I have to do this. There’s a white elephant in the Green Beauty room, and I have to call it out. This is something that goes on way too often, and has been going on for years, and it’s got to stop.
Beauty and skincare brands that market themselves as green, natural, organic, or in any other way imply that their products are cleaner or less toxic than drugstore, department store, or other conventional cosmetic counterparts need to stop hiding things from their customers. I’ve already written about my issues with?synthetic fragrances, hidden preservatives in extracts, and misleading free-from claims–but today I’m specifically calling out companies who use the words ‘natural flavorings’ and ‘natural fragrances’ on their product labels. I also want to add oils that appear to be botanical oils (like lavender oil, rose oil, or neroli oil) on product ingredient lists.
What’s my beef with these natural ingredients?
There’s no way to know if they’re actually natural–and the truth is that fragrances, flavorings, and oils that are listed as natural are usually NOT. They might contain natural fixatives to enhance the strength and lasting time of a fragrance, but these aren’t plant-based–they are typically animal-derived like castroneum or civet (Google them and then see how you feel about rubbing them on your skin or using lip balms flavored with them).
A truly natural fragrance or flavoring would not be listed on a product label using the word ‘fragrance,’ ‘perfume,’ or even just ‘oil.’ It would ideally be listed using its Latin botanical name, and what type of botanical preparation (typically an essential oil, absolute, concrete, or sometimes an extract) it is. For example if a product uses lavender essential oil, it would likely be listed as ‘essential oil of lavandula angustifolia (lavender)’ if it’s been obtained via steam distillation or CO2 extraction. If it’s an absolute, it would likely say ‘lavandula angustifolia (lavender) absolute.’ If the product is made with?a macerated oil (carrier oil that has been infused with a plant), it would be listed as the botanical name of that carrier oil–let’s say jojoba for example–and noted that it’s been infused with the plant–let’s stick with lavender. This should appear on the label as simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) oil infused with lavandula angustifolia (lavender) flowers.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as much as it should. If a product?smells like lavender and the label says ‘lavender oil’ or ‘natural lavender fragrance’ or even ‘natural lavender flavoring,’ it’s almost always made with synthetic ingredients that are either chemically the same as the plant, which is how they pass for natural; or use completely synthetic fragrances or flavoring ingredients that mimic the smell or taste of the real thing which have other natural fragrance ingredients (like castroneum or civet) added to help the blend?pass as natural.
What’s the problem with ‘natural’ fragrances and flavorings like these?
Aside from the fact that it’s misleading to consumers who think they’re buying a product from a reputable ‘green’ or ‘natural’ brand, it also puts people at risk for skin allergies and irritant reactions. Take the recent EOS lip balm class action lawsuit, where many angry customers are suing the company due to burns, blisters, and swelling associated with use of their lip balms. Dermatologists and other experts who commented on this case pointed the finger at beeswax as the culprit for these burns, stating that the propolis found in the beeswax is a common allergen so therefore, it must be the beeswax. I took a look at the ingredient decks on these lip balms, because my own kids received them as gifts and started getting chapped lips after using them for several days in a row. What I found was that these products contain high amounts of natural flavoring.
Since manufacturers aren’t required to list the individual components of a natural flavoring or fragrance, a consumer would never know which ingredient or combination of ingredients was responsible for the irritant reaction–whereas if someone’s allergic to beeswax or propolis, they’d know to just avoid using a product containing them. For more of my thoughts about what might have caused these severe reactions in the EOS case, check out my article on Green Beauty Team.
Dead giveaways that a natural product contains synthetic fragrances
I attend many conferences and industry events in the areas of skincare, nutrition, beauty, and wellness where I get bags with product samples. I recently received a sample of a facial oil from a skincare company that markets themselves as organic and free from synthetic chemicals. I make my own products, and usually don’t try samples directly (I usually give them away), but since it was a facial oil, I figured it would be OK. It appeared to be a combination of plant-infused carrier oils and essential oils–and I haven’t identified any of those that I’m allergic or sensitive to. So I tried the sample without looking up the full ingredient deck–because people I know and trust in the industry who have super high standards regularly tout the purity of this particular brand. (I’m choosing to not name this company)
Upon application, I immediately noticed that the fragrance was pleasant, but it didn’t smell to me like normal essential oils or even absolutes smell. It was sweet, but not in a way that the sweetness would have come from typical sweet oils like tangerine, lime, or even vanilla. No, this had the telltale ‘candy’ sweetness to it that you only can get from synthetic fragrance or flavoring ingredients. Even so, I let it go.
I noticed that the scent was still as strong several hours later, which was another telltale sign to me that this oil either contained an animal-derived or synthetic fixative, because the aromas of essential oils, absolutes, and concretes typically fade within the first hour or two of application–or they at least shift so that the aroma of base notes in the blend is more prominent. And most base notes don’t have that candy smell.
Red flag #3 was that I began to feel nauseous and get a headache right around the time I noticed I could still smell the strong aroma, hours after application. I (and most people) do not get nauseous or headaches from essential oils. So I knew there’s no way these could be truly natural fragrances.
I contacted the company to ask them what the source of the fragrances were–if they were essential oils, absolutes, or concretes. I noticed that the label did list some essential oils, but also a lot of other botanical oils which were listed as the common name of the plant before the word ‘oil’ with a star after it to indicate that it was an organic ingredient. I asked about those too. The answer? Well there wasn’t a clear one, because this company?doesn’t formulate or manufacture their own products–they use a contract lab for that, and they said that the lab assured them that the ingredients were all natural and organic. To me, this is an even bigger problem, because I believe a?company?should ensure the source of their ingredients to ensure transparency and safety for their customers.
How do companies get away with labeling synthetic fragrances as natural?
They don’t have to get away with anything, because they’re allowed to do it. There are no clear laws on how cosmetics (which makeup, skincare, personal care, and hair care products are all considered) must be labeled. Proprietary oil blends, fragrances, and even preservative blends are all still protected as trade secrets and do not need to be disclosed, according to the FDA’s Cosmetic Labeling Guide. In terms of companies misleading customers, the FDA’s more concerned with policing false, drug, or health claims made on labels (such as a product that claims to erase wrinkles or cure acne but hasn’t been tested or approved by the FDA as a drug),?than ingredient transparency.
Personally I’d say that labeling a fragrance blend that contains synthetics as natural should be considered misleading.
Consumers have the right to know what they’re putting onto and into their bodies.
If product companies imply in their marketing, packaging, company ethos, or otherwise that they are natural, organic, green, or otherwise safer than conventional counterparts, then I feel strongly that they should label honestly. If the product contains blends containing synthetics, then they should state that. Whether a company makes their own products or has them made by a lab or private label company, they should verify exactly what’s in those products, and the source of those ingredients, and label their products accordingly.
Have you reacted to synthetic fragrances or flavorings in a so-called natural product?
Please share your experience in the comments!
*Beeswax image?By Simon A. Eugster