By Krista Bennett DeMaio
“Clean”, “natural”, “sustainable” — they’re all the same, right?
Well, yes they are. And no they’re not. It all depends on the product, what’s in it, and how it’s packaged.
Some retailers have Clean Beauty departments to help people understand and separate clean brands from the others, so at least we know what products aren’t clean. But even within clean beauty brands, there are products that run from completely natural and sustainable to mostly synthetic and not sustainable. So here are a few ways to understand the differences and make the most informed decisions:
What’s important to me?
That’s the first question you should ask. Some people believe that synthetic ingredients shouldn’t be put in or on our bodies. To them, because we’re creatures of nature, our bodies don’t recognize synthetic materials and don’t process them well—which leads to potential skin or health issues. How important is sustainability? is another question. If these are important to you, then not every clean product may be right for you. But assuming both are at least somewhat important, read on.
Natural vs. Clean: A clean product is not necessarily all-natural or free of synthetics.
For the definition of a “natural” product, we deferred to the Natural Products Association (NPA): “Under the Natural Standard for Personal Care Products, natural ingredients come from, or are made from, a renewable resource found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral), with absolutely no petroleum compounds,” says Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., CEO and president of the Natural Products Association. To the NPA, a product must be made with at least 95 percent natural ingredients. Synthetic ingredients can be used only if there is no natural alternative and the ingredient is not linked to health issues.
The most widely accepted definition of a “clean” product is that it’s formulated without potentially harmful synthetics. The “clean beauty” definition says nothing about natural ingredients, so a product could be formulated with 100 percent synthetics (so long as they’re not harmful). And while many of those synthetics are “based on” or “inspired by” natural ingredients, they’re typically produced in a lab because it’s cheaper and easier to do so, says Fabricant. If your goal is to eliminate synthetic ingredients from your body (because studies suggest that we absorb them) and move toward truly natural product.
Natural vs. Clean: Clean ingredients aren’t always ethically sourced.
A natural-based product takes into account where the ingredient is coming from. Harvesting plant-based ingredients shouldn’t have a negative effect on the environment, which is why the NPA states natural ingredients should come from a renewable resource. That’s not necessarily the case with non-natural clean products, where the major focus is eliminating harmful synthetics. Unlike synthetics, the ingredients in natural formulations are typically biodegradable. In addition, some natural brands see “ethical” as having a deeper meaning and make sure products are also vegan and not tested on animals. Fortunately, most packages will show symbols showing that the product is vegan and cruelty-free—so look carefully before you buy.
Natural vs. Clean: Clean packaging isn’t always sustainable.
Both clean and natural formulas can be in packaging that isn’t necessarily good for the environment. All manufacturers should strive to have the highest levels of sustainability and ideally follow the environmental three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle (in that order). Look for multiuse products, refillable packaging, recyclable components and the elimination of wasteful materials like plastic wrap, discs, and spatulas. Fabricant says NPA members are “seeking to be as transparent as possible in their packaging because it’s the right thing to do and because increasingly—and rightly so—consumers are shopping for and demanding that transparency.”
The Raw Truth
The two terms – Natural and Clean are often confused, but they’re not interchangeable. While there is some overlap (natural products don’t formulate with harmful synthetics either), there are certainly differences. If natural is indeed important to you, contact your favorite brand and ask what percent of its formulations are truly natural. If you can’t get an actual number, you have your answer. And the same is true for sustainability: When in doubt, ask.