What is a natural product?
Natural, according to the dictionary definition, means existing in nature and not made or caused by people. So most things we use are not “natural”. Take Olive oil, for example, it does not exist in nature. It is made from olives, by people, using various extraction methods including mechanical pressing. Pomace olive oil is the final extraction from the olive pulp, carried out using chemical solvents. Essential oils, used to fragrance natural soaps are compounds extracted from plants. Again there are various methods for doing this including chemical processes.
Some people equate being natural with being chemical-free. But, by definition, everything you can see, breath and touch is chemical. The chemical formula for sodium chloride is NaCI, commonly known as salt. The chemical formula for sodium hydroxide is NaOH which is commonly known as caustic soda or lye. It used to be made from ashes but these days it is made from salt and it is a necessary ingredient in solid soap making.
What is a natural cosmetic?
Cosmetic products, including soap, are regulated by the European Commission which has defined ‘natural’ as it relates to cosmetic ingredients to mean “product of plant, animal or mineral origin, which is not processed except by traditional mechanical actions, in particular for the purpose of extracting the ingredient.” or that the ingredient of natural origin “has undergone a limited amount of chemical transformation.” In both cases, any ingredient of petrochemical origin is excluded. Producers can label their products as ‘natural’ if it least 95% of the contents fall under this definition.
Does natural always mean good?
As you can see above from the European Commission definition of natural the definition excluded ingredients from the petrochemical industry. These ingredients are natural but you would not want to put them on your skin.
Not everything that is natural is harmless including plants such as deadly nightshade and oleander. Some natural products have been banned, such as asbestos which was found to cause lung problems.
For one of my soap experiments, I wanted a vanilla scent. A lovely vanilla scent, often used in candles, is Peru Balsam. However, this has so many allergens in it that a lot of cosmetic assessors refuse it. There are other plant-based possibilities but they have undergone a lot of processing that distances them from their natural form. In the end, I chose a synthetic fragrance developed in a laboratory and tested as suitable for cosmetic use.
More vibrant colours are less likely to be natural. Vibrant soaps are often coloured with manufactured dyes that are created in a laboratory. These contain ingredients such as phenoxyethanol, benzoic acid and dehydroacetic acid.
Numerous pigments, both natural and synthetic, are used to colour soaps. The primary pigment in plants is chlorophyll which gives plants their green colour. Some pigments are derived from petrochemicals and others are found naturally as earths.
Micas are all around us these days. Referred to as ‘nature’s glitter’ mica gives a shimmer to colours in paints and cosmetics.
Natural micas are mined from granite rock deposits. The largest deposits are to be found in the Jharkhand state in India, although they can come from many other places. Micas have recently been associated with cheap child labour used for mining the products, sometimes at a risk to their health. This is a very difficult ethical subject. Do you stop buying Mica because you don’t want children in mines? What if that child provides the only source of income for the entire family? Some large cosmetics companies are working to change the Mica industry so that traceability is easier and human rights are promoted.
Cosmetic grade micas are created synthetically and coloured with dyes. They are quality controlled and certified for cosmetic use making them a safe component for your skin.
Soap can also be coloured with clays, herbs and other plants. These tend to give more subdued colours which sometimes change over time. The colours are less predictable, they also have not been tested in laboratories to ensure they are consistent.
Fragrance oils are synthetic chemical scent compounds. They last longer in soap than a lot of essential oils. They are also more varied and can produce smells that cannot be made naturally.
Essential oils are steam-distilled or cold-pressed pure plant extracts using blossom, fruit, leaf, stem, bark, wood or resin. Although a fragrance oil can mimic the smell of an essential oil, it cannot mimic the additional benefits. Some critics state that creating essential oils is resource-intensive and not sustainable.
Other ingredients are added to soap to give it various properties:
Hardness: additives, including sodium lactate, which is a chemical compound or more natural additives such as beeswax and salt make soap harder more quickly, reducing their airing time.
Longevity: stearic acid, a chemical compound (often derived from palm oil), grapefruit seed extract, rosemary extract, citric acid and vitamin E oil can add longevity. These are only really needed if the oils have not all saponified in the process (see superfat).
Side note. Grapefruit seed extract sounds ‘natural’ doesn’t it? Find out more by reading this article or this one. Stearic acid, on the other hand, sounds more like a chemical but it is extracted from fats and oils in a similar way to soap and vegetable spreads.
Lather: the chemical compounds sodium citrate and sodium lactate and the more natural additives of sugar, and rosin improve the lather. Things that contain sugar such as beer, honey and maple syrup also have this effect.
Exfoliation: the list of exfoliating ingredients is huge but includes clays, oatmeal, seeds and ground nutshells.
Slip and texture: the way soap glides over your skin is important, without good ‘slip’ hands, washcloths or even razors, moving across the skin do not glide but stick, razor burn is a big problem. Some oils do this naturally, clays help slip, and silk in soap gives a lovely smooth feeling and adds shine to the bar. Some people might not want silk from silkworms in their soap. There are other silks, such as bamboo and corn silks.
Scent anchors: as mentioned above, some essential oils don’t last too long in soap. There are various ingredients that anchor the scent. These include other scents, clay and cornflour.