Simply 'Label Appeal'? Part 2. Natural & Raw

Simply 'Label Appeal'? Part 2. Natural & Raw

The meaning of the words ‘natural’ and ‘raw’ might appear to be explicit but these terms have no legal, regulated definition on Cosmetics' labels. Products labelled as 'natural' vary enormously: from those comprised of nutrient rich, simply processed ingredients to others containing some rather dubious synthetic or chemically processed derivatives. 

So called 'Natural Ingredients', whilst perhaps derived from natural sources, may have subsequently undergone synthetic chemical processing and / or have been adulterated with artificial additives.  

Definition, then, appears to depend upon who is producing and marketing the product.

For those who choose to certify their natural products in the EU, COSMOS do have their own set of standards alongside those for Organic products. The COSMOS standard of 2013 states:

 “the following are of natural origin: 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, preservatives and denaturing agents from petrochemical origin".

For COSMOS, a 'natural' ingredient must have a ‘natural origin’; essentially ‘found in nature’ e.g. mined mineral salts or agriculturally produced. The second part of the statement however is more controversial: that this raw natural ingredient may then be processed either physically or chemically. Here is where the division lies: at what point in the processing is the original raw ingredient so chemically altered that it no longer qualifies as ‘natural?’ For some, once chemically modified it is no longer natural.

Duber-Smith takes COSMOS' position one step further:

"In the case of natural personal care, it is my opinion that it should be generally understood that a natural ingredient should be neither synthetically derived nor synthetically processed. This means that a natural ingredient must be 'found in nature’ and be free of synthetic additives in processing as well as 'over-processing.' Most definitions of natural mention the idea of 'minimal processing,' but this is vague. Abuses are numerous in this area as well because of the highly interpretive nature of processing." (Duber-Smith, 2011, pg 5.) 

So from this perspective, then, the term ‘natural’ should be self-explanatory: sourced directly from nature with minimal mechanical processing only. 

The American 'Natural Ingredient Resource Center' have evaluated many different definitions from various agencies and following is our summary of their own comprehensive list. We like the clarity and transparency of their criteria for defining a natural ingredient. (Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that this definition would become legalised and regulated on cosmetics' labels in the EU!)

A Natural Ingredient may include plant, animal, mineral or microbial ingredients that are found in nature or produced using ‘minimal physical processing’ or ‘directly extracted using simple methods’ or simple chemical reactions.

Essentially, Natural Ingredients are not genetically engineered or modified; never produced synthetically; are free of petrochemicals and neither extracted or processed using petrochemicals; do not contain synthetic ingredients or preservatives and have no artificial additives. Furthermore, they are "grown, harvested, raised and processed in an ecological manner."

In order to extract most ‘raw ingredients’ from their natural state, some level of processing is required whether through mechanical pressing, distillation by steam, supercritical extraction with CO2 or using harsh chemical solvents such as hexane. It seems common sense to us at Nooma Organics, that alongside its origin, the method of processing chosen should also have a bearing upon the definition of the end product.

Assumptions are often made that a 'raw' ingredient, taking the term literally, excludes any heat or cooking; production is perceived to be equivalent to picking and mashing an avocado. This is generally not the case, however, for many cosmetic ingredients do involve some form of heat when processed and some may be held at extremely high temperatures.  

There is some controversy, therefore, concerning the term ‘raw’ and whether it is even applicable to certain ingredients such as cocoa butter production. This is because there are various extraction methods used by manufacturers which may involve fermentation processing (baked in the hot sun) or heating / cooking down the beans before skimming off the oil or pressing the ‘soupy’ cacao. Others (our producers) claim that their beans are pressed whole and any heat involved is derived naturally from friction from the mechanical press. 

In the Chambers Dictionary the definition of 'raw' can mean: not altered from its natural state; not refined; crude; not cooked.

For Nooma Organics, when we apply the term 'raw' to our ingredients, this indicates that they have been cold pressed or extracted using minimal heat with minimal (mechanical) processing; without unnecessary further refinement in order to preserve essential fatty acids, minerals and antioxidants. 

