nat·u·ral /ˈnaCH(ə)rəl/: existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
I briefly discussed this on social media recently, but I wanted to expand a bit further. If you look up the definition of “natural” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are over 15 possible meanings. The term “natural” is also not formally regulated in the cosmetic industry in the United States. So what does it mean when it comes to your skincare and beauty products?
It’s going to vary from person to person, as well as vary from each businesses’ ethos. There are many brands proudly declaring that they only “use all natural ingredients,” claiming no synthetics, only organic, no chemicals, and so on.
First, EVERYTHING is a chemical. Chemicals have been given a bad rap; they are not bad! Our bodies are entirely comprised of chemicals, so don’t be scared of them.
“Natural” does not mean better. You may have heard before, the dose makes the poison. Anything, even a “natural” ingredient can be dangerous if misused or mishandled. If you drink too much water, you risk an electrolyte imbalance, which can result in headaches, nausea, and more. Essential oils are often credited as being more natural, thus safer. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Essential oils are heavily concentrated and great care must be taken when using. (Side note: never ingest essential oils, EVER.) A simple web search will unveil a lot of dangers from improper use of essential oils. While I do believe there are some benefits to essential oils (via aromatherapy and safe topical use), there is also a bounty of misinformation being perpetuated all over the web and from MLM companies. There is no miracle oil that is going to cure a loved one's cancer, boost immunity, prevent Covid-19, or any other absurdity you've been hearing.
Lab created synthetics have so many amazing uses. For starters, less energy and resources are needed to create a certain compound/ingredient. As people look for more natural remedies, essential oils are becoming increasingly popular. Many essential oils are extracted via steam distillation or cold pressing. In order to produce a single pound of an essential oil, enormous quantities of botanicals are required. It has been said it takes over ten thousand pounds of rose petals to produce one pound of oil, which sheds light on the cost of rose absolute. Are there some synthetics out there that are dangerous? Absolutely. Are there natural compounds out there that are dangerous? ABSOLUTELY. I have heard people say they refuse to eat or use anything that they cannot pronounce. I assure you, cyanide flows freely off the tongue, but is highly dangerous. If someone was not familiar with niacinimide, it could easily be glossed over as something "toxic" and scary, but it's merely vitamin B3, which is amazing for the skin. Hyaluronic acid, naturally found and created within our bodies, used to be derived from animals for cosmetic use and is now synthesized in a lab, thus diminishing the need for animal exploitation.
The debate on fragrance oils and the use of fragrance has become a fairly hot topic lately in the cosmetics industry. There are some out there who take the stance that fragrance should not be in skincare. I personally enjoy a bit of fragrance in my cosmetics, whether from essential oils or fragrant compounds, and don't think a small amount of it will harm you. Years ago, I preferred using only essential oils to create customized scents, as I was a bit weary of fragrance. Since then, I have changed my mind. (Can we please normalize changing one's opinion when we receive new/more information?) Certain scents simply are impossible to be extracted into an essential oil, such as most fruits like apple or berries (with an exception to citrus). As previously mentioned, an enormous amount of botanicals are necessary to produce essential oils, and certain ones require an exorbitant amount, making the cost excessive and, in some cases, prohibitive. For instance, rose absolute can cost upwards of $100 or more for a mere 5 mL bottle. Thus the need/desire for fragrance oils.
While I understand that there are folks with highly sensitive skin, most people are not going to react negatively to a bit of fragrance in their cosmetics. A reputable formulator and business will always use essential oils and fragrance within the safe and regulated dermal limits. When formulating, I typically err on the side of caution and use much less than what is deemed safe, primarily because I don't enjoy strong fragrance for personal use. In the past, there was research done that linked phthalates found in fragrance to be hormone disrupters, or cause birth defects, thyroid irregularities, etc, however correlation does not mean causation. Additionally, most fragrance suppliers nowadays will sell only phthalate-free fragrance oils. (I also have a supplier that offers organic fragrance oils derived from plant, vegetable, and fruit extracts/materials.)
Another consideration for the use of fragrant compounds is that some base formulas do not smell particularly pleasant. For instance, the emulsifier I use in my hair masques has been known to have an off-putting fishy odor. While it offers wonderful conditioning to your hair, it does need some sort of fragrance to mask its natural scent. I also find fragrance to be part of the experience of using a product. A pleasant aroma can invoke feelings of happiness, tranquility, or confidence, and you are more likely to repurchase that product.
I could go on about this topic, since I find it fascinating. All I suggest is to continue to ask questions, stay informed, and have an open mind. Don't let the industry use green washing and fear mongering to trick and exploit you. Nature and science have and can continue to coexist.