What is Natural, Anyway?

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August 9, 2013 by thesoapalchemist

This post was prompted by a quote that a business contact shared with me in an email. 

“If you saw how much processing goes into making essential oils, they are far from natural.”

essential oil distillation

“Medieval Essential Oil Distillation,” wikicommons

My response is what follows.


I know what you mean! When I saw that some essential oils were sold as “hexane-free,” it prompted weeks of researching the internet to learn what that was all about.

My chemistry background is a benefit, but also a curse at times. If I start analyzing things too much, I get overwhelmed and the whole discussion of “Natural” seems ludicrous.

EVERYTHING, of course, is made from the same “pantry” of ingredients; the naturally occurring elements of the Periodic Table. There are only so many “building blocks” in the universe. Some of them come into contact with each other all by themselves and form things like water and air, while others need just the right conditions. For example, the elements that make up igneous rocks need the heat and pressure of volcanic activity to become what they are. Think of the elements as being pre-programmed to do certain things if put in the presence of other elements. That’s the basis of Chemistry~ essentially, how elements and molecules react when in the presence of others, and under different conditions. The way scientists can manipulate these “meetings” and create conditions that cause the magic to happen, becomes the essence of the natural vs. non-natural debate.

The scientist in me can have a hard time recognizing the line between what is “natural” and what is not. Palm oil is refined, but what exactly does the process entail? Essential oils are distilled, but what other chemicals are involved? Lye makes natural soap, but how natural is lye? The discussion can be taken to extremes, too. Think, for example, of in-vitro babies. Consider a couple who just can’t seem to get pregnant on their own. Their cells, for whatever reason, just won’t create a baby. But, those same cells may know just what to do when put in the presence of each other by a doctor in a lab. Tweaking the environment that the building blocks were in, can make them behave differently.

The processes we use to make these components useful really do blur the lines, and make it particularly difficult to devise a working definition of “natural.”

Is “naturally derived” natural? Is “nature equivalent” natural? To answer these questions, I ask myself even more questions, but do so from the standpoint of a non-scientist consumer. “Would a regular, non-scientist person think this is natural?” “What do they expect natural to be?” “Why do they want natural?” “How do they believe natural benefits them?”

I personally don’t see any of it as an issue of safety. I have faith in our system; that commercially made products are as “safe” as the ones I can make. In fact, commercialproducts go through tons of testing and trials, while my handmade ones do not.

Still, so many people believe that they KNOW “natural is better.” Many “know” that the ingredients listed on the backs of shampoo bottles are somehow inherently bad because they have chemical sounding names, or because they’ve found a junk science article on line about one. Even though the entire field of chemistry could disprove their beliefs, consumers aren’t generally chemists, and many rely on the misinformation of the internet as their source of knowledge (myself included, sometimes!).

As we’ve said in other messages to each other, natural things can be just as dangerous as synthetic ones. To someone who is allergic to a certain essential oil, or a bee sting, or peanut butter– those natural things can all be deadly.

I’m learning, though, to step back from discussions of this sort with people who don’t want to learn. I think the average person seeking “natural” wants products that are simple. They wouldn’t necessarily give up eating apple sauce because it has added vitamin C in it. But do they know where the vitamin C comes from? Do they know it’s called Ascorbic Acid and that although it occurs naturally, it needs to be chemically extracted or synthesized to be used as an additive? Is this any different from scent isolates like Benzaldehyde being extracted from Bitter Almond and used to make an all natural scent blend? An interesting note: Benzaldehyde is the main component of almond extract– they mix it with alcohol to make the popular flavoring.

essential oil laboratory

“The Alchemist’s Laboratory,” wikicommons

It’s all just a vicious circle!!! The fact that the public will accept things like “Added Vitamin C” as a natural additive, and “Almond Extract” as a natural flavoring, but not accept other things, is frustrating.  I really have no power to change anything, at least not on any grand scale.

Our whole conversation has led me to come up with a list of what’s important to me.
I will:
~Make a product that I’m proud of and like to use myself.
~Share what I know with people who want to learn.
~Research the ingredients I use.
~Seek out and source ingredients from suppliers who manufacture their own product, whenever possible, in the hopes of maintaining transparency,
~and keep learning.


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