What does 'natural ingredient' really mean?

In recent years, we are becoming much more conscious about what we put onto your skin and into our body, and there are more and more products labeled ‘Natural’. So what does natural ingredients really mean?
We all think we have a fairly good idea about what natural ingredients are, but do you know there are different types of ‘natural ingredients’? And that some of them are not as natural as you imaged? If these questions aren’t enough to blow your mind, did you know that not all natural ingredients are good for our environment? So it is important to know what exactly you are getting when buying ‘natural’ products, and make informed decision on your purchases.
To start this ‘natural’ ingredient topic, we need to know that there are three types of ingredients that can be called ‘natural’; they are ‘natural’, ‘natural derived’, and ‘nature identical’.  These three labels are how certification systems identify the specific ingredients in a product, and lets look at these three terms in more detail to give you a better idea of what they really mean.

Natural ingredients

Natural ingredients can be defined as ingredients that ‘are unmodified and may be obtained only by physical processes or fermentation’ (Natrue.org).
This means that it only uses the simplest physical or chemical process to isolate a product from things available in nature, such as plants, animals, or minerals. Processes such as cold pressing, distilling, dehydration, or fermentation etc. can be used as the extraction process, which does not change the chemical structure of the ingredient. With this definition, ingredients such as olive oil, rose water, etc. can be called ‘natural’
So the main point of difference for an ingredient to be labeled as ‘natural’ is the extraction process of those ingredients. We can think of it as: if it can be made in a common household kitchen, it’s natural.

Derived natural ingredients

Derived natural ingredients are ones that have been processed from natural ingredients. To qualify as a ‘derived natural ingredient’, certification organizations have a list of permitted chemical reactions that are allowed to be used. In other words, its ingredients that have been more heavily processed from its most natural forms.  For example, olive oil extracted from cold pressing would be a natural ingredient, but when further extracting ingredients from olive oil then biochemically altering them or concentrating them would make this end product derived natural.
Most medicines, over the counter drugs, and supplements are naturally derived, such as fish oil concentrates and many vitamins. Even some of our foods, such as high fructose corn syrup, and olive oil table spread.
Derived natural ingredients are necessary for consumer products such as skincare, because they can form the bases of creams and be effective preservatives. Without these derived natural ingredients, product shelf life would be as short as a couple of weeks, and many of our beloved moisturizers would be a separation of liquid and oil.

Nature-identical ingredients

Nature-identical ingredients are ingredients that are made in the laboratory but exist in nature. These can be pigments, minerals, or preservatives, and are often used because it is necessary for the product safety for consumers.
For example, nature-identical preservatives used to restrict microbes and fungus growth in a product, or pigments and minerals made with nature-identical ingredients to ensure the purity of this ingredient used. These ingredients are man-made in the laboratory, but they are the same as what you can find in nature. And some supplements uses nature-identical vitamins and minerals to achieve its purity.
So why would you use something that is made in the lab when its available in nature? That’s because our Mother Nature creates a lot of amazing ingredients for our everyday lives, but not enough for us to use as consumer products, especially when some ingredients are extracted from tones of exotic plants and minerals. So if we keep taking these precious ingredients from nature, our environment suffers and we will soon run out of these incredible products to use. That’s why some of these ingredients are made in the lab to recreate what we have in nature. This will give us the same effect from natural extractions, but doesn’t harm the environment. These nature-identical ingredients can be more pure, have less contaminants, more eco-friendly, and more affordable.

Did you know: it takes 10,000 roses to make a tiny 5ml bottle of rose essential oil?

By now you might think that nature-identical ingredients are not natural at all, but that’s not completely true either. If we look at zinc oxide in sunscreen for example, it is considered as a nature-identical ingredient, but the process of making it involves taking zinc out of the ground and turned into zinc oxide using fire, then purified and stabilized in a laboratory. These processes are necessary, to recreate zinc oxide in the lab, because zinc oxide as a pure mineral rarely exists in nature, and for an ingredient to be called ‘natural’ it cannot be overly processed. This is why zinc oxide is a nature identical ingredient, even though the main mineral that we use to make it came from nature.
Now that you have a good idea of what ‘natural’ ingredients really mean, you can see that it’s not as simple as products made from natural things. There are different ways natural ingredients are made, and they all have their benefits and downfalls. Most skincare companies will use a combination of all three to make products that are most suitable for their customers, based on the effectiveness of the ingredients, product safety, and cost of production. With this information, we can also make a better decision on what product we would like to use, and how we can better protect our environment and ourselves.

Some more good reads on Natural Ingredients

Natrue.org Information for Consumers
Naturalingredient.org Definition of Natural Ingredients