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Just like “revitalizing,” “nourishing,” and “luxurious,” “natural” has become one of the most common marketing buzzwords to rule the beauty industry.

Unfortunately, there’s no organization in charge of setting a hard and fast rule for what “natural” really means. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never defined the term nor has it established a regulatory definition for it in cosmetics.

Meaning: If a market analysis report indicates that the natural cosmetics market size was roughly $34.12 billion in 2018, how exactly are all those companies defining “natural”? More importantly, are their definitions appropriate, safe, and consistent?

The answer relies on your opinion, more than you think.

“Unfortunately, terms like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are often marketing speak — so many brands falsely claim to be natural and organic so it takes away from the meaning,” says Angelina Umansky, owner of San Francisco’s Spa Radiance.

For Jenn Harper, founder and CEO of Indigenous owned and founded cosmetics company, Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics Inc, avoiding the use of words like natural or clean was intentional, at least in the beginning. “In the beginning of our sustainability journey, as much as possible, we were trying not to use the word ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ because of all the misconceptions and lack of regulation.”

Natural and clean ≠ sustainable

If a brand is trying to use one metric to convince you of their eco-friendly and sustainable efforts, it might be worth taking a second look. Sustainability is a hierarchal list, meaning manufacturers could focus and advertise low hanging fruit (like plastic straws) while ignoring the bigger impact (such as poor waste management) they have on the environment.

Michelle Connelly, VP of merchandising and planning at clean beauty store Credo, says Credo created specific standards for the products it carries because of the absence of overarching industry regulations.

“It is pretty common for retailers to have a ‘free of’ list or restricted substances list and Credo is no different with our Dirty Ingredient List,” says Connelly.

“But what we have done, to go even further, is create our ‘Credo Clean Standard’ using our Dirty List as a foundation and adding operational layers: ingredient documentation including composition statements, following good manufacturing processes and clear definitions of ‘natural’ and other terms.”

“At Credo, ‘natural’ ingredients come from natural sources (not synthetic). This means that they can be found in nature in the same or mostly the same chemical form as the ingredient in the product (e.g. fruit seed oils, clays, essential oils),” says Connelly.

Many companies like to use natural synonymously with clean or nontoxic, but it’s not the same.

Jackie Johnson, host of the Natch Beaut® Podcast, says she leans on self-education and personal values when deciding whether a product or brand satisfies her standards of “natural.”

“The word is certainly thrown around a lot,” she says. “There is no regulation on the word ‘natural’ on a label, so I take it with a grain of salt. I look for the company’s values, practices, owners, and general bad-assness first and foremost. For me, ‘natural’ represents vegan, cruelty-free, and eco-friendly (sustainable and ethical).”

If you end up purchasing from brands that are notorious for greenwashing or unethical practices, your money tells those brands that “natural” works as a buzzword rather than a helpful measuring tool for your needs.

For Kimberly J. Smith, founder and chief curator of Marjani Beauty, an e-commerce shopping site created for women of color, she says, “The first question I ask myself is: Is this product ‘safe’? Many companies like to use natural synonymously with clean or nontoxic, but it’s not the same.

“I also look at to whom and how a product is marketed. It is known that products containing highly toxic ingredients are targeted to black women at a disproportionate rate. So as a beauty consumer and beauty business owner, it is important for me to go beyond buzzwords, trends, and ‘social’ experts,” Smith says, encouraging customers to do the same. “I shop for effective, sustainable, ethically sourced, nontoxic products from brands that support my community.”

As we mentioned before, natural is not synonymous with safe. If you’re allergic to a specific ingredient, you can still very much be allergic to that ingredient in the context of a “natural” or even a “hypoallergenic” product.

Even common natural ingredients, like lavender and tea tree essential oils, have been linked as potential endocrine disruptors.

Correlation doesn’t mean causation, however, and it also doesn’t mean a product isn’t safe. Toxicity is often measured by the amount. For example, water is good for you, but you can over hydrate and get water intoxication.

Here are some questions to help guide and identify misleading messaging or facts:

Shop smart and savvy

  1. Does the product claim to be “chemical-free”? If so, be wary about their general claims as everything is a chemical — including water!
  2. Does the product only focus on one ingredient while the rest don’t live up to your standard?
  3. Does the product make a lot of hype about “scientific studies” without actually citing their sources?
  4. Does the product lean heavily on the fact that it was created by a “scientific expert”? If so, investigate that person’s background and training.

“Credo does allow both naturally-derived and safe synthetic ingredients in addition to natural, and most of our products that we carry are primarily natural and naturally-derived,” Connelly says.

“[We incentivize] all of our brand partners to fully disclose the components of their ‘fragrance’ which is protected by trade secret. But this trade secret has perpetuated a lot of the consumer distrust. We ask that rather than keeping the ingredients proprietary — which has long been the standard — we celebrate our brands that will clearly categorize them for our customers (essential oils, natural, naturally–derived, synthetic, etc).”

Harper has also come around to using beauty buzzwords with a side of transparency and community — and plenty of context (she said her company mostly opts for the term “clean” versus “natural”).

“As we have been developing new products, we have changed our tone slightly,” she says, citing transparency to be the most effective way to connect with customers. “The word ‘natural’ is easily consumed by the beauty consumer. Indigenous people have always shared stories orally […] from generation to generation. Based on this methodology, we share our journey across our social media platforms and openly discuss misinformation and blanket marketing statements. Our community is really informed.”

“We are really open about the journey we are on — all our products are safe but not all of them meet a ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ definition as defined by our brand, which uses Credo and Sephora as guides,” she says. “We don’t want to be a part of the vilification of perfectly safe and efficacious ingredients.”

While companies and corporations may try to tell consumers what’s “natural” and what’s not, at the end of the day, beauty customers play a small role in calling the shots. If you end up purchasing from brands that are notorious for greenwashing or unethical practices, your money tells those brands that “natural” works as a buzzword rather than a helpful measuring tool for your needs.

“There are so many products out there, and with all the information available, there is no excuse anymore to just buy an item,” Johnson says. “I vowed to know where my products are coming from, and who and what I am supporting when I purchase them. I call it ‘voting with my wallet.’ I want to support women-owned indie businesses that share my same passions, and my bathroom cabinet got a value-based makeover.”

While voting with your wallet is how you make it known that a brand meets your personal safety, moral, and ethical standards, it’s not the only way to show support.

By following brands you believe in on social media, sharing information with friends and family, and calling out companies you feel aren’t delivering on their promises, you can make a difference in the domain and help elevate honest approaches to “natural” beauty.

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist, marketing specialist, ghostwriter, and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech. Follow her on Twitter.