What is Natural? Article number two of the Herbs and Home Journal

4. Researching Ingredients - What is Natural?

Does the following question sound familiar?

“How do I know if an ingredient I want to use is natural?”

I often see formulators ask this question when they're researching ingredients for a new product they want to make.

But I think a more important question for formulators to ask first is…

“What is my definition of natural?”

There are different levels of natural when it comes to ingredients and it’s important to first determine what level matches your values before you begin researching ingredients.

I would like to invite you to join me as we explore the current standards for certification as natural, and the distinct categories of natural included in those standards.

At the end of this article, you will have a solid foundation of resources and information to figure out what your definition of natural is, and whether the ingredients you’re researching fit that definition.

Let’s dive in!



The “Natural” Standard

Unlike the term “organic”, which legally requires certification to be used on labels, there is not yet a governing body which regulates the use of the term “natural”. And while certification by third-party organizations is possible, since it is not legally required, we see different criteria used to describe whether a product is natural or not. It is for this reason that you may find many products labelled as natural that still include a significant portion of ingredients that you do not personally accept.

However, there are two main organizations which have been working for decades to create consistency across the market for natural ingredients and products. We can look at their definitions and standards to help us gain a better understanding of what to look for when researching and buying ingredients for the products we make.

  • The NPA (Natural Products Association): created the NPA Natural Standard for personal care products in the United States.
  • ECOCERT: created the COSMOS-standard (Cosmetic Organic and Natural Standard) for personal care products at an international level.


Although they were developed in different parts of the world, both the NPA Natural Standard and COSMOS Standard for natural products, were developed to inform and protect consumers from the greenwashing which is so prevalent in the natural products industry; and to promote sustainability in the production and use of cosmetics.


(NOTE: I want to stress that you don’t have to get your products certified to market them as natural. There are many skincare brands out there who follow these standards exactly, but for various reasons may not have obtained the certification which these organizations offer (often because of cost). There are also skincare brands which have even stricter standards. However, when you have an understanding of these standards it will provide you with a foundation of knowledge regarding ingredient types and manufacturing processes that will assist you in developing your own products, so they meet your (or your ideal customer’s) standards for natural.)



What is a Natural Ingredient?

So how can we know if an ingredient is natural?

To begin, let’s look at how both standards define the term natural in reference to ingredients in personal care products.


The NPA defines natural ingredients as,

  • “Ingredients that come from or are made from a renewable resource found in nature (Flora, Fauna, Mineral), with absolutely no petroleum compounds.”


In the COSMOS Standard, ingredients of natural origin are defined as,

  • “water, minerals and ingredients of mineral origin, physically processed agro-ingredients, chemically processed agro-ingredients (and parts thereof) derived wholly from the above.”
  • “The following are not of natural origin: petrochemical moieties, preservative and denaturing agents of petrochemical origin.”

As you can see, the COSMOS Standard is a bit more technically worded, but generally the same as the NPA definition.


I know we have already covered a good deal of information but stick with me just a bit longer and we will dig a little deeper into each ingredient type to help you decide which aligns most with your own values.



A Breakdown of Ingredient Categories for Personal Care Products

Now, to make it a bit more complicated, each of these standards actually has 3 different categories that fall under the umbrella of “natural” ingredients.

This is part of why there is such a difference of opinions between people and brands, and what they consider to be natural.

So, this is where we will really dive deep to better understand each of these categories and help you define what is natural according to your own values. 


3 categories of natural


Non-Natural Ingredients   

We’ll start with possibly the most controversial of these categories, the non-natural ingredients.

Yup, you read that right.

Even with the innovative work currently being done in “green chemistry” to supply sustainable, natural alternatives, there is a small number of non-natural ingredients that are allowed by the NPA and COSMOS Standards.

This category is also considered to be temporary.

These ingredients are regularly reviewed and removed as natural alternatives become readily available. It’s still important to know about these ingredients though because the more information you have access to, the more empowered you are to make choices that are aligned with your values. So, it’s still important to discuss these few allowed synthetic ingredients at this time.


Most (but not all) of these non-natural ingredients are commonly referred to as “nature identical”. These ingredients are identical to their natural counterparts down to the last molecule.

Nature identical ingredients are defined as,

  • “[…] usually from petrochemical origin, all or most of their structures are found in nature.”


One example of a nature-identical ingredient is citric acid. Although citric acid is naturally found in citrus fruits, in most cases what is used in cosmetics, and even in food, is synthesized in a lab. If you have citric acid in your cabinets at home, chances are that it is synthetic. The demand for this ingredient far outweighs the amount that natural sources can provide. When we consider which choice is currently the most sustainable, the nature-identical version is preferred.


Also included in this category are natural ingredients which are extracted with petrochemical solvents. For example, a botanical extract which was extracted using petroleum derived propylene glycol.


Both types of non-natural ingredients have specific restrictions considering their use in personal care products.

  • they must remain at less than 5%
  • they must have no suspected human health risks


I know that finding out synthetics are allowed even in certified natural products may come as a surprise to some.

