What is natural cosmetics and how does it differ from ‘traditional’ cosmetics?

What is natural cosmetics and how does it differ from ‘traditional’ cosmetics?

Heli Koskinen

You have probably run into the terms natural cosmetics, vegan cosmetics, and organic cosmetics, but you might be wondering whether they all mean the same thing. What actually is natural cosmetics and how does it differ from 'traditional' cosmetics? How to choose the most ecological, ethical or the safest option? We put together a guide to help you navigate the world of natural cosmetics – and the cosmetics claimed as natural cosmetics. After reading this article, you will know what is actually meant with natural cosmetics and what are the criteria for it

Ecologically produced, vegan, organic ingredients – the focus points vary in cosmetics

There is a huge selection of cosmetics available on the market which differ from their production methods, ingredients and their brand’s value base. Natural cosmetics, organic cosmetics, vegan cosmetics and synthetic cosmetics all have their own characteristics and criteria.

Certified natural cosmetics

Natural cosmetics is cosmetics which primarily contains ingredients of natural origin, processed to the minimum. In addition, natural cosmetics is expected to be ecological and ethical through the whole lifecycle of the product from the harvesting of the ingredients to the logistics. Genuine natural cosmetics can be identified from certificates (e.g. Ecocert, NATRUE, BDIH) which independent parties grant to products which fulfill certain criteria after an extensive evaluation process. The certificate tells the consumer that the ingredients, production methods and packaging of the product are ecological and ethical. Certified natural cosmetics haven’t been tested on animals but on volunteers under a doctor’s supervision.

Certified natural cosmetics guarantee the following:

  • natural ingredients whose origin can be traced
  • doesn’t contain synthetic perfumes or colorants
  • product biodegrades as quickly and perfectly as possible
  • all the phases of production are conducted in an ecological, sustainable and ethical way
  • the packing material is as ecological as possible
  • free from animal testing
  • tested on humans with dermatological tests

Uncertified natural cosmetics

Uncertified natural cosmetics can contain ingredients of natural origin as well as synthetic ingredients. Uncertified natural cosmetics can in reality meet the criteria for certified natural cosmetics. The certification process is long and expensive and there are numerous smaller actors on the market which lack the resources to get on board with a process like that, which is why their products lack the formal certificates. However, uncertified natural cosmetics are still always a riskier purchase than the certified options.

Organic cosmetics

Organic cosmetics is cosmetics of which at least 95 % of ingredients have been produced organically. Processing or modifying the ingredients in a lab is not allowed with organic cosmetics, unlike with natural cosmetics. Organic cosmetics is not automatically natural cosmetics since it can contain an ingredient which is forbidden in natural cosmetics. A certain percentage of the ingredients in certified natural cosmetics is required to be organic, and the specific amount varies between different certificates. For example Ecocert requires that at least 20 % of the ingredients are organically produced (10 % of the ingredients of a washable product).

Vegan cosmetics

Vegan cosmetics doesn’t contain any ingredients of animal origin, such as beeswax, honey or lanolin (wool grease). Vegan cosmetics is not automatically natural cosmetics: vegan cosmetics can be 100 % synthetic and the fact that the ingredients are vegan doesn’t guarantee that the product is ecological by its ingredients or production methods. Correspondingly natural cosmetics doesn’t automatically mean the same as vegan cosmetics. It is allowed to use ingredients of animal origin in natural cosmetics, as long as the ingredients are acquired in an ethical way which doesn’t cause the animals any suffering.

Vegan products are often labelled as vegan. However, many products are available on the market which are suitable for vegans but which doesn’t mention it specifically, since the labeling of products as vegan is voluntary. You can easily check from the CosmEthics app whether the product contains ingredients of animal origin if there is no vegan label on the product.

Synthetic cosmetics

Synthetic cosmetics primarily contain ingredients which have been synthetically developed in a laboratory. Synthetic cosmetics is what many of us perceive as traditional cosmetics. Even though synthetic cosmetics can often be labelled as harmful or worse than natural cosmetics in certain discussions, it is good to remember that synthetic cosmetics also need to fulfill certain criteria which guarantee the safety of the products. The EU legislation on cosmetic products sets the same criteria for cosmetics ingredients regardless of whether it is directly from nature or the result of laboratory development. However, synthetic cosmetics often contain for example parabens, mineral oils and synthetic perfumes whose health effects in long-term use have been questioned in several studies.

