What is a natural cosmetic?

This month we are going to focus on formulating natural cosmetic products. This continues to be a hot area for cosmetic marketers and frequently cosmetic chemists are asked to make products that are “natural.”  But what exactly is a “natural” cosmetic? We’ll explore that question in this post. 

What is a natural cosmetic?

Deciding what is natural or not is a little more difficult than you might imagine. When asked “what is natural?” many people will just say that something is natural if it “comes from nature.” This description isn’t helpful because the term nature remains vague. On some level, everything comes from nature!

When pressed further people might say something like “not made by people.”

But by that definition something like Petroleum would be considered natural and almost nobody considers petroleum natural. Oil is found in nature but people don’t think of it as natural.

Natural cosmetics

Usually, the term natural is thought to refer to something related to plants. This helps eliminate petroleum derived products, but it also eliminates things like naturally occurring minerals which many people consider natural. Even just considering plants is not adequate because many people don’t think of GMO plants as “natural.”

Then there is the issue of natural identical. There are many ingredients that are found in nature but can also be produced synthetically. Would a synthetic version of a natural material be considered natural? Some people would say yes, some would say no.

All this is to suggest that what is considered natural varies from person to person and organization to organization. As a formulator it will ultimately be up to you to decide which definition of natural fits your brand story and formulation style.

The problem with natural cosmetics

The vast majority of cosmetics are not natural. This is because nature just does not produce the types of chemicals that work best to solve the problems that cosmetics are meant to solve. There are few natural cleansing surfactants. There also aren’t many natural emulsifiers. Similarly, there aren’t a lot of great natural cosmetic thickeners or chelating agents or preservatives. Even most of the natural colorants that exist in nature are not useable because they are contaminated with dangerous heavy metals.

To make useful cosmetics you almost always have to chemically modify natural ingredients. It’s the specifically allowed modifications that are the basis for how different groups define natural. Organizations that have attempted to define natural include governments, NGOs, retailers, cosmetic producers and consumers. Let’s examine these definitions next.

Legal definitions of Natural

Since the marketing of cosmetics as natural is a relatively new phenomena the regulations of it have not yet been created. At the moment the FDA has this to say about natural cosmetics

FDA has not defined the term “natural” and has not established a regulatory definition for this term in cosmetic labeling.

This means that you are free to define the term as you like and market things as natural if they fit your definition. So, if you want to only consider non-GMO plant ingredients natural then you are free to market your products as such. But if you want to take a standard cosmetic, put a few drops of a natural extract in there and call it natural, you can do that also. At least, if you are following only the FDA guidelines. Legally, they have not declared a binding definition of the term “natural.”

But cosmetics are not only regulated by the FDA.  The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is responsible for regulating the claims made on cosmetics. Recently, the FTC has begun to crack down on companies that claim “100% natural” or “all natural” but then include synthetic compounds in the formula. If you’re selling products in the US, you probably should stay away from those specific claims.

USDA Organic

Another term that is used along with natural cosmetics is the term “organic.” The FDA does not define organic either but the USDA does have an organic program for agricultural products. This program was not specifically designed for cosmetics but some cosmetic makers approached the USDA and prompted them to put together some USDA guidelines for creating organic cosmetics.  It is difficult to achieve the standards set out by this organization so there are only a few products that would actually count as organic.

Natural Organization definitions

While only a handful of product types could qualify as organic, there is still a desire for cosmetic marketers to sell their products as “natural” or “organic.” For this reason a variety of organizations have come up with their own natural standards that other companies can use. If you want to get officially certified (and pay certification fees) you can use their stamp of approval. Presumably this will let your consumer feel better that your products are somehow more natural than ones that don’t have the seal. We’ve covered these organizations before in our guide to natural cosmetic standards. Some of the more notable standard organizations include:

  • NSF
  • Ecocert
  • NaTrue
  • NPA
  • EWG

Each of these groups have slightly different requirements but basically they allow some chemical modification of natural ingredients.


Organizational definitions of natural can be helpful but if consumers don’t know anything about the group that made up the standard then it will be much less impactful. One type of organization that can have a substantial impact on your definition of natural is retailers. In the United States, one retailer has led the way in defining natural. Whole Foods has come up with their own premium body care standards which bars the use of ingredients that they do not consider natural. They expect cosmetic marketers to formulate to this standard if they want to be displayed in Whole Foods stores.  Other retailers like Target and Walmart are also working on standards of acceptable ingredients.

When deciding what your company considers natural, you should take into account where you want to be selling your products.


Perhaps the most important definition of natural is the ones that your particular consumer follows. When you are marketing a cosmetic brand it is much easier to create products that reflect what people already believe than to convince people of what you want them to believe.

Unfortunately, consumers have been fed a lot of misinformation.  They often fall prey to fear marketing and scaremongering about chemicals in general. When you are trying to formulate natural products be sure to poll your own consumers. See what they consider natural and what they don’t. This is a crucial activity for any brand focusing on the natural consumer.

Creating a natural standard

Ultimately, it will be up to you and your company to come up with a standard for what you consider natural. While you might rightly consider everything natural (there’s no such thing as supernatural right?) your company, your consumers, and the government might not agree with you.

When you attempt to create natural products review the various standards and the ingredients that you are allowed to formulate with. Write down specific guidelines that your company will follow including information about

  • Ingredient sources
  • Acceptable chemical modification
  • Unacceptable ingredients
  • Sustainability requirements
  • Retailer requirements

Once you have a natural standard defined you can get to the more difficult job of creating functional cosmetic products using fewer effective ingredients. That’s the biggest challenge of formulating natural and something we’ll cover in a future post.

Want to know more about natural formulating? Click below for your free Report!

Related Articles

Free Report

Sign up now to get a free report "How to Duplicate any cosmetic formula". Plus a 4-part introduction to cosmetic science mini-course.

We respect your email privacy