It may also come as a surprise that many of the nature-identical ingredients used in cosmetics are used in the food and medical industries as well, and many are even available in pharmaceutical grade.

A good example is Benzyl Alcohol, which is often used in cosmetics as part of a preservative system. This ingredient is also commonly used in the medical field as a preservative for injectable medications. Although benzyl alcohol can be found in nature, due to demand and cost of extracting the phytochemical, it is typically just synthesized in the lab.

Now that last point may be the most important, because so often in social media, we see all synthetic ingredients lumped together and vilified as being harmful or toxic when that is just not the case. While there are several synthetics that have been found in recent years to be potentially harmful to human health, there are some that are not only safe to use, but that keep us safe through their use.


Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not here to convince you to use synthetic ingredients if it goes against your values. I’m simply offering unbiased information, so you can make informed and conscious choices about the ingredients you use in the products you make.



Chemically Processed Ingredients 

This next category of ingredients also gets some debate whether they should be considered as truly natural, but it is not as controversial as the last category. These are the chemically processed ingredients or, as they are more commonly referred to as, naturally derived.


To summarize, the COSMOS definition of chemically processed ingredients is,

  • ingredients of natural origin which are processed or extracted using chemical manufacturing processes that are clean and allowed under the concept of “Green Chemistry”.


In other words, these ingredients start out as natural raw materials, they are then chemically processed using only certain, allowable processes, to create a final, naturally derived ingredient.


Both the NPA and COSMOS Standards are extremely specific as to which processes are allowed.

This ensures that,

  • the final products are free from contaminants that could be potential human health risks.
  • the processes “allow the formation of biodegradable molecules, respect natural active substances that are present in ingredients, and encourage good waste management and energy use and take into account ecological balance.”


Some examples of these allowed processes are hydrogenation, fermentation, and saponification.

Naturally derived ingredients are important for many products to ensure their functionality and stability. Historically these functional ingredients were petrochemical based, but thanks to green chemistry we now have many naturally derived alternatives that perform just as well, or better, than their petroleum-based alternatives.

A great example of this category is a group of ingredients called surfactants.

  • Surfactants, or SURFace ACTive AgeNTS, give certain products their cleansing properties.
  • Commonly found in body washes, shampoos, etc.


You may already be familiar with surfactants because of the recent buzz around, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). This petroleum-based surfactant has been found to be irritating to the skin and there is a lot of controversy around its use in many products here in the US.

Unfortunately, there is now a misconception that all surfactants are “bad” and should be avoided, but this is just not true. Once again, thanks to “green chemistry”, there are many mild, naturally derived surfactants that are used in natural products. Some of these naturally derived surfactants are even beneficial to the skin, helping to improve the function of the skin’s barrier.


Physically Processed Ingredients

Our final category is physically processed ingredients. This is the category that most consider to be truly natural. These ingredients are defined as…

  • the raw materials of plant, animal, or mineral origin which are processed or extracted using only physical processes.

Examples include…

  • oils,
  • waxes
  • botanical extracts

Examples of the physical processes include…

  • filtration,
  • steam distillation


Raw materials may go through only one, or several, of the allowed processes before being used in a personal care product. For example, some plant oils (aka carrier oils) may be extracted, then refined, bleached and deodorized before being sent off to a supplier. This removes the natural color and scent of the original oil and often makes it easier to use to create a product. However, many of the beneficial phytochemicals (plant compounds) are lost in these processes. For this reason, some formulators prefer to stick with materials that have gone through the least amount of processing, so the beneficial compounds remain. Then, they’ll highlight the beautiful colors and scents in their products.



What Does Natural Mean to You?

As we come to the end of this article, are you feeling more confident about purchasing natural ingredients for your formulations? Have you decided which category of natural aligns best with your values?

Do you agree with certification standards and feel that even a few synthetics, which are verified as safe, are ok in the products you use; at least until natural alternatives for these become available?

Or are you ok with naturally derived, but you don’t want any non-natural ingredients at all?

Perhaps you want to use products that contain only physically processed ingredients, even though that means water-based products are out.



What’s Next?

Since I am only able to give a brief overview of these standards here, I have included the links to both standards at the bottom of this article. They are in PDF format and if you are interested in learning more about these standards, I highly recommend downloading them or bookmarking them for future reference.

I hope you now feel that you have a solid foundation of information to build upon and I hope you will join me as we continue covering topics such as ingredients, sustainability, etc.


Racheal D.



PS: Remember to check the links below if you would like to dive deeper into the NPA and COSMOS standards.

NPA Natural Standard





Natural Products Association. NPA Standard and Certification for Personal Care Products, 2017, https://www.npanational.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Natural-Standard-042717.pdf.

BDIH - Germany, Cosmetic - France, Ecocert - France, ICEA - Italy and the Soil Association - UK. “COSMOS-Standard Cosmetics Organic and Natural Standard.” The COSMOS-Standard, 2020, https://a7e08fa4-7e84-472f-86dd-95a19f777744.filesusr.com/ugd/0bbe4a_7af6a7f98e7f4a21a429ea27863d0da5.pdf.

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