Have you been seeing the terms ‘100% organic’ and ‘100% natural’ being touted around the skincare industry as of late? Well, you’re not the only one, for the ‘natural trend’ has become a dominant force sweeping up various consumer industries, from food to cosmetics. They cater to our ever-growing and irrational preference for naturality.
The Appeal to Nature Fallacy
This cognitive bias is so prevalent, that researchers call it the appeal to nature fallacy, a logical fallacy that occurs when something is claimed to be good because it is perceived as natural, or bad because it’s perceived as unnatural. In fact, consumers are increasingly willing to pay a significant premium for natural products, and this can be taken advantage of by brands.
So what are the main issues of this premise?
Firstly, the quality of being natural is hard to define and is often done so in a way that is arbitrary. Paraffins, a common ingredient in lotions and candles, are often derived from petroleum. That may sound dangerous, but petroleum was formed from the remains of living organisms millions of years ago, way before any synthetic processing was invented. How about tocopherols/vitamin E extracts? These chemical compounds occur naturally in many foods that we eat, but the process to purify and ensure that they are safe for cosmetic use is definitely not one that occurs in nature. These require significant amounts of physical and chemical processing but are done so to protect consumers.
Secondly, just because a substance is natural does not necessarily equate to it being good. Take for instance amygdalin, a compound found in apple seeds. It’s a naturally occurring chemical that degrades to cyanide in your gut, which is extremely toxic. On the other hand, we have unnatural substances such as chemotherapeutic drugs which have helped to improve life expectancy and give cancer patients a chance at survival. One of these is natural and potentially bad, while the other is unnatural and potentially good. This could be the case for the ingredients found in bath and body products as well.
Thirdly, we may also wrongly assume that natural products are sustainable. Amidst a wave of CSR and environmental efforts, it’s easy to believe that natural ingredients are more sustainable than synthetic ingredients. However, research has shown that the cultivation and collection of these plant-based alternatives can require more energy to produce and can increase the risk of disrupting fragile ecosystems, thereby causing huge threats to the environment. This is why some brands have chosen to artificially create compounds that ‘mimic’ these natural ingredients – which in some cases, actually prove to be a safer and more sustainable solution for both the consumer and the environment.
What should we do as consumers?
As consumers, our task is to be more educated about what we consume. Don’t be fooled by vague terms used by marketers to suggest health benefits and improved sustainability. Rather, do greater research on the ingredients and their effects, as well as the production processes of a company to determine if the product is worth a higher price point, or better for your body. The golden rule is to ask questions, research and learn!