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Can I trust my 'natural' or 'organic' body cream?

Laura Sevier

5th August, 2010

What does it take for a company producing skincare or haircare products to be truly 'natural' or 'organic'? Laura Sevier sorts fact from fiction in the health and beauty stakes

We all know that many of the so-called 'natural' shampoos, creams and shower gels on supermarket or chemist shelves are anything but natural.

You know the ones I'm talking about - those exotic, tasty sounding products (a yoghurt and honey 'shower smoothie' - mmm!) with their pictures of coconut or grapefruit explosions on the label. At best, the fruity names and images brighten up a dull container; at worst they are hugely misleading.

It comes as no surprise that a 2009 report on natural personal care by Kline & Company, a consulting and research firm, which looked at 'natural' brands worldwide, found that an overwhelming majority are merely 'natural-inspired' and mostly made up of synthetics.

Astonishingly, it's perfectly legal to apply the terms 'natural' and 'organic' to cosmetics even if only a tiny percentage of the total ingredients are from natural or organic sources. In other words, they can be used purely for marketing purposes.

Hopefully the Cosmos standard, the result of a six-year consultation between five major national certification bodies to create a Europe-wide standard for organic and natural beauty and health products, will lead to greater truthfulness in marketing claims.

But there's a simpler question to be asked here: just how hard is it for a cream, lotion or gel to be truly natural or organic?

I talked to three brands with exceptionally high standards to find out more.

Organic purists

Peter Kindersley, owner of Neal's Yard Remedies, describes his company as 'the purists of the organic movement'. Although Neals Yard has always sought to make natural products, one of the first things Kindersley did when he bought the brand in 2005 was to 'get them to become much more organic'. Several years ago all of the essential oils used in the products were converted to organic, which was then followed by the base oils.

As a result, Neal's Yard now has the largest certified organic range in the UK (around 218 products). But Kindersley still admits: ‘there are chemicals in our products that we prefer were not there. It's a constant process of inventing new products with new properties and reformulating existing products to make them more organic.'

Unfortunately some plants, such as witch hazel, are difficult to get hold of organically. And in cases where a substance such as salt is used (which can't be certified as organic) certification is impossible. 'Some things we are truly stuck on,' Kindersley says.

How natural is 'natural'?

Many natural brands show the percentage of natural ingredients on the label or website. Green People says the average percentage in its products is 99.6 per cent (with 70 per cent of ingredients from organic sources, and in many cases over 90 per cent).

Weleda and the biodynamic Demeter brands offer products that are 100 per cent natural with no synthetic ingredients, non-natural preseservatives, artificial fragrances or colourants.

But calculating the percentage of natural ingredients is not always straightforward. Susan Curtis, natural health director of Neal's Yard says, ‘it depends on what you call natural. For instance, the detergents we use for the shampoos are plant-derived. But they are not natural - they are synthesised.' She estimates the majority of their products (bar the shampoos) are around 95 per cent natural. ‘Some companies say their product is more natural than we would choose to say.'

And therein lies the rub. Just what is the definition of 'natural'? Defining ‘organic' is relatively easy: for a bodycare product certified by the Soil Association, to state it is 'made with organic ingredients', a minimum of 70 per cent of agricultural ingredients must be from organic sources. To claim it is organic, (eg 'organic body butter') the percentage must be higher - at least 95 per cent.

A simple definition of 'natural' is: any plant or animal extract, or any rock or mineral obtained from the earth. But then things get murky. Are ‘nature identical' ingredients (lab-synthesised exact copies of natural substances) still natural? And what about processed natural ingredients (such as tinctures and emulsifiers)?

All natural brands have their own criteria. Many aim to make a product as natural as possible but will need to use some non-natural substances, such as preservatives. At the lower end of the scale there are products marketed as natural that may be 98 per cent synthetic but two per cent derived from natural or even 'nature identical' ingredients.

Strictly natural

‘At the end of the day in the world of cosmetics the word 'natural' tells the consumer nothing,' says Loraine Murry, Weleda's natural beauty consultant. ‘What exactly is natural? At one extreme we have an apple from a tree and at the other an apple flavouring, a manmade copy of active substances in the apple. But what about the myriad of possibilities between the two?'

