The NATURAL PHILOSOPHY OF SYNTHESIS
In the world of cosmetics the phrase ‘synthetic’ has come to mean something bad and to be avoided. It smacks of Chemistry and man made disease causing agents.
Nothing could be further from the truth and smacks of shrewd green commercial greed that fosters and preys on ill informed consumers. The reason I take this bullish position is that all nature is synthesised.
A plant synthesises itself from light. A human synthesises itself from food directly made from sunshine. This is Chemistry in action – good chemistry.
We might rightly say cooking began with the kitchen. Cooking is about changing the nature of things. Proteins are unwrapped, fats are changed nature is manipulated to make things more palatable or even to make poisons edible. Bio-synthesis occurs when yeasts moulds and fungi are manipulated to make wines and beers or even spirit – alcohol itself.
The word itself simply means ‘to bring together as a whole by synthesis or to form by bringing together separate parts. Synthesise as a Chemical term means ‘the formation of a complex compound by the combining of two or more simpler compounds or elements’. There is nothing much to fear here or is there?
Chemistry as we know it probably began as a combination of Herbal tradition and Alchemy. The term chemistry is derived from the latter name. The Arabic words Al khemeia literally refers to ‘the study of moist things’. Alchemy is renowned for it’s search for elixir’s and the search for the secret of eternal youth and the ability to convert base metal to gold. Herbalists studied plants and their application to health perhaps more so than Alchemists.
The Real Issues
The issue is not perhaps what something is but rather what something does; how it is applied. Or how it is used or produced. Pollution is rarely a problem in itself rather it speaks of poor waste management or cheap production techniques. Resources can be wasted rather than hoarded. Petrochemicals are an example where poor waste management has led to problems.
Is it so un natural or wrong as some Green politicians would lead us to believe to have used the natural resource of oil in many different ways from transport to plastics? The origin of oil and coal is simply decayed vegetation pressed over millennia into liquid or even rock as part of the decay process gas was generated which we today rightly call Natural gas.
Globally this resource cannot last so the issue that lies behind it is the misuse or abuse of something nature has given us that will eventually run out unless we have a period of climate change where vegetation is produced in such volume followed by some cataclysm that buries it. After such a time the earth will have regenerated. This you will recognise as the Gaia principle. Such extreme times have happened and will happen whatever we do – it is written in the geological and fossil record yet mostly ignored.
The driving force behind every commercial activity is profit. Commercial greed is inevitably behind pollution. Pollution by man is not necessary either in Chemistry or Extraction it is all a matter of money and procedure.
This paper does not intend to comment upon the role of government. Obviously controls provide a solution. The nature of mankind and it’s philosophies and religions also play significant roles.
Sometimes those who oppose Chemistry try to point to an idyllic past time where no nasty chemicals existed. Such a time is illusory. They overlook the mass epidemics of history the ‘naturally’ polluted waters of slow flowing rivers contaminated by the detritus of human activity.
Since Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’ the modern world has become more environmentally aware. Her work was a landmark in acknowledging the dangers of technological advances without proper consideration of the consequences. The publication exposing the errors of the overuse of the chemical insecticide DDT set the scene for the now, what we call, environmental movement. It certainly had an impact on me as a teenager. Slow steps are being today taken to lessen mankind’s greedy impact.
The Cosmetics Industry
Unsurprisingly the food chain has and continues to be under the spotlight for hidden chemical dangers. Food additives, processed food and colourants, synthetic vitamins versus natural and the rise of the organic movement have all raised public awareness to many dangers both real and imagined. Make no mistake many Green crusaders make just as much money as their Black counterparts from misinformation and fear manipulation.
When we the consuming herd changes taste all sellers follow and if we consumers want chemical free food then we shall have it is the mantra of the marketing men. In reality this may mean no more than cheap food from a third world country sold as Fair Trade to factory reared pigs under a package showing rural green fields. Unfortunately words are manipulated to disadvantage us hence at the outset synthetic became a bad word even though it has a natural role and place.
Many small cosmeticians discovered a niche market with buyers who wanted ‘old fashioned’ often ‘herbal’ cosmetics. In the USA there had long been a tradition of herbal soaps and simple cosmetics based on oils and waxes. This combined neatly with the rise in popularity of Aromatherapy. Previously the Body Shop had led the way in using soft detergents derived from palm and coconut oils to create a successful ‘Natural’ toiletry company. A ‘Natural Cosmetics Industry’ had been formed of which the author was certainly a pioneer and leader.
