The first cosmetic science Twitter chat last Saturday was on the subject of natural products and how they have affected the scientists who develop them. This is a bit of raw subject for most cosmetic scientists who are skeptical of the claims made for natural products and of the criticisms made of conventional ones. And this perfectly understandable. If you apply logic there is no argument. Given that a scientist formulating a conventional product can use natural ingredients if they are suitable, but can use other ingredients as well it is completely obvious that conventional products are going to be better.
The compromises the formulator of natural products have to make are greater the more sincerely they keep to the natural brief. So basically the more natural a brand is the worse their products perform. There is no debate on this issue – everyone in the business knows that the more natural the product the more likely it is to be rubbish. Formulators who are obliged to work on these projects are naturally a bit resentful.
There is no scientific case for natural personal care products. Science is all about evidence and there is no evidence of any benefits for the user, so the people developing them feel that they are partaking in a deception.
But is this unease really justified? If they were being marketed on the basis of extending your life or increasing your fitness then anybody buying them on that basis would indeed be being deceived. But most of them don’t make any such claims. And I don’t think that many purchasers expect them to do so. People just like things that are natural. They don’t seem to expect that naturalness to have any specific measurable outcomes.
I was mulling this over and it occurred to me that this is something that goes rather beyond cosmetic products. There is a general feeling that natural is in some way good, but not in a way that is expected to produce any tangible results. This goes back to the nineteenth century when the romantic movement kindled an interest in the sublime. It became de rigueur to climb up mountains for no other reason than to enjoy the feeling of wonder you got at the top of it. Painters, poets and musicians started taking inspiration from wide open spaces and nature rather than religion and political figures.
This thread to our culture has never gone away, and it is one that still resonates strongly. Natural things just have a quality that we like. No amount of evidence from those of us who work in white coats is going to change that. Indeed, when we take the white coats off we are quite likely to respond in the same way as everyone else. I am certainly enjoying the rather vivid colours in the woods near where I live this autumn without troubling to look up the chemistry behind them.
The implications of looking at the desire for natural products in this light are rather interesting for the cosmetic formulator. If all people actually want is simply an essence of the natural rather than anything in particular, you might as well just put in a tip-in. The process of simply adding an insignificant quantity of some plant extract to an otherwise standard product is usually referred to as greenwashing. This is regarded by the marketer as highly useful, by the green activist as highly disreputable and the accountant as highly profitable. But it does have the advantage that the function of the product isn’t spoiled by applying pointless rules about what can and can’t be used.
Basically, greenwashing is all the public ever wanted all along.