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With a green wave rolling through the cosmetics industry “natural” ingredients and products have experienced an incredible growth in popularity over the past years. The allure of the connection to nature and its appeal as a benevolent force is easy to understand, but “natural” products come with their very own challenges that marketers, formulators and consumers should be aware of.

For cosmetics, “natural” does not always mean the same

According to the oxford advanced learner's dictionary “natural” means “existing in nature; not made or caused by humans”. Following this definition, a cosmetic product or ingredient would never be able to bear the label “natural” as all products and ingredients would have been processed by human beings at some point.

In the world of cosmetics, ”natural” has been described by various standards. Among them are definitions according to organizations like COSMOS, Natrue, and more recently the two part ISO standard 16128 . But not all definitions are strictly aligned with each other. What is required in order to class an ingredient or a product as “natural” can vary according to which standard is applied.

“Natural” ingredients according to individual standards

Depending on which standard is applied, there may be slight differences in the definition of a “natural” ingredient.

“Natural” according to COSMOS

The COSMOS standard uses the definitions “natural origin” and “NNI” (Non-Natural Ingredient) to define these categories. Natural ingredients here are water, minerals, ingredients of mineral origin as well as ingredients derived from agriculture that have been physically processed (i.e. been processed by drying, milling etc. as opposed to chemical processing) and chemically processed agro-ingredients (and individual parts) that are entirely derived from the previously mentioned. Petro-chemically derived ingredients are explicitly pointed out as not of natural origin.

“Natural” according to Natrue

The current Natrue standard (version 3.8) describes this category as individual substances or mixtures of botanic, inorganic-mineral and animal origin materials with the exception of dead vertebrates that have been physically processed or extracted (or purified/further processed) with a substance as listed in one of the permitted processing agents in one of the annexes to the standard. Natrue also mentions enzymatic and microbiological modifications as permitted processes and makes specific reference to natural fragrances as well as the treatment with ionizing radiation and bleaching agents. A new Natrue standard (version 3.9) will be coming into force on 01.01.2021.

“Natural” according to ISO 16128

ISO 16128-1 defines natural ingredients as obtained from plants including fungi and algae, animals, micro-organisms or minerals and also specifies the methods that can be considered to process these materials. This includes physical processes, fermentation (as occurring in nature and leading to molecules that occur in nature) as well as other processes such as solvent extraction as long as the intention of the extraction does not include any chemical modification and the process complies with a description listed in Annex A of the standard. There is also specific mention of the explicit exclusion of any ingredients obtained from fossil fuels as well as the inclusion of ingredients originating from genetically modified plants under certain circumstances. Similar to the Natrue standard natural fragrances are specifically mentioned.

What are “naturally derived” ingredients?

While the definition of “natural” and “naturally derived” is already somewhat contained in the criteria laid down by both COSMOS and Natrue standards for “natural” substances, the ISO standard makes a clear distinction between “natural” and “naturally derived” ingredients.

Here the factor of the ingredient molecular weight is explicitly taken into account as a determining factor. A “derived natural ingredient” according to ISO 16128-1 is a cosmetic ingredient in which more than 50% of the molecular weight can be accounted for by “natural origin” (as described under “natural”), or by renewable carbon content if introduced by a chemical modification process as described in Annex B of the standard. (Annex B describes a list of modification reactions commonly used by organic chemists to structurally modify organic molecules). This means that if by molecular weight more than half of the ingredient molecule can be accounted for as “natural” or as chemically modified by acceptable procedures with the use of renewable-source-derived carbon moieties, an ingredient can be considered as “naturally derived”.

Advantages of natural ingredients

Some advantages are undisputed for certain “natural” ingredients. Many molecules occurring in nature would be extremely complex to synthesize in a laboratory setting and even with the help of microorganisms and fermentation can be near impossible to recreate as a nature-identical material. Further, the composition of certain “natural” ingredients which sometimes are highly complex mixtures of hundreds of molecules, can often not be recreated adequately in a laboratory setting. In a situation like this, the natural processes of biosynthesis are irreplaceable and superior. Popular ingredients like natural oils (including essential oils), waxes and butters are some examples for cosmetic raw materials which are difficult to replace with their synthetic alternatives without needing to compromise on any constituents or properties.

Challenges for formulations and products

Some specific challenges of “naturals” come with the required origin that defines what a “natural” ingredient or product is. Being found in nature or required to be derived from agro-ingredients, the production process for these ingredients can be rather hard to control. Fluctuating agricultural conditions like temperature, UV-exposure, humidity and soil conditions can make the composition and quality of “natural” and “naturally derived” ingredients hard to control and reproduce.

A second aspect associated with this setting can be the biological burden or microbiological contamination of such materials specially if commonly used sterilization methods such as ionizing radiation or bleaching can be restricting factors in respect to the possibility of obtaining a “natural “certification or claim justification.

The use of “natural” ingredients or “naturally derived” ingredients without the adequate use of preservatives can potentially bring health risks for consumers as well as stability challenges for the formulator. This is especially challenging as certain standards limit the use of certain preservatives in order to obtain their stamp.

Another challenge can be the previously mentioned and often looked-for complexity of certain “natural“ and “naturally derived” ingredients. With a growing number of constituents in a material the complexity and challenge for the formulator grows equally. The potential for incompatibilities within a formulation or of a formulation with a packaging component increases with the number of individual compounds in a material. What might look like the simplicity of nature to marketers and consumers, certainly poses complexity and challenge for product development in the laboratory.

What should “natural” product developers be aware of?