Environmental consumer awareness and the rise of public sensitivity to Health and Safety matters gave rise to a variety of parallel changes. Certain countries had long used ingredients used in formulation as a form of trade barrier to exclude products from their country and protect domestic production. Japan was notable in this direction.
In 1993 European pressure produced what we now call INCI lists to be shown on cosmetics – the list of ingredients. The names specified on the packs were to be the Chemical names of the substances.
Previously a manufacturer would say something like ‘wash with natural coconut oil’ or perhaps more accurately ‘wash active substances from coconut oil’. After this ingredient listing legislation was introduced the chemical name had to be given which might be sodium laurel sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate. The same thing as coconut derived wash substances but now looking synthetic, chemical or even lethal.
As the INCI list was not formally written to inform consumers but rather to inform medicine or other related parties should their be accidental ingestion or allergic reaction the listing was soon seized upon as a chemical minefield. Even the lowly traditional herbs such as marigold had to be converted to the accepted Latin. This did little for the average consumer. It did a lot for the journalists who seized upon the related Material Safety Data Sheets in a frenzy of bad karma to all chemicals.
Every Chemical natural or synthetic has to have a data sheet which explains what it is and what it does and what its hazards are and how you should handle it. So in the end every ingredient has a test to say at what point it may be for example toxic or whether any harmful effects have been found etc. This applies to all Chemicals from whatever source. Never run away with the idea promulgated by unethical sellers that natural means safe it certainly does not.
Various writers made money on producing short textbooks mostly emphasising the dangers of various Cosmetic ingredients. Unsurprisingly this boosted the natural Cosmetics market from a fad to a trend to now a major business. The simple marketing of fear and comparison so exemplified by the ‘whiter than yours’ advertising trick prevailed in a honey pot of money. The rise of the Internet gave access to those with ‘intent to spread rumour’. SLS became a victim of this technique led by’ independent’ distributors of expensive alternative shampoos. The argument against it rages from its use as a garage cleaner (So what – so is soap beloved by the organic movement) to major cancer causing agent. The origin of the hoax when traced to the origin is a single unidentifiable email. Such is the power of fear and the Internet.
We must remember that SLS is derived from normal natural renewable materials such as palm and coconut oils.
A definition of natural
As can be seen from this short paper defining nature is difficult it is as much about perception as fact.
If we accept that our world is constantly changing, developing or changing then we must see that adaptation is part of the process. It appears too following the gaia principle that the earth is self renewing with or without us it is a matter of time and event.
Nature is not warm and fluffy. It is like a tiger – the cub looks playful the adult when it is misunderstood or in the wrong place etc can be lethal.
Recycling is in the Nature of things. Perhaps bacteria and worms are the two largest communities of our natural world. Both are able capable recyclists. They can break down and restructure the planet and its material. They are experts at handling all manner of chemicals. True they themselves can be damaged by chemicals especially in abundance but as has been hinted at above ‘there is no such thing as poison only dosage’. This maxim is shared by orthodox science as much as traditional herbalists and homoeopaths.
Another factor that plays with Natural is brought by the vegetarian and vegan community. Discussions ensue as to what is acceptable such as milk proteins, fish oils, animal fats. Of course no creature is killed for cosmetic purposes so the recycling of animal material or the use of animal products such as eggs which some people find distasteful is ecologically sound.
So along with light energy, worms and bacteria I would advance to you the idea that if the eco system has a way of handling it then there should not be a problem of synthetic versus natural but rather an issue of pollution versus viable quantity. Nature will find a way of degrading or handling what it considers to be it’s own. This applies as much to a cosmetic as it does to an extraction mine.
Certainly we have to learn to cooperate with Nature. What better place to start than in our own home or on our own skin. We can be pretty sure about the relative safety of natural and synthetic materials on our skin. I trust that now some of us can accept that a ramified molecule derived from nature and that is disposed of happily by bacteria can be as acceptable as a tea rich in tannins that a worm may find lethal.
This world has a yet untapped potential in the world of Natural Chemistry. It is tainted by greed and rumour. There is a natural tendency to eulogise the past and fear the future. Nature will go on with or without us. We too are great adapters we have organs designed to deal with all manner of things we put in or on ourselves. We are robust we are humans and the biggest enemy of Nature. We too can be recycled into an oblivion of our making by ignoring past lessons and failing to value the assets of nature and harmonise with them.
December 2007 Glastonbury ©