Reader Questions Week: Are natural products really natural?

I'm going back to my vault (inbox lol) to answer some more of your questions. This one comes from the very fab Jill of No-Poo Jillipoo.

It is my understanding that most of the chemical formulations that appear in hair products have their basis in nature. Basically, science takes a bit of nature and enhances it. When someone touts that ingredients are "botanically derived" and yet the ingredient list begins with things like cetearyl alcohol, behentrimonium chloride and glycerin, what do you make of such a statement? Are common hair care ingredients like that accurately described as "botanically derived"?

Let me say that very few scientists can make things out of thin air, the ones who can are called magicians. In order for a scientist to make an ingredient, a starting raw material is needed, and since we haven't gone extra-terrestrial yet, pretty much everything is natural. The examples you have given are excellent to illustrate this.

1. Cetearyl alcohol - A very good emollient (moisturiser) which is actually a mix of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. Both these alcohols come from processing coconut oil or palm oil (i.e processing in a lab)

2. Behentrimonium chloride - This is a fantastic conditioning agent derived from rapeseed oil (i.e processing in a lab)

3. Glycerin - A good humectant derived from processing of vegetable oils or biodiesel (i.e processing in a lab)

My personal view is that consumers need to become savvy. Technically the company is right to say the products are botanically derived, but quite often, that label comes with a hefty price tag. The truth is, you could probably find all these 'botanically derived' ingredients in normal conditioners like herbal essences and pantene (P&G are really making some great hair conditioners).

I think the never ending quest for 'natural' products drive these claims. Botanically derived also sounds much sexier than 'this chemical is imported from a massive factory in China'. The truth is not everything natural is good and not everything good is natural.

My own personal pet hates are
1. Ingredient labels that start with 'Extracts of rosehips, pomegranate....blah blah blah'. If those herbs were so effective why not just bottle them and sell them?
2. Saying mineral oil is artificial. Out of all the products mentioned today, mineral oil probably is the most natural!

**Edit to add sources ***
1. Wishart DS et al., HMDB: the Human Metabolome Database. Nucleic Acids Res. 2007 Jan;35(Database issue):D521-6.
2. Scifinder
3. Mason Surfactants - Manufacturer of Behentrimonium Chloride

Are you on a quest for natural products? What is natural to you?


  1. Deciding what natural means is an interesting question. Mineral oil is made from petroleum, so whether or not you want to call it 'natural,' it's not a good choice for the environment to be using a nonrenewable resource.

  2. Kirsten I don't disagree with you regarding choosing not use mineral oil for the reasons you have listed (i.e it is a product from crude oil, it is not renewable) and even for those who say it is not the best oil to use for hair.

    I just disagree when people say that it is unnatural because it is actually quite natural. This is the reason why you may have seen fossil fuels referred to as natural gas or natural oil because they are formed naturally.

  3. natural products as i define them contain ingredients that haven't been broken down to their basic chemical make up (e.g aloe vera instead of c-glycoside). i feel a bit pretentious after reading your post, but truthfully i find that those products work better on my hair. they're also less irritating to my scalp, as i continue to battle dandruff and other unexplainable irritation. after reading your post on parabens, i again reassessed my previous scorn of all "non-natural" products, but usually the ones with parabens either contain other ingredients I avoid because I KNOW my hair doesn't like them (mineral oil, petrolatum, SLS), or just don't work as well as the natural ingredients I also use. (though I may return to sulphur shampoos as my dandruff is acting up again.)

    random question: where did you post the websites you searched on to find research on cosmetic ingredients?

  4. I've added the sources for you mellowyel. Scifinder is a great resource but is a pay source. It pretty much has nearly every imaginable chemical and how to make it. It can also predict the possible outcomes if you mix stuff together - very nice if you are a scientist, dull as hell if you aren't.

    I can't fault your method if it is working for you. I do think you should be aware that natural products can be just as irritating as chemicals from the lab. Quite often the processing the chemicals undergo is to reduce the irritancy to the skin/hair/eyes etc. However if your all natural way works well for you, then I can only say, well done for finding a good method!

  5. Jc, thanks so much for answering my question! You rock. :)

  6. At the moment there is a big interest in the natural/oragnic section of the market beacuse people are know saavy enough to read their labels and are pressurising companies into cleaning upt their act!

    The reason i got interestd in better ingredients is from going relaxer free that opened up my eyes to a different world and i can't go back.

    I am not saying all my stuff is 100% natural/organic but i know make better choices as a concumer and do lean towards the natural stuff as i believe it is better for my skin as i got reactions on my skin form a well known brand and that was the catalyst into switching the products i come in contact with a lot.My guideline is if it works keep using it.

    I don't understand why their is such distrust with natural products as without them no lab could make or modify anything to begin with.

    I believe consumer need to know their stuff so they can make an informed choice and that is where i am today i can choose what i buy based on ingredients alone not because the brand promises miracles.

    1. I don't agree that there is distrust of natural products. Many naturals are currently using products which have only been manufactured in the last 2-5 years therefore no long term history of efficacy and furthermore as this is a scientific blog, I would also add that the vast majority of these companies do not consult scientists or do lab tests for their products. In my view, many consumers have a lot of trust that the company is doing the right thing.

      I think that everyone has to be held accountable for the products they make. The fact is that many products currently not labelled as natural could easily start labelling the products as natural simply because everything in the bottle has a natural origin. Would that be helpful for a person who actually wants less processed ingredients? I don't think so.

    2. I agree with companies being ingresponsible but not all cut corners.

      The standar process is to get their products tested by a Lab to make sure it is compatable with all skin types and that the preservatives are effective (challgen testing i believe it's called).

      Also they are labelling regulations that they must adhere to by the EU which are very strict and not to forget Insurance before even selling it ot the public .It is a thorough process and hope most companies comply with that.I am not aware of the process for outisde the EU.

      Everything i have learnt about reading labels correctly are from this blog so i am not against the scientific nature of your blog :),i just believe consumers need to be informed and then can go on to make a choice. I enjoy the articles and the blog.

    3. Thanks for the compliments on the blog and I am also happy about this discussion as I feel it adds to the overall topic - thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I think the one thing to remember is that you are talking about EU regulations. In USA there are no rules like this. Products which are not classed as drugs/medicines do not have to be lab tested even for preservation levels. The onus is on the maker to ensure the product is safe and in USA the threat of consumer litigation is generally sufficient to keep manufacturers on the ball without strict regulations as we have in the EU.

      Readership on this blog is actually around 75% from USA and actually many products that are made specifically for natural hair come from USA. These are the type of products I am really talking about (not things like Tresemme naturals which is made by a large company with a lab for the EU market).


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