What kind of ingredients does natural cosmetics contain?

What kind of ingredients does natural cosmetics contain then – or what kind of ingredients doesn’t it contain? The term natural cosmetics and what it means has not been regulated on international level. While national regulations vary, the countries in the European Union are under the EU legislation on cosmetic products which doesn’t set specific requirements on natural cosmetics.

The fact the the term natural cosmetics is not legally protected has lead to an unfortunate situation from the consumer’s perspective. Since the popularity of natural cosmetics is rising, some marketers try to exploit the trend by using phrases such as “natural cosmetics” or “contains natural ingredients” in their marketing even if the products in question wouldn’t in reality fulfill the criteria for natural cosmetics. For example, a product might contain a tiny amount of a natural ingredient while all the rest of the ingredients are synthetic but the product is still marketed as natural cosmetics. This kind of deceptive marketing is called greenwashing. As morally questionable as greenwashing is, on the other hand it has also lead to the further development of the certification systems which make it easier for the consumer to recognize genuine natural cosmetics from all that is available on the market.

According to the most prominent European standards for natural cosmetics, such as Ecocert and BDIH, the ingredients used in natural cosmetics should primarily come from nature. Natural cosmetics are allowed to contain the following ingredients:

  • natural vegetable oils and waxes
  • plant extracts
  • essential oils
  • dried and ground plant parts
  • minerals
  • salts and sugars
  • clay
  • alga
  • ingredients of animal origin, such as beeswax and honey

Natural cosmetics can’t contain synthetic perfumes, colorants, silicones, parabens or mineral oils which can be found in synthetic cosmetics practically without exception. These ingredients affect the shelf life, consistency, scent and appearance of the product. They also make it easy to apply the product on skin and give it a smooth surface – and by doing so also create the image of a nurturing effect. The following ingredients are forbidden in natural cosmetics:

  • synthetic perfumes and colorants
  • parabens or allergenic preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
  • Polyethylene glycols (PEG) and Polypropylene glycols (PPG)
  • products of petrochemistry such as mineral oil, paraffinum and vaseline
  • silicone compounds
  • synthetic UV filters (e.g. Benzophenone compounds, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, PABA)
  • alkyl sulfates (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate)
  • animal collagens or ingredients of animal origin which have been acquired in a way which causes suffering or the death of the animal
  • phthalate
  • irradiated or genetically modified ingredients

Natural cosmetics can contain a small amount of certain synthetic ingredients which improve the shelf life or color of the product. Preservatives make the product safe to use by destroying bacteria and other microorganisms which contaminate the product. Contaminated products can cause infections. The preservatives used in natural cosmetics are mild ingredients which are also used in the food industry. An example of a permitted preservative is benzoic acid which can be found in nature in for example lingonberries and which is synthetically manufactured in a lab for food and cosmetic industries. The permitted concentration of these types of ingredients vary depending on the certification standard.

You might wonder why it’s necessary to synthetically manufacture something which can be found straight from nature. Wouldn’t it be better if all the ingredients used in natural cosmetics would be 100 % natural? Not necessarily, since there are good reasons for using certain synthetic ingredients. It is more ecological to produce for example benzoic acid synthetically because there is simply not enough of nature’s ingredients for everyone’s needs. Benzoic acid can be manufactured in a lab so that its molecular structure is identical with benzoic acid acquired from nature. The skin doesn’t recognize whether the benzoic acid in the product is from nature or from a lab. The harvesting of the ingredients from nature as well as their processing is also slower and more expensive than producing them synthetically. Another benefit for synthetically produced ingredients is the fact that they can be made cleaner in a lab than what they would be in nature – for example heavy metals can be transferred from the ground to the ingredients.

Certified natural cosmetics is the best way to ensure that the product is safe to use and produced in a way that respects the environment and animals, but good options can be found from synthetic cosmetics or vegan cosmetics just as well. Everyone decides for themselves which factors to emphasize when choosing products or brands. It is still good to be aware of the differences in the ingredients and production methods and how cosmetics is also marketed so that you can make informed decisions at the cosmetics counter.

You can find certified Nordic natural cosmetics and natural cosmetics which meet the certification criteria from The Arctic Pure – explore the selection!

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