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What the terms "natural" and "sustainable" mean to me as a small brand in the beauty industry

Updated: Feb 26, 2022

As a consumer, I suggest that you ask yourself what “natural” means to you and adhere to your values because industry-wise it‘s ultimately just a matter of opinion. The word “natural” isn’t regulated by the FDA which sadly allows for all kinds of perversions of its definition since legally there is no misuse. I recommend that you learn to read the labels of the products that you buy and reach out to the makers if you have questions so that you can empower yourself and make more informed decisions.

Smaller brands tend to be more open about what we consider to be natural and we are quite often advocates for a more natural way of living. This stems from strong ethical values that find a voice through our products and a desire to make a difference ecologically, as well as choosing to be more sustainable. Although, sometimes being more sustainable is not a choice but a by-product that occurs naturally while running a micro-business or a small business that is funded solely out of pocket.

Natural cosmetics and natural skin care are no longer niches, these sectors have gone mainstream and gotten the attention of larger multi-million dollar companies mostly for the wrong reasons. The terms “eco-friendly”, “waste-free”, “clean beauty”, “vegan”, and “holistic” to mention a few others along with “natural” are seen everywhere in the media. In an age where information is at your fingertips, I ask you to use your judgment and define these terms for yourself, don’t just go along with how brands portray something so that they can cash in on those ideas. There is so much deceitful marketing with the purpose of monetary gain using the facade of sustainability through greenwashing that these large corporations ultimately minimize the efforts put forth by smaller brands to do good for the planet and for society. Remember that the way you consume impacts how and what companies sell to you. YOU influence the market and not the other way around. Don't forget that! Reread that if you have to.

I’d like to take a moment to state that it’s not my intention to demonize large corporations or victimize small ones. I just feel that given their size and power they should own up to the responsibility that having that visibility and voice gives them. I’m an idealist and I believe that the power to make a real difference should prevail over financial gain any day.

Now that I’ve voiced my opinion as to the weight of these terms in the beauty industry, I only see fit that I share my definition(s) of what “natural” means to me as a skincare formulator at Ouroboros Herbals. To promote transparency on Our Philosophy page of our website I mention that our products are created with “natural, nature-identical or derived natural ingredients…” Let’s take a closer look at what each of these means.

I define “natural” as minimally processed ingredients. Salts, clays, dried herbs, and flowers are some of the ingredients that fall under this category. They could literally be pulled straight out of the earth, cleaned, and that’s it.

Now we move to ingredients of natural origin that have been modified through chemical synthesis which affects their physiological state. These are known as “naturally derived” ingredients and among them, you can find vegetable glycerine, coconut oil, and sodium cocoyl isethionate (a mild high-foaming surfactant) that is made from coconut fatty acids. The final product of activated charcoal is made from natural hardwood or coconut shells and is achieved by burning said organic carbon material at very high temperatures and then grounding the charred material into a fine powder. Most essential oils are produced through steam distillation of the broken down plant matter which extracts the natural oils and also creates a by-product known as hydrosols (not to be confused with floral waters).

The term “nature-identical” refers to synthetically produced compounds made in a lab. There is no structural or chemical difference between a molecule that exists in the natural world and one that is made in a lab. What’s important to consider is which chemicals are used to make the synthetic version. Please note that ALL SUBSTANCES ARE CHEMICALS but not all chemicals have a synthetic nature, for example, water also known as H2O (let’s please refrain from using the term “chemical-free” since it’s unrealistic). At this point, you might be asking yourself, If there is no difference then why choose synthetic? Well, sometimes it’s not possible physically, economically, logistically, or from a perspective of sustainability to choose the 100% natural option. For example, partially or fully synthetically produced vitamin E made by isolating alcohol from wheat germ oil or produced synthetically will have the same chemical composition of vitamin E but is cheaper to produce and is more readily available. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is highly unstable in its natural form and oxidizes very quickly which can have adverse effects on your skin. Some ingredients start out natural but go through various chemical processes and end up becoming synthetic in the end, such as zinc. Zinc in its final state as is used in the cosmetic industry is known as zinc oxide and can be found in mineral-based sunscreen.

I hope that I have motivated you to learn more about the brands that you buy from and the ingredients that are in your beauty products. Thank you for reading, I appreciate your time and your interest! Feel free to ask me any questions that you may have and I’ll answer them as best I can.

Light + magick,

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