Monday, February 26, 2007

Unnatural Things – a Brief Guide to Natural Products on Etsy and Beyond

Unnatural Things – a Brief Guide to Natural Products on Etsy and Beyond

by Diana Rajchel, owner of Magickal Realism

This natural, green, and environmentally friendly buzz can get pretty controversial among bath and body artisans – and pretty darned confusing to their customers. Even the best-intentioned of artisans themselves are sometimes fooled in their quest for natural, safe products for their customers and for themselves.

In order to fully understand all these labels, let's set aside some initial expectations:

Natural does NOT guarantee safety. A lot of people used ma huang because it's natural, and used too much of it, assuming it was safe, until they gave themselves heart attacks.

Chemical does NOT mean unsafe or unnatural nor does it mean safe and natural. Absolutely everything you see and touch has a chemical composition. YOU have a chemical composition. The discussion of what is natural and unnatural stems from where those chemicals originate.

Chemicals come in two categories: organic, and synthetic. Organic chemistry is not to be confused with organic products discussed later.

Organic chemicals are produced through extraction and isolation processes from an organic material, such as a plant or flower (or animal, in some cases). Synthetic chemicals are produced by creating reactions from materials that have been isolated to the point where their organic origin is unrecognizable – the organic materials that the components were obtained from are separated into a veritable alphabet of periodic table elements to be combined and recombined at the will – and sometimes risk - of the chemist. Absolutely everything, no matter how synthetic, has an organic origin. However, the materials of the synthetic process are substantially different from their organic chemical cousins, and new synthetics are being created all the time, and often released before complete data is gathered regarding their full effect on living creatures.

Even with this basic understanding, a customer purchasing bath and body products is engaging an act of faith; that buyer is trusting the seller to understand the chemicals that they work with well enough to only give their customers skin safe products that will not affect their personal chemistry and health long-term.

Each bath and body seller must make choices based on what population he or she wants to serve. The natural products market is just as segmented as the worldwide cosmetics market, and this smaller market consists of customers that are looking for very specific presences and absences of materials in what they buy. Most customers guide themselves by looking for labels, and an explanation of what those labels mean.

Here is an overview to common tags and labels used on Etsy and elsewhere, and what that label means:

Vegan – vegans abstain from use or consumption of anything with animal origin. You can read more about veganism to fully understand the movement. While it's natural to associate the vegan lifestyle with the environment, the greater environment is of concern to vegans primarily as it applies to the safety and preservation of animals (which in truth, is pretty far-reaching). This means that vegans do not use honey, milk, leather, gelatin, glycerin, or absolutely anything that comes from an animal. Vegans in western culture are particularly challenged by the prevalence of animal products throughout our culture, both in commonly available and affordable food and in our clothing, cars, and pharmaceuticals. Because of the needs of the vegan lifestyle, synthetics are often a welcome alternative to natural, animal-based options. To a vegan, synthetic ambergris, civet, and musk is preferable to the authentic version, and these among other synthetics significantly increase the repertoire of what they can use in vegan-directed bath and body products.

Organic – for the purposes of bath and body labeling, organic means that animals and plants consumed within the products were raised without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones. The only chemicals that have reached the final product are composed of organic compounds, without any additional chemicals finding their way in.

Certified Organic/USDA certified organic
– This is the only regulated organic labeling in the United States. Some other countries have their own organic certifications, and in some cases, such as in the USSR, it's simply more likely you'll get an organic product quite simply because farmers in those countries can't afford the pesticides and other chemicals used to produce larger crops and animals. The USDA certified organic program certifies that "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation." The USDA, however, can NOT guarantee that certified organic products are in any way superior to the mainstream food alternatives.

Green – Green labeling has become quite trendy since the resurgence of Earth Day celebrations in the mid 1990s; along with its trendiness comes a certain level of producer abuse that can fool the unwary consumer. Green is meant to imply that something about the product supports, preserves, or improves the environment. However, there is not standard of enforcement for using "green" labels in packaging.

Labels and tags are as much marketing tools as they are guides. Large and small, bath and body sellers know that how they label and package their products will draw a certain type of buyer, whether it's one concerned with the welfare of animals or concerned with how the choices in their daily lives affect their environment. Since as a whole private bath and body sellers are unregulated, there's a lot of responsibility left to the buyer to recognize whether the claims and labels about what is purchased are true.


Part II: Ingredients: the Rub of that Rub by Diana Rajchel of Magickal Realism

Ingredient labeling among bath and body sellers is a tricky business. The longstanding tradition of secrecy among cosmetic sellers is coming into conflict with both FDA requirements and with those genuinely committed to the natural product movement, who espouse openness in labeling laws. At the same time, some who have made an honest go of open labeling all too often run into those who counterfeit their items; it's unfortunate, but plagiarism is a second tradition in all art forms. It could take years to give a complete run down of all products used in natural bath and body creation; instead, this list should help build a basic vocabulary of ingredients used, and help recognize – and avoid – deceitfully labeled products.


Lye – lye is a caustic chemical condensed from wood ashes (that leftover stuff after a camp fire). Its technical name is sodium hydroxide. Lye is an organic chemical produced by reaction with another organic substance – so yes, it's natural as natural chemistry goes – but used without caution, it's nasty and dangerous stuff that can leave disfiguring burns. This dangerous stuff combined with animal or vegetable fat (also natural) when cured properly, is turned into nice, skin-safe soap.

Essential oils – essential oils are the distilled oils of fragrant plants. It can take a massive amount of the plant to make one drop of oil. Soap makers need a lot of oil to scent a single batch of soap, and often find that the essential oils lack the potency needed to have a distinct odor. Because of that, most soap sellers must resort to synthetic alternatives to fragrance their soaps. If a soap seller claims that there are essential oils used in the soap, expect a high price – $7 or more per bar of soap.