We acknowledge, however, that some ingredients do require fermentation or ‘curing’ time in order to develop their rounded signature aromas (e.g.Vanilla pods) and to lose any unpleasant bitterness, ensuring good quality ingredients.

We therefore like the term adopted by 'Real Food Source' : “As Raw as it Gets” and feel that this aptly describes our own ‘raw’ ingredients.  To reduce the term 'raw' to simply mean ‘never involving heat’ is perhaps to overlook the more pertinent and worrisome issue of chemical extraction and refinement.

Nowadays, ‘raw’ ingredients can be so modified that they barely resemble the original natural product. A natural oil can be extracted with harsh chemical solvents, boiled, hydrogenated, bleached, deodorised and adulterated with synthetic additives to stabilise and preserve (Price & Price, 2012, 4th ed).

The term ‘refined’ implies an action that improves the purity of a substance yet oil refinement is actually a reductive process; diminishing the very essence of the natural product. A chemically refined oil, compared to a mechanically cold pressed one, is vastly impoverished having lost essential fatty acids, minerals and antioxidants. 

Our beautiful raw Shea is an ivory coloured, thick block of firm butter which melts upon the skin, mashes by hand easily and has a natural earthy / nutty scent. We have compared ours with a refined Shea Butter and the two products seem entirely different. The refined Shea looks like a pure white, waxy hard block of unscented lard! It has a very hard texture and is difficult to work with. We can only describe it as ‘lifeless’; giving no pleasing sensory feedback. We also know from numerous reports that highly refined Shea almost certainly has diminished nutrients.

From a consumer's point of view, however, if Shea Butter is listed on a cosmetic label, there is no way of knowing which has been used since no differentiation is made between raw and refined ingredients - the INCI name is identical: Butyrospermum parkii.

The inclusion of some form of Shea butter in cosmetics, appears to be commonplace; perhaps included by some for maximum 'label appeal' which can then be exploited in advertising, since it's nutritional value is widely accepted - and yet it could quite possibly be * highly refined.

At Nooma Organics we genuinely care about the nutrient content of our ingredients and so it seems outrageous that cosmetics labelling is not legally an open and honest playing field... 

(N.B: There is also an alternative way to deodorise (partially refine and filter) Shea Butter without using harsh chemical solvents by using steam, natural clays and diatomaceous earth. This method is believed to help to preserve some of the nutrients and is allowable for Organic Cosmetics. This pale coloured, firmer and unscented Shea butter also retains its skin softening emollience). 

We have experimented with this naturally refined organic ingredient and have found that where optimum levels of nutrients are key to the product, such as face and hand /body silks, by contrast the raw, fluffy Shea butter is far superior yet have found that for products requiring a firmer texture with high emollience, the partially refined Shea can perform very well). 

For further information about Shea Butter and its various processing methods, please scroll through our Ingredients Listing: click here.


Chemically Processed Natural Ingredients...

A further confusion on labels, is that certain laboratory made ingredients (such as surfactants, emulsifiers, preservatives) may be described as 'natural' because they have been created using some natural raw ingredients (or parts thereof), rather than derived from petroleum, but have then been chemically altered.

‘Natural’ surfactants (cleansing agents) are an example of this, such as decyl glucoside (that we add to our body scrubs). Decyl Glucoside is a very mild surfactant derived from natural ingredients, not petroleum: reacting glucose (corn sugar) with fatty alcohols (coconut source). This surfactant stands apart from the commonly used harsh ethoxylated detergents such as Sodium lauryl sulphate. (It is important to note that not all surfactants are created equal!) Decyl glucoside is also an environmentally responsible ingredient; made from a renewable vegetable origin that is readily biodegradable. But should it be described as 'natural'? 

Some take the view, that a surfactant quite simply cannot be described as a ‘natural’ ingredient because the ‘once natural’ raw ingredients have undergone too many chemical changes and the end product is now perceived to be ‘synthetic’. 

If we strictly veto all synthetic chemical processing, however, this could rule out the notion of creating a simply processed ‘natural’ bar of soap because of the chemical process involved: an alkali chemical, sodium hydroxide (aka Lye or caustic soda) is added to the acidic natural vegetable oils to ‘saponify’ which chemically change into a salt (an alkali salt of fatty acids) - or what we otherwise refer to as ‘soap’. It is argued, however, that properly cured soap contains no remaining sodium hydroxide and that saponification itself only involves a single, simple chemical process.

