Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What is "natural"?

(Christie, this update is for you. No more cupcakes at the top of the page!)

One of my biggest pet peeves is all the "natural" products on the market these days. Particularly in the bath and body world, it seems like everyone has jumped on the natural bandwagon.

As far as I can tell, there are basically two definitions consumers have in mind when they describe a product as "natural".

1) It is found in nature. Obviously, this definition doesn't apply to bath products; soap doesn't grow on trees.

2) It is made from ingredients that are found in nature with minimal processing. Handmade soap could qualify under this definition - although you'd have to make an allowance for the fact that lye used by soapmakers is made in a lab, and that many soapmakers (including me sometimes) use synthetic fragrance oils in their products.

One of the hottest topics on The Soap Dish (online community of over 5,000 soapmakers) is about the search for natural preservatives, natural fragrance and colorants, and natural additives. There is much debate surrounding this issue for the simple reason that in the world of marketing, the world "natural" is unregulated and essentially meaningless. An example - Method hand wash. The second ingredient on the label (after water) is sodium lauryl sulfate, a synthetic detergent that is created in a lab (does not exist in nature.) And they are scented with synthetic fragrance. Yet they claim that all of their products are natural or "naturally derived" (which is also pretty meaningless, since just about every ingredient can be traced in some way back to a natural source.) Another one - Glade Scented Oil candles which are labeled as "made with Essential Oils". The only problem - there is no such thing as Apple essential oil (or Clean Linen, or Mango, Peaches, Berry, Coconut, etc.) They can claim to be natural because there is no legal definition of "natural".

Of course, in my opinion the whole quest to make everything more natural is flawed to begin with, because it relies on the premise that natural=good and unnatural=bad. Let's explore that.

Things that are natural:

-tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes
-E. coli
-the flu
-fleas, mosquitoes, roaches
-poop (there's a thread on The Soap Dish that discusses a great recipe containing "sodium poopinate". That may only be funny if you're a B&B formulator.)

Things that are unnatural:

-birth control

So there you have it: "natural" does not equal "good" and "unnatural" does not equal "bad". End of debate.



  1. Thanks Chelsea ;) This is very interesting to me. I always try to buy what is best for my family, and I've always wondered if "natural" was really best.

  2. You make a good point. If "natural" is what someone is going for, then why are they bothering with soap in the first place? Next time I just can't seem to get a shower for 3 days I'm going to claim it's because I'm trying to go natural.

  3. Oh yeah, I really like nature but I feel fully aware that it either A. Wants to kill me or B. Thinks I want to kill it and will react in with its best, most violent defense or C. Doesn't care if I die. Naturally, we would have a lot of parasites and be happy to eat each other when the foraging wasn't going so well.
    I often wonder about just how natural, natural products are. I've decided if I can identify it and it's parts it's worth eating. (Twinkies-no, Fried green tomatoes-yes)

  4. a few other things that are natural: poison ivy, poison oak, snake venom, flesh-eating bacteria, and sharks. Yes, just coming from nature doesn't make it a good substance! And I also hate how food companies can label their foods "low fat" "whole grain" and "healthy" or even less clear words like "wholesome" when there is only crap, no whole grains, and relatively high fat content. ARG! I share your frustration.

  5. Arianne, So true about misleading labeling. And the FDA even regulates those! Imagine how bad it would be without the regulation.


Give it to me straight!

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