What does ‘natural’ mean in cosmetics labelling?

AUTHOR: Dr Somia EL Azzab, senior toxicologist, health, environmental and regulatory services

Despite widespread use of the term ‘natural’ in personal care products, the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) has not officially defined the term and has not released any guidelines on its use. However, the ISO standard 16128 includes technical definitions and criteria for the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’.

A generic images supplied by Intertek

What a consumer may perceive is a ‘natural’ product could differ from a manufacturer’s use of the term. Even the phrase ‘chemical-free’, which can be used to indicate that a product’s ingredients are naturally derived, may be misleading, because all ingredients, regardless of origin, are still made up of chemicals – even water. 

Are natural ingredients safer than synthetic ones?

Synthetic chemicals – those that are manmade – have a perceived negative reputation. Some are known to cause endocrine disruption, developmental disorders and other toxic health effects. Many companies now advertise that their products are free of synthetic chemicals to imply their products are safe. 

However, not all synthetically derived ingredients or products are unsafe. Many synthetic chemicals are not linked to health problems and play a crucial role in enhancing the safety of personal care products.

Preservatives (which are mainly synthetics) are important ingredients in personal care products, as they keep cosmetics free of mould and other contaminants longer than those without preservatives. Preservatives are also essential for cosmetics, particularly those that contain water or those stored in a humid environment. These ingredients are essential for products containing a variety of natural plant extracts, which can serve as food for microorganisms. Without preservatives, microorganisms in the air can pollute a container that has been open for only seconds. 

Synthetic fragrances versus essential oils

Some natural ingredients are not as safe as consumers may believe. Many consumers may be under the impression that essential oils are safer than fragrances because they are natural. But this is incorrect.

Essential oils are highly concentrated essences and can contain high levels of skin sensitisers and other natural active composites. While essential oils are natural, they are still composed of chemicals, albeit of plant origin, and can be unsafe when applied topically or ingested. 

To the contrary, synthetic fragrances are tightly regulated by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). Every single component of a fragrance is checked to ensure it complies with IFRA’s standards to help guarantee consumer safety. This is just one of many examples comparing natural ingredients and synthetic options.

Ingredients listings are crucial consumer info

Natural cosmetics are not necessarily safer or more effective than their synthetic alternatives. It is very important to check the ingredients listed on the product label and to carefully follow instructions for use regardless of whether they are natural or synthetic.

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