Clearly then, not all ingredients can be easily divided into two camps: some raw ingredients undergo a single chemical change, whilst others have been vastly altered through multiple chemical processes.

Does it actually matter?

Well perhaps that depends upon the labelling and expectations raised by the wording.

At Nooma Organics, however, we value transparency and recognise that accurate distinctions are helpful to describe ingredients that we include into our formulas. 

Whether or not our decyl glucoside is considered to be a 'natural' or 'synthetic' ingredient, it seems rather more important to us to emphasise that it does stand significantly apart from petroleum derived detergents, otherwise we would never consider using it; it is non-GM declared, is Soil Association approved for use in Organic products and a non toxic, gentle ingredient. 

Some companies, however, do mislead the public with incomplete ingredients labelling, using general phrases such as 'natural cleansing agents' or 'coconut derived cleansers' to dress up several unidentified synthetic ingredients as 'natural'. Furthermore, some companies choose only to list 'key ingredients' (particularly on websites) which creates an impression of a very simple natural ingredient list. These omissions might then be justified as an intention to 'be helpful' and make the ingredients labels easier to understand! Hmm... 

You might like to Click here for an interesting article by Stephanie Greenwood on 'What is Natural?' on this subject.

Importantly, though, regardless of however we choose to describe the resultant ingredient, the way it has been derived and processed does indeed have a bearing on the quality of the ingredient and any actives present. 

By example, the yield, chemical composition, purity and antimicrobial activity of essential oils can vary considerably; largely determined by the extraction method used.  A research study - here - compared the constituents and actives present in Lavender Essential Oils extracted via hydrodistillation, CO2 and hexane. Whilst hexane produced the highest yield, this was accounted for because it additionally extracted non-volatile compounds, such as high levels of wax, pigments and albuminous materials, therefore producing the least pure oil. This was considered to be responsible for its minimal antioxidant activity, compared to the high levels demonstrated by the CO2 extract, said to be equivalent to a-tocopherol. This latter oil extraction method benefitted from lower temperatures, thought to preserve the original plant characteristics; perhaps also accounting for its very good quality of aroma.   

Whilst most natural plant constituents survive the distillation process, some actually undergo chemical changes and gain unnatural compounds; some of which may need removal (oil rectification) due to toxicity or to alter the characteristics of the oil (Tisserand & Young 2014, 2nd ed.)

Chemical solvents, such as cyclohexane and n-hexane - derived from crude oil - can be detected in the extracted oil in trace amounts. Commonly replacing its EU banned predecessor, Benzene, now a confirmed carcinogen, n-hexane is believed also to contain trace amounts of Benzene (Toxnet:Toxicology database here) and considered "neurotoxic" although its toxicity is presumed to be negligible within the trace amounts present within essential oils (Tisserand & Young, 2014, p8-9.)

Petroleum derived solvents, however, are banned for use in oil extraction within the Soil Association Organic standards, allowing only organic solvents. Alcohol solvents are used as an alternative for some oils.


Singular Synthetic Compounds versus Holism...

Some laugh at the natural / synthetic polarisation; judging that there is no discussion to be had since it is believed that a chemical, when synthesised exactly, appears to behave in the same way as its natural counterpart, rendering the terms somewhat meaningless. 

Whilst it may be true that a synthetically reproduced chemical can be identical to one found in nature, this is not always the case and synthetic Vitamin E - tocopheryl acetate is a good example of this and a product that we are banned from using by the Soil Association.

(For an informative article By Bubble and Bee on 'Tocopherol versus Tocopheryl acetate' - click here).

Furthermore, from an holistic point of view, we feel concerned by the reductionist common practise of chemists seeking to discover, isolate, and then synthetically replicate, a single active plant compound in favour of using the whole natural plant extract. 

