Archive for June, 2010

These buzz words have been around for years now, but market research after market research shows many of us are not all that clear about their meaning. So here are some clues for the curious.

Natural” seems to be the easiest to define, as most people would agree that it applies to a substance taken from nature i.e. not-man-made. We trust natural because the human species had plenty of time to figure out what is safe and what is not in the natural world, what is edible and what is poisonous, what is good for us and what harms us. Not the sort of thing somebody creates in a lab, puts on the market with great advertising fuss and then years later we may find out it has undesirable side effects. Plant extracts and naturally occurring minerals are substances most of use would consider natural.
But what do cosmetic manufacturers mean by “natural”? Well, the answer to that question is a lot less straightforward. “Natural“ being so popular a concept with consumers, cosmetic companies often take liberties with the word. In marketing jargon, natural can mean “natural-derived-processed”, “partly natural” or “almost natural”.

Natural-derived-processed” – a bit of a mouthful, so  it’s understandable that the word “processed” is often left behind. It means a substance originating in nature has been modified in a chemical process. One example most of us are familiar with is hydrogenated oil. Liquid natural oils – e.g. olive oil – go through a chemical process that adds a few hydrogen atoms to their molecules, thus turning the oils into solid, butter-like substances. At the end of the process you have a different substance, with a different chemical formula than what you had at the beginning. Is the end substance still natural?

Organic” can be more than “natural”, but interestingly, it can be less.
The Soil Association’s criteria for organic skin care products are rather lengthy – not the kind of information you can summarise on a product’s package. Neither are they the sort of pleasant reading you would want to have with your cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. That is why I will venture to say that – of all the natural-related buzz-words, “organic “is the least likely to be understood by the general public.
In the context of “100% natural and organic”, the organic certification is a step towards safe and healthy. But if you compare a product that is 100% natural with a product that is certified organic you will often find the  100% natural one is the closest to nature. Because the organic standards allow a number of preservatives and emulsifies, even though they are synthetic, on the grounds that there are no natural alternatives to them.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing like reading the ingredient list for yourself. The rule of thumb is: If every single ingredient in the list sounds natural, then chances are the product is natural. But if the end tail of the ingredient list reminds you of the chemistry book, then the natural claims of that brand would be better taken with a pinch of salt.