The Hypothetical Nature of Natural

“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.

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.

Consider, too, if one can be befuddled by the organic label in the U.S. despite clear guidelines, how much more puzzling can organics be from China or India. The surge in organic materials from China is of particular interest.3 High profile contamination cases involving toys and pet food has damaged the Chinese reputation for product integrity, which clearly overflows into such a conformance-intensive process as organic farming.

To sample the positive side of organic farming in China, National Public Radio offers insight through a story about a farm named Fruit Garden, Fragrant Pig south of Chengdu.4 The farmer, Luo Yu, finds it difficult to make a profit. One third of his crop is eaten by bugs; another third by birds. “Those bugs have the right to stay here. They’re part of the food chain. If we kill them, then there will be no birds on the farm,” Luo says. Luo Yu surely would conform to any standard as an organic supplier, but what about the rest of China. Pesticide use, including DDT, is massive in China—as is pollution. If one small field is farmed organically but surrounded by pollution, contamination is inevitable. There are reports of rubber-stamping certification, certainly possible in a vast and rapidly developing nation. What does a seal mean to a bureaucrat if the fee is paid? Unless obvious contaminants such as pesticides or heavy metals are found, the only distinguishing feature of organic production may just be paperwork.

The amazing increase in organic farmland in China in a very short time is another issue. Traditionally, farmed land in the U.S. must lie fallow for three years before certifiable organic crops are grown. To grow at the pace that China reports, new land must be converted to agriculture. But converting so much land to crops has its own impact. The vast expanse of land bordering Russian Siberia, known as China’s Great Northern Wilderness, is the location of most of the new organic farming. What are the consequences of turning this land into organic farms?

With 1.2 billion mouths to feed, turning old land over to organic production reduces the food supply. Turning new land over to organic farming reduces the natural habitat, much like cutting down trees in the Amazon. Somehow, it is difficult to see how environmentally friendly the process really is.

After all this confusion, it would be nice to take a walk in the woods and clear one’s mind, smelling the fresh pine scent coming off the trees. But you’d be smelling pinene, a terpene that doesn’t readily biodegrade because it’s a hydrocarbon. So, by some standards, it is not “green.” Nor is the chemical on your hand after peeling an orange, the dreaded, but very natural, limonene. Natural or organic, it remains clear that it isn’t easy being green.

Author’s note: Thanks to Wen Schroeder for making her presentation available and for valuable insight into the subject.


  3. W Schroeder, The Global Green Chase and the Potential Pitfall on Quality, Efficacy, Safety, and Authenticity, NYSCC, March 4, 2009

Steve Herman is president of Diffusion LLC, a consulting company specializing in regulatory issues, intellectual property, and technology development and transfer. An adjunct professor in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Masters in Cosmetic Science program, his book, Fragrance Applications: A Survival Guide, was published by Allured Publishing Corp. in 2001. A former chairman of the SCC’s New York chapter, he was elected to fellow status in 2002.

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