Scientific Holism recognises that a system cannot be fully known, explained or determined through the analysis of its fundamental parts alone but rather a deeper understanding is gained when studying the system in its entirety. Furthermore, the whole system is greater than these interconnecting parts - or as Aristotle coined, ‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’. Holism therefore acknowledges the complexity and interconnectedness of all parts within biological systems; allowing for emergent, unanticipated surprising behaviours, reactions and outcomes ( For their overview of Holism click here).

Chemists, on the other hand, perhaps isolate single constituents precisely because of their complex and unpredictable nature when combined with other compounds. In this way, they limit the number of unexpected outcomes, producing something more reliably determined. 

* Pengelly (2004), however, emphasises the value of the observed "phenomenon of synergy - where the interaction of two or more agents results in a combined effect that is greater than the sum of the individual parts (i.e. of the additive effects).” For example, a complete essential oil can be more effective than its greatest constituent in many cases. 

"To the scientist or pharmacist a plant’s constituents may be regarded as an unholy mixture of mainly unwanted chemicals, to be refined with the objective of identifying and isolating an ‘active principle’. Herbalists on the other hand aim at a holistic approach— one that values the sum or totality of a plant’s constituents—even those considered by the pharmacist to be worthless (Pengelly 2004, 2nd ed, pg.2). 

"Most oils consist of complex mixtures of chemical compounds, and it is often the unique chemical combination rather than a single component that is responsible for any therapeutic activity" (Pengelly 2004, 2nd  

Essentially, Holism is concerned with valuing the integrity of the whole. When we reduce a plant extract by filtering out what we perceive to be superfluous minor constituents in order to isolate what is considered to be its main active compound, we destroy the vital synergistic nature and in so doing, strip its very essence. 

* It should be noted that whilst synergy can often enhance the beneficial actives of combined essential oil constituents, such as increasing antibacterial effects, conversely undesirable effects can sometimes be increased, whilst a desired effect can also be decreased: known as 'antagonism' (Tisserand, 2015, Training Webinar 3: "Properties & Research, Constituents & Interactions: Therapeutic Foundations of Essential Oils Course."


At Nooma Organics, we have endeavoured to take our holistic philosophy into the heart of our business and, for us, that simply means that our skincare products must be as ‘wholly natural’ as is possible; retaining nutrients that benefit the skin rather than opting for cheaper, refined ingredients which have diminished nutrients for the sake of lengthening shelf life and making more profit. 

We have therefore maximised the percentage of agricultural ingredients in our recipes; using only those which are certified organic and non GM. These include beautiful cold pressed oils, pure essential oils, raw butters and minimally processed organic starches. Mineral oils or those which have been chemically extracted with petroleum derived solvents or chemically refined; bleached, deodorised or hydrogenated are never used in our products. 

Non-agricultural, non-organic products - such as sodium bicarbonate, Natural Vitamin E, all mineral salts and any natural surfactants must be proven to be non GM and pure (free from heavy metals) before being permitted for use by the Soil Association.    


References, articles, websites:

Duber-Smith D. (2011, pg5) “Green Marketing” cited in “Formulating, Packaging, and Marketing of Natural Cosmetic Products”, Dayan N. and Kromidas L. (eds. 2011) John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 

Pengelly A. (2004, 2nd ed.) "The Constituents of Medicinal Plants," Allen & Unwin.

Price L & Price S. (2012, 4th ed.) “Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage,” Riverhead.

Tisserand R. (2015) Training Webinar 3: "Properties & Research, Constituents & Interactions: Therapeutic Foundations of Essential Oils Course",  the Tisserand Institute. 

Tisserand R. & Young R. (2014) “Essential Oil Safety, 2nd ed.” Churchill Livingstone.

"Comparison of Chemical Composition, Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activity of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia L.) Essential Oils Extracted by Supercritical CO2, Hexane and Hydrodistillation". Luu Thai Danh & Le Ngoc Han & Ngo Duy Anh Triet & Jian Zhao & Raffaella Mammucari & Neil Foster; Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012 (for an overview of holism in many areas)


Article 2 of 3 written by © Na Smyth 2016 for Nooma Blog @ Nooma Organics Natural Skincare 

Photograph taken by Rod Smyth for © Nooma Organics Natural Skincare 

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