5280 Naturals

All Natural, Organic, Handcrafted Bath and Beauty Products
Fresh, Handmade, Vegan, Cruelty-Free, Chemical Free, Ethical Purchasing

Natural vs. Organic vs. Synthetic

With so many buzzwords used in beauty product marketing, sometimes it can be hard to discern what you think you're buying versus what you're actually getting. "Natural" and "Organic" are often thrown around to tout the purity of many beauty products, soaps especially, but the two terms mean very different things. One is a legally regulated term, and the other is much more vague. In addition the use of synthetics is often hidden in "other ingredients".  Read on to learn more about the important differences between these three things.

existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.

of, relating to, or derived from living matter.


(of a substance) made by chemical synthesis, especially to imitate a natural product.


Based on these dictionary definitions, there seems to be no difference between the terms. Do a little research though, and you'll find that 'organic' is a strictly regulated term by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA website, "organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances."

In order to be recognized as an "organic" product, the facility or farming operation must meet strict standards set and approved by the National Organic Program. The NOP regulates the creation, production, handling, labeling and enforcement of all USDA organic-certified products. In short, products labeled 'organic' did not earn the title lightly! Anything labeled organic went through a strict regulatory process, and you can feel confident that what you're buying does not contain any synthetic additives or pesticides.

While many people may be used to seeing the 'organic' label on fruit, vegetables and meats on grocery store shelves, the term can also apply to products used in the beauty industry.

If you're still a bit confused, this summary from a USDA Organic FAQ pamphlet may clear things up for you: "Overall, if you make a product and want to claim that it or its ingredients are organic, your final product probably needs to be certified. If you are not certified, you must not make any organic claim on the principal display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package."

Playing by the organic rules, means there are a lot of rules!  Many people claim their product is "organic", but if you do not see the "certified organic" logo than the product is truly not 95% organic as required by that logo.  We would love to wear that logo, but we can't reach that 95% for soap because lye is 12-15% by weight, of the original ingredients. Although lye doesn't exist in the final soap product, organic regulations require that all of the product's ingredients, from the beginning, must be accounted for, and if a soap is made without water and lye, then it is not a "soap", it's a detergent.

Although we use all organic oils, etc. in our lotions, and creams, they have more water than soap.  Water doesn't count against you in organic percentages but it can't count for you either.  So naturally, the more water a product has, the more the organic percentage is reduced.  We would feel comfortable, however, saying that our whipped butters (no added water) would meet the 95% organic standard, and we can fairly say that our soap is about 85% organic.  Although not carved in stone, 85% is a good point of reference.  It identifies a particular level of soap quality, showing a commitment to honesty and transparency. 

Navigating the term 'Natural'

What is Natural?

Nature is composed of physical, chemical and biological elements, principles and laws, which govern the known and unknown world and universe. The term 'natural' is used to describe a substance or condition which is:

  • in harmony with nature
  • belonging or connected to nature
  • derived or obtained from nature

According to the U.S. National Organics Program (NOP), a natural substance is derived from a plant, mineral or animal source, without having undergone a synthetic process (defined in the next section of the article). Physical and biological processes can still render a substance as natural. For instance, dried corn kernels can be removed from the cob, then milled to produce corn flour. The corn has undergone a physical change, but is still considered natural. Yeast is an example of a micro-organism which can be an agent for biological change in a substance. This micro-organism is used to facilitate the process of fermentation of plant extracts, such as grape juice. The process of fermentation yields carbon dioxide and ethanol, which converts the grape juice into wine. Natural substances can result from physical and biological processes, even when the resulting substance cannot be found in nature independent of these processes. (1)

The word 'natural' is an umbrella term that can be applied to almost anything that comes from nature. Unlike 'organic,' there is no legal hurdle when using the term 'natural'.

For example, the Brazilian Clays we use are natural because they do not contain any artificial dyes or ingredients; the clays are those lovely colors without the added help of dyes! While these products are natural, they are not organic because they did not go through the rigorous process to earn the certification through the USDA. In fact, there are no "Natural Police" that guard the term or have come up with standards for what 'natural' is or isn't.

From an official standpoint, the USDA only has regulations for meat, poultry and eggs labeled as natural. To earn that label, those products "must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients." However, beyond that, "there are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs."

So, what does all this mean? The bottom line is that 'natural' is a common term in bath and beauty product marketing, and in some cases the ingredients and the products themselves really are natural, or only from nature. However, since the same stringent regulations do not exist for 'natural' products as they do for 'organic' products, it's up to you to be an educated buyer and be aware of what you're buying.

What is Synthetic?

A synthetic substance is a compound, which is made artificially through chemical reactions. Natural substances have been chemically modified through human labor or skill to yield substances which are chemically different from the pre-reaction substances. The NOP definition of a synthetic is a substance which has been formulated or manufactured by a chemical process, and has chemically altered a substance which was derived from a naturally occurring plant, mineral or animal source. These definitions encompass two types of synthetic substances: those viewed as natural, and those considered un-natural.

Implications for Daily Use of Cosmetics

There is a vast array of cosmetic products at our disposal. Why does the natural versus synthetic debate matter? Our personal health and well-being, as well as our environment locally and globally, are in question by the widespread use of synthetic substances. We cannot avoid all synthetic substances, and not all synthetics are bad for us. Many of these materials have improved the quality of our lives, but many have also deteriorated it. We do not know what will result from our use of certain synthetics in the long run. Cosmetics are products which we have a direct physical and emotional relationship with, as we wear them daily on our skin and bodies. The environment can be sustained or systematically destroyed by our choices. As consumers we can participate in the sustaining of eco-friendly organic farming practices, wise waste disposal, clean manufacturing processes and biodegradability of ingredients. The choices are many, and the freedom to choose is ours. Where do you stand on the natural vs synthetic debate? The answer can make a difference to your health and our ecosystem.

The Organic Make-up Company considers synthetic ingredients to be those which:

  • do not have natural reactants
  • use petroleum derived reactants
  • use catalysts which are petroleum derived or on the upper end of the synthetic range
  • use processes which require pressure and/or heat which cannot be achieved with simple technology
  • yield products through chemical reactions that have properties which are chemically (not physically) different from the reactants
  • yield chemically produced substances which are not biodegradable through normal biological processes

The Organic Make-up Company considers natural ingredients to be those which:

  • are derived, obtained or drawn from plants, minerals or animal sources such as beeswax
  • have not undergone a synthetic process as defined under our criteria above of a synthetic substance
  • are refined through physical processing
  • result from biological processes
  • result from simple chemical processes where the reactants and catalysts are natural as defined in this article and the statements above
  • have been changed or created through the use of simple technologies such as those that can be found in a conventional kitchen (2)

[1] The soap Queen

[2] The Organic make-up Company