Candles, while not necessarily a bath and body product, are often paired with them because it's an easy transition between making soap and making candles, and because it's just plain nice to take a nice bath with some fresh handmade soap with a few candles lit around the tub.

Candles consist of two parts: wicking, and wax. They also can contain essential or synthetic oils for fragrance, but candle makers face the same fragrancing issues that soap makers do. The bulk of candle labeling concerns revolve around the long-term environmental impact of their materials.


A few years ago, a big panic spread about the long-term damage lead wicks in candles can do. These wicks were wires strung inside of the burnable wick, that made it easier to set the wick in the center. Most of these candles have been pulled from the marketplace, and are not a serious concern among current candle sellers.

Most wicks nowadays are made from cotton or hemp. While standard fare cotton farming certainly has a long-term environmental concern, organic cotton wicks are not readily and easily available to most candle sellers these days. However, most hemp is organically farmed due to lack of other farming options, and burns for a longer time period than cotton.

Waxes are the big controversy for candle makers. The type of wax can tell a buyer a lot about that creator's environmental and animal rights stance.

Paraffin – paraffin is the most commonly used wax in candle making. It's readily available in nearly any crafting store, and is what comes to mind first and foremost when someone thinks of making candles. Paraffin is derived from crude oil (jokingly called by some "dinosaur fat.") While paraffin only seriously affects air quality if made poorly (so it "soots" leaving black marks behind, which is a carcinogenic byproduct), paraffin does use crude oil. This makes paraffin a poor environmental choice, given that crude oil is a nonrenewable energy source

Beeswax – the wax is taken from the hard work of bees, which excludes these products from vegan use. This is considered an environmentally superior choice of wax because the resource is renewable – bees make new bees to make new hives – but it is a slow process, and runs the risk of overharvesting/overburdening the bees. Beeswax is also very expensive, often prohibitively so to candle sellers who do not run their own hive.

Soy wax – soy wax is hyped as the new, environmentally friendly and affordable alternative to paraffin and beeswax. The wax is produced by using a petroleum-based solvent called hexane to extract the wax from the plant, or in other cases, it is expeller pressed (meaning it's squished until it gives). The wax is then separated and sold for commercial use, and the byproduct is fed to livestock.

While soy candles are heralded as an environmentally positive alternative to paraffin, the method by which the wax is obtained has the potential to completely negate their actual impact. If petroleum products like hexane are used, then the damage to the environment continues. However, the end product does not contain petroleum – soy wax is still a natural product, it just may not be a genuinely environmentally positive (green) product.

This article on candle making is
particularly illuminating.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are a highly complicated, fraught with consumer misunderstanding along with political and environmental factors that alter their affordability and availability from year to year.

Consumers are often directed to synthetic imitations of essentials and then sold these synthetics as the "real thing." There are even cases where a consumer is sold a more cheaply available essential oil as entirely different, more expensive oil, or is sold adulterations of an oil. To make matters more complicated, less ethical sellers will play up to people's fear and misunderstanding of adulteration, claiming that materials are "undiluted" when in fact, dilution is a necessary safety feature in any essential oil composition. Between these misdirects and the minefield legitimate artisans navigate as plants are over harvested and rendered nearly extinct, and as suppliers make compromises of their own (such as adding synthetics or inferior plant oils to stretch an oil's availability), it take real skill to really pin down the "real thing" when purchasing products made with essential oils.

Rather than engage in a thesis on the essential oils industry, use these basic points to navigate essential-oil based bath and body purchases:

Essential oil is more expensive than its synthetic alternatives. Often, you can determine whether an item really contains essential oils by checking its ingredients against a source like Mountain Rose herbs.

Unless it says the words "essential" and "oil" together as "essential oil" its not essential oil. Common verbal manipulations include "pure oil" "pure essence" "essence oil" "oils of ….". These are NOT essential oils. Pure is a word often used to mislead you.

Also, do not be confused by "food grade" or "therapeutic" oils. According to the FDA, food grade essential oils are still diluted, and used only for flavoring just enough to impart a certain taste. Therapeutic grade is another way of saying that the essential oil is "undiluted." If a seller uses "therapeutic grade" it's up to that person to make sure that the oil is diluted before it reaches you.

As has been noted in the International Fragrance Association Guidelines, undiluted essential oils can lead to photosensitivity, skin lesions, and other side effects depending on the chemical construction of the oil. Not all undiluted essential oils are unsafe for short term use – lavender oil, for instance, is highly useful in treating burns – but even lavender, when undiluted and used over an extended period of time, can create increased light sensitivity in the user.

This guide to green, vegan, and natural products is very US-centric and may differ from country to country. The FDA and the sellers themselves are organizing, sharing information, and gradually coming to their own standards and labels. The labels that are mere marketing today will have meaning tomorrow, and the FDA is advancing ever more stringent laws about cosmetics labeling that will affect anyone who sells from the United States. Be informed before you buy, and never be afraid to ask hard questions of your sellers – those that are committed to quality and safety will joyfully rise to the challenge of improving their art!

Disclaimer from Shaley:

I recently met Diana, and she was very nice to write this all up for me. The world of Bath N Body gets a bit complicated for me at times, so it was great to have an "insider" help me out with this. I have not verified or researched any of this information, but to the best of Diana's knowledge, and extensive research, is all correct. The best safeguard, as with anything, is always to do research on what you are buying, and know the possible good results, side effects, and even possible negative results that can occur from any products. I take no responsibility for any products that I recommend that worked for me, but may not work for you. In conclusion, be careful, know the facts, and, above all, have fun!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's great for buyers to read. Me being a Vegan B & B seller along with soy candles appreciate terms being defined for both buyers and sellers. :)