Below is a summary of one working definition of ‘natural' from the accreditation scheme NaTrue, a not for profit independent body and charitable trust who 'aim to safeguard the highest possible standards for natural cosmetics and their ingredients'.

  • Natural substances are substances of botanic, inorganic mineral, or animal origin (except for dead vertebrates) which are processed using only physical means.
  • Derived natural substances are produced from the substances above using only very specific defined chemical processes.
  • Nature-identical - NaTrue gives a short list of such substances which may only be used when natural substances cannot be recovered from nature using reasonable technical effort. These include preservatives, inorganic pigments and minerals specifically approved for use in natural cosmetics.

 

Weleda has come up with an extremely strict definition of natural: 'No more than a one step chemical change from the natural source'. Loraine Murry tells me all the key ingredients in Weleda products - plant extracts, oils and essential oils - are 100 per cent within this definition and that they are committed to this goal for their range. Most other ingredients that go into their gel, paste or cream also fit into that.

She admits the definition is aspirational, particularly at the level of a finished product. 'If you made a cream with Weleda's ideal definition you'd be using substances like pure beeswax. This makes richer, greasier creams that are fine if you want body care but for facial skincare people expect more sophisticated products. It's a question of making the products truly acceptable to a wider category of the public.'

Weleda is keen to distinguish itself from companies with lower standards. The brand's products were formerly certified with the natural cosmetic accreditation body BDIH, but Weleda wanted a logo that better reflected its own standards with much stricter controls on what is allowed in 'natural' products.

Interestingly, although NaTrue allows nature identical ingredients within its criteria, Weleda don't. 'Weleda believes that some of the natural characteristics or key properties of the ingredient may be lost, and the result would not be so effective as genuinely natural substances,' says Murry.

On preservatives

One of the trickiest areas for a natural brand are preservatives. 'The product has to be safe, to stop it going off. It's about extending shelf life. Without these you'd need to keep them in the fridge,' says Susan Curtis of Neal's Yard.

Neal's Yard either use natural ingredients with preservative properties, such as rose or propolis extract, or small amounts of preservatives 'selected to be safe for use and non-persistent in the environment'. The trademark blue glass bottles also help protect the product so as to minimise preservatives - the glass cuts down 97 per cent of UV light.

Green People has a similar stance on this, using a range of plant extracts in combination with tiny amounts of food-grade preservatives. Where a stronger preservative is necessary the company uses phenoxyethanol, a synthetic. According to Ian Taylor, Green People's information and research manager, phenoxyethanol has has 'an excellent safety profile, does not cause skin irritation or sensitivities and biodegrades rapidly'. It is on the list of permitted preservatives for use in cosmetics certified as organic by the Soil Association.

In its haircare products, Weleda uses natural preservatives made from grapefruit seeds certified by Ecocert. A couple of the ingredients used also have valuable preservative properties such as alcohol (primarily used as an extractive agent). Likewise, essential oils help preserve some formulations. 'It's down to expertise of formulation and packaging,' says Murry.

Cost

Do ‘natural' and ‘organic' products have to be more expensive? ‘The truth is that all the ingredients cost more. It's really cheap to try and synthesise ingredients,' says Peter Kindersley.

Ian Taylor agrees. ‘The cost of organic plant oils such as hemp and rosehip are typically 20 times more expensive than mineral oils and denatured non-organic plant oils, and the same applies to organic essential oils when compared to the cost of synthetic fragrance blends.'

Sourcing sustainably can come at a price too. Take palm oil. According to Taylor, ‘emulsifiers made from RSPO certified palm oil and approved for use in certified organic cosmetics are considerably more expensive than synthetic alternatives or those made from cheaper grades of Palm Oil.'

Alongside these bids to be more natural and organic there are, of course, important ethical considerations when sourcing ingredients. Green People, Weleda and Neal's Yard all have fairly traded and/or Fairtrade global partnerships with many of their producers.

Although these truly natural or organic products might cost that little bit extra, knowing what's in them and the effort that's gone into sourcing quality ingredients means they're worth it. Or rather, you're worth it.

Other good brands

Primavera
Dr Hauschka
Essential Care
Bamford
Spiezia Organics
Earthbound

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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