the further step of refinement to the absolute involved dissolving in alcohol. Somewhere in the mid 1990s, the process became as much of an issue as the source material, and the solvents and alcohol were rejected by some groups.

What was left when solvents—much maligned “chemicals”—could not be used? Water, heat and mechanical pressing were allowed. Could the same rose oil the industry was accustomed to be obtained using these alternate methods? Absolutely not. The result is a radically reduced raw material palette. New methods such as supercritical extraction are available, and are very “green” and effective but also costly.

Though there are no official definitions in the U.S. of “green” or “natural,” there are clear guidelines for organic. But even here there are issues. From a practical side, there are formulation challenges due to the lack of adequate organic preservatives, surfactants and emulsifiers. Customers demand the same product performance, a competitive price and an organic seal—a combination often beyond current economic or technical means.

Green: The Grayest of Colors

The difficulty in defining green is clear with silicones. A very green company can label silicone as coming from sand. True enough. But the Rochow process,2 used to get the silicones out of the sand, is far from green in energy use and chemistry. Silicones are very valuable in making elegant skin products, so taking a rather liberal definition in this case has pragmatic benefits And there are significant credibility problems with consumers. Too many labels have natural/green/organic claims prominently displayed on the front label without supporting information in the ingredient list. When words are widely abused, it harms the market for conforming products. Of course there are many products with USDA seals and clear labeling, but one cannot always expect the average consumer to wade through a maze to locate authentic items.