Community Question: Where Do You Draw the Line at Natural?
Saddle up, cowboys and cowgirls.
I’m about to swiftly bonk you over the head with some information, and then you’re going to provide your input, thoughts, and opinions on the matter. It’ll be quick, but it might not be wholly painless. It depends on how you look at it.
Isn’t that true of all of life, though? How you look at it determines what you get out of it.
While I do some bonking, keep today’s Community Question in mind:
Where Do YOU Draw the Line at Natural?
Deciding where you’re going to put your foot down – with the products you use both on your skin and in your household – is a step you’re going to take sooner or later, as you delve further into living more naturally. Many of you already have a firmly-planted foot.
My line is drawn, my foot is down, when it comes to things like synthetic fragrances, preservatives like pthalates or synthetic parabens, pretty much anything that’s a petroleum byproduct.
Everything on the other side of that tends to be a little murky, and it depends on my mood, my energy level, or my trust in “green chemicals” on any given day. I’m skeptical about anything that doesn’t have a botanical name attached to it in a product. I’m skeptical, but open to learning more.
This is supposed to be a big however.
Let me make it bigger.
Just because something comes from a plant doesn’t make it pure or, depending on how you answer today’s Community Question, even natural.
Let me give you some really important examples (cover your heads; this is where I’m bonking you):
- Xylitol: We discussed this extensively – and quite controversially it turned out (boy, people are really outspoken about their xylitol) – last year in this post called Xylitol: Should We Stop Calling It Natural? Why did I ask that question? Mainly because the majority of xylitol consumed in the world is a) produced from corn, which is likely GMO, b) the extraction of xylitol from corn (or birch) is done using several chemical processes utilizing things like sulfuric and phosphoric acid. and the end result is a very concentrated “natural” compound that we consume in quantities not present in actual natural, from the earth, ingredients.
- Grapefruit Seed Extract: (NOT to be confused with grapefruit essential oil) You’ve probably seen this ingredient in several natural products over the last couple of years, as it’s gained a name as a “natural” preservative. However, it turns out that the chemical extraction process of grapefruit seed extract (using things like ammonium chloride and hydrochloric acid) turns much of the GSE into another chemical called diphenol hydroxybenzene. Stephanie at Chemical of the Day outlines the natural/unnatural (and potentially skin irritating) process here, and even goes so far as to call grapefruit seed extract a synthetic chemical.
- Cocamidopropyl Betaine: Another ingredient (like my pet-peeve ingredient, phenoxyethanol) found in many “natural” skincare and haircare products. Cocamidopropyl betaine is manufactured by reacting coconut oil with a couple of chemicals, starting with a chemical called 3-dimethylaminopropylamine. The end result is what’s called a surfactant (the stuff that really scrubs you clean and bubbles up), and it’s an allergen for many people. Yes, it started with coconut oil. But did it end in a natural state?
- White Vinegar: This is going to throw you. But did you know that white vinegar can be (and is, in some cases) created by making ethyl alcohol out of petroleum? Your white vinegar could, in fact, be a petroleum byproduct. If it’s not made from petroleum, it is made from corn, unless otherwise stated, and is most likely harvested from GMO corn. Unless it’s distinguished as “organic.” Confused yet? The Eco-Mum actually did a great deal of research on this topic and came to the conclusion that if your white vinegar contains the word “distilled,” then it is likely from plant sources (meaning corn) and if it says “dilute acetic acid” then it is likely synthetic from petroleum sources. That’s a lot to take in, I know. But this is what we’re dealing with.
Those are just a few examples in the mucky waters of what can be considered “natural” or not. There are many others, including just about every non-botanical ingredient you’ll find on the back of your “natural” personal care products.
This seems dire, so let me share some good news.
Everything listed above is, as of now, a great deal safer in terms of its potential issues as carcinogens or hormone disruptors. Most of it is under-studied, though. Many so-called green chemicals are approved and pumped out into the market without any scientific knowledge of the long-term effects.
But, then again, so are almost all plant products. Most plant products don’t have a lot of scientific studies behind them; we often only have historical successes to base our judgments on. “Green” chemicals, though, do not have that latter luxury.
If only this “natural living” was a black and white issue, you know? If only the world was black and white. It would be so much easier. But far less enthralling.
We all know that not all plants are safe (poison ivy, anyone?) and not all lab-born chemicals are deathly toxic. But I think it’s an important step to determine the difference, for yourself, between what is actually natural and this new, quizzical definition manufacturers are utilizing these days.
I will not be giving up my distilled vinegar (made from corn), even though I HATE that it’s made from corn that started as GMO. I don’t avoid grapefruit seed extract like I do synthetic parabens and phalates, but I am cautious about it. You won’t catch me within six feet of xylitol, because it kills my stomach and it doesn’t trump stevia in any way, shape, or form in any area. And cocamidopropyl betaine? It’s probably less questionable and potentially contaminated than sodium lauryl and sodium laureth sulfates, at least. That’s the only good thing I can say about it.
People like the FDA, the USDA, and the manufacturers get to determine what’s printed on the label as “natural” or “organic.” But we here in our homes get to decide what WE determine is natural. Where we’ll draw the line. (And it starts with being informed, so we’re well on our way!)
So. Community Question:
Do you consider the items on the list above as “natural” ingredients? Are products created from excessive chemical extraction and reaction something you consciously and specifically avoid?
Do you have any ingredients that you DO avoid like the plague? Are they “natural” or not?
(High-fructose corn syrup is really coming to mind right now. Is IT “natural”?)
Where do YOU draw the line at natural?