“Natural” is in fact SUSTAINABLE

Lately I’ve heard that “natural” is not “sustainable”. Let’s explore a few things.

A very little history…

Essential and natural oils have been used for 10,000 plus years in every region in the world. There is a lovely article in the current edition of the NYSCC “Cosmetiscope” about the history of “natural ingredients”.

This small rant is not intended to talk up “natural”, but to add a bit of understanding about how we are going to create a sustainable chemical industry that supports the cosmetic industry and the people who support us: consumers. Natural substances are chemicals. We are clear on that. Further, they are chemicals that can be synthesized into other chemicals. 

The Issue At Hand

The future of synthetic chemical production, will, in large part, rely on renewable resources. There is really only one category of renew-ability and that is agricultural raw materials (aka feed stock) we use to make synthetics.

“Natural” is a baseline. “Naturally occurring substances” is defined in EPA regulation (EPA Definition – 40 CFR 711.6(a)(3)) and means we have a starting feed stock, not a necessarily a finished ingredient. Chemical engineers, hopefully following principles of green chemistry, can use these feed stocks to create various chemicals.

But what do you know about agriculture?

Examples of Agricultural Cosmetic Ingredients

There is a misplaced argument that “natural”, especially essential oils, are not sustainable. What are a few examples of sustainable “naturally derived” ingredients?

Essential Oils

Essentials oils have been produced by artisans in unique areas all over the world. We need farmers – all sort of farmers. Remember, you need to eat!

The vast majority of essential oils are grown where nothing else grows. Roses, Oregano, Marjoram, High Elevation Lavender, Helichrysum, all of the “woods” (Cedar, Palo Santo, Bisabolol) and many others all grow in rocky terrain with poor soil or in wild forests. No one is growing corn there. With the quickly developing sustainability and wild crafting standards, these crops are available and may be managed in a sustainable manner. The USDA-NOP has a published regulation that defines “wild crafting” which protects the long-term health of the crop and ensures a revenue base to the people making these oils. Many countries are protecting these types of oils with internal laws plus working with CITES and with standards from the UN.

Oils and Butters

Shea butter is a great example of an ingredient grown and harvested where it is naturally occurring. It is from a nut that is wild crafted and available all over the forests in Western Africa. It adds about 11% of total annual revenue to women’s co-ops and is an important source of revenue for these groups. Do you really think that Chevron or Shell should be the only companies making money?

As to the general concern that we are taking food out of mouths, consider that food ingredients are (in dollars) 10 times more than cosmetic ingredients. For every drum of oil (420 lbs.) that we sell to the cosmetic industry, I estimate that there is a truck load (44,000 lbs) of the same ingredient sold into the food industry. I do not believe that we will be the source of starvation. That is far more likely to be the destruction of the planet due to greenhouse gases and piles of plastic garbage.


Two things to know here: all crops have a yield per acre and bio-synthesis depends on either up-cycled waste from other crops or an agricultural feed stock. The overall agricultural practices must be compared both in terms of cost per unit and in terms of yield per acre. If one is making squalene from sugar in Brazil, it is important to note that conventional sugar requires up to 27 pesticides/herbicides to grow not to mention burning down the rain forest and the sugar is the feed stock. Whereas olive derived squalene is a derivative of olive oil production, a sustainable and up-cycled ingredient from oil used for humans. Olives grow in hot, dry climates and the trees can last for literally a thousand years. So, which squalene production system do you think is more sustainable?

Feed stocks used for biosynthesis need to be evaluated for yield per acre plus the transportation to the various processing sites plus the energy required for refining. 

Finally, organic farming methods have been shown to sequester 12.6% CO2. In contrast, conventional farming methods add about 11.2% CO2 to the atmosphere.

According to the most recent UN report on the effects of climate change, we are currently in a losing battle that will cost trillions of dollars. What are you doing to reduce greenhouse gases?

Hugs – Gay Timmons