Different standards for “natural”

Awareness for the differences when it comes to the definition of the terms “natural” and “naturally derived” as well as how the individual standards describe these terms is a good starting point. Selecting one of the standards to follow across the development process can be helpful and also offer the possibility to include this into the product communication.

Varying quality and incompatibilities

Keeping the potential for quality fluctuations of individual raw materials depending on their origin, supplier or the time of harvest during the year as well as challenges associated with incompatibilities and product stability in mind before setting out to create a product formulated with “natural” ingredients is an advantage. This can be helpful in managing expectations for the product development process and quality assurance as formulating with “naturals” provides additional challenges as described above.

Safety and preservation

The need for adequate preservation or microbiological quality is an absolute imperative to be aware of in order to create products that are safe for the consumer.

% natural calculation

Another aspect of creating “natural” products is to be aware of the multiple ways how % of natural ingredients for claims like “90% natural” can be calculated. The second part of the ISO standard ISO 16128-2 is laying down these criteria in respect to the ISO definitions. A brand seeking to make aforementioned claims should be aware of the different standards and of course also of any local regulatory requirements.

Common misconceptions around “naturals”

“Naturalness” is an alluring concept. Many consumers see an inherent benevolence in products and ingredients that can be claimed to be “natural” or “naturally derived”. On an emotional level it is easy to connect with nature as a force of good and the source of life itself. This can easily give rise to the perception that anything coming from nature or being naturally derived must by default be superior, more benevolent or safer, than anything man-made, synthetically derived or processed.

This is an easy and probably the most widespread misconception regarding “natural” cosmetics. What is missing from this train of thought is the fact that concentration and exposure to any substance are a big part of a substance´s toxicological behavior or effects. Some of the most potent poisons can be found in nature and even those can be used as pharmaceutical substances in certain cases if used in the right concentrations. The simple source or origin of a substance does not say anything about its safety for humans or animals.

“Natural is better” is also not considering the fact that even if derived from agriculture, botanical ingredients for example may have a far worse environmental profile when it comes to extracting certain ingredients from a plant as opposed to synthesizing the same molecule in a laboratory process.

While nature may give rise to a plant with the help of UV radiation from the sun, nutrients and water provided by soil and carbon dioxide fixation through photosynthesis, the actual sum of agricultural and physical processing steps of a “natural” or “naturally derived” ingredient including harvesting and processing machinery, fertilizer use, water and energy consumption across the entire process may actually be less environmentally favorable in comparison to generating a “nature identical” substrate in a laboratory. A substance like this might have the same properties, but not carry the “natural” or “naturally derived” label.

What are the main caveats brands and consumers should look out for?

Consumer safety should always be on the forefront of any brand or consumer's mind. When creating or purchasing a “natural” product, adequate safety, stability and quality should always be of paramount concern. This should include adequate preservation and packaging.

A product advertising to be “natural”, “X% natural” or contain “Y% naturally derived” ingredients should not lead a brand or consumer to believe that this is automatically a product of superior quality, safety or even developed with improved concern for the environment.

Brands should be aware of the raw material specifications for their materials and pay special attention to microbiological content, heavy metal specifications etc. and adherence to those specifications. Keeping good records of Safety Data Sheets and Certificates of Analysis is imperative for all ingredients but should be of extra importance to formulators of “natural” and “naturally derived” ingredients.

Paying special attention to which standards are being applied for “natural” and “naturally derived” claims is key as this may have different implications for a product and the ingredients it is formulated with as described above.

Examples for brands and products

Below are some examples for European brands that have chosen to be certified by the Natrue standard. Further brands can be found on the Natrue website:

Individual products that are COSMOS certified can be found on the COSMOS webpage.



  • Premium Beauty News, June 1, 2020, Natural cosmetic ingredients to gain popularity in post-Covid-19 era, online version viewed November 25, 2020, https://www.premiumbeautynews.com/en/natural-cosmetic-ingredients-to,16748
  • ISO 16128-1:2016 Guidelines on technical definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic ingredients and products — Part 1: Definitions for ingredients
  • ISO 16128-2:2017 Cosmetics — Guidelines on technical definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic ingredients — Part 2: Criteria for ingredients and products
  • COSMOS- standard, Cosmetics Organic and Natural Standard Version 3.2-1 June 2020, viewed November 25, 2020, https://www.cosmos-standard.org/about-the-cosmos-standard
  • Natrue Criteria- Version 3.8, Applicable until 31.12.2020, viewed November 25, 2020, https://www.natrue.org/our-standard/natrue-criteria-2/
  • CTPA, Natural and organic claims, viewed November 25, 2020, http://ctpa.smart-website.co.uk/content.aspx?pageid=431
  • P. Romanowski, September 18, 2017, The challenges of formulating a natural cosmetic line, Natural Products Insider, online version viewed November 25, 2020, https://www.naturalproductsinsider.com/beauty/challenges-formulating-natural-cosmetic-line
  • J. Tabor, February 11, 2016, The Challenges of Formulating Natural Products, Happi, online version viewed November 25, 2020, https://www.happi.com/issues/2016-11-01/view_formulator-forum/the-challenges-of-formulating-natural-products/
  • K Yarussi-King, March 4, 2016, The Issues Common With Trending Natural Ingredients: The Pitfalls of Naturals, Cosmetics & Toiletries, online version viewed November 25, 2020, https://www.cosmeticsandtoiletries.com/regulatory/organic/The-Issues-Common-With-Trending-Natural-Ingredients-The-Pitfalls-of-Naturals-371061831.html
  • F. Mellou., A. Varvaresou , S. Papageorgiou, Renewable sources: applications in personal care formulations. Int. J. of Cosmetic Science 41, 517-525, 2019

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