Have you noticed lately the huge increase in the numbers of cosmetics and body products with the word “natural” on them? Natural skin care, natural makeup, natural soap. It’s great, right? Being able to purchase and use all these products full of wholesome stuff, extracted from nature. Right?
Well, maybe. In the US, there is no legal definition for what is “natural” in cosmetics. There are some private organizations trying to come up with standards, like the Natural Products Association and the Whole Foods Premium Standard. But these are not regulated by the government and can vary widely.
What does “natural” mean?
Unlike “organic” certification, which has guidelines, regulations and oversight, generally the term “natural” means whatever the product manufacturer wants it to mean. Or rather, whatever they want you to think it means. So, if you think that “natural” on the label means that all the ingredients were derived from nature, you’re in for a surprise. In product labeling, “natural” really has no clear meaning.
When shopping for “natural” products, you have to consider what that means to you. Do you expect all the ingredients to be as unprocessed as possible? Or just the main ingredients? Is it important to you that none of the ingredients are synthesized in a laboratory? Does the product have to have 100% natural ingredients? How about 97%? Is 95% good enough?
These are questions that only you as the consumer can decide for yourself. To make that decision, you have to read and understand the ingredients that are in the products. This can be difficult when labels use chemical names, even for natural ingredients. It can be so confusing!
Here are some definitions and guidelines to keep in mind when looking at handmade soap ingredient labels:
- The main ingredient in handmade soaps is fats and oils. These are natural, extracted from plants (like coconut or olive oils) or animals (like lard from pigs or emu oil).
- Another substantial ingredient in handmade soap is lye, a solution of water and sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is manufactured by running an electric current through a solution of water and sodium chloride (table salt).
- Detergent ingredients, like sodium laureth sulfate, add foaming and cleansing qualities and are found in some soap. While sodium laureth sulfate can be derived from vegetable oils, it goes through several chemical reactions before taking its final form.
- Colorants and fragrance (synthetic and natural) together in soap usually make up a very small percentage of a soap bar, around 2-4% of the total weight.
- Skin-safe colorants like oxides and ultramarines are chemically identical to their natural counterparts that used to be extracted from the ground. They are manufactured in a laboratory, and so I don’t consider them “natural”. But they can be actually safer to use than their natural versions, which can be contaminated with dangerous heavy metals like lead and mercury.
- FD&C or D&C colorants are dyes regulated by the FDA and approved for use in personal products like lotion and soap. They are derived from petrochemicals.
- Essential oils are used to bring scent and aromatherapy qualities to soap. They are derived directly from a natural source, like leaves, bark or citrus fruit peels. Different essential oils can be blended to give very rich and complex scents.
- “Fragrance” in a soap ingredient list is usually a synthetic compound, blended with chemical components that have distinct odors. Sometimes essential oils are also included in this blend. This is often the only option if a soapmaker wants to make a soap that smells like kiwi, for example, since a kiwi essential oil does not exist.
As the consumer, you get to decide your definition of “natural” when judging skin care products. Just because a soap calls itself “natural” doesn’t make it so. With my guidelines, you can now read and better understand soap labels and choose the products that fit your needs. There is nothing wrong with “Natural Kiwi-scented Soap”, as long as you know exactly what you’re really getting.