To make sure a natural ingredient is truly sustainable, brands must consider a few criteria: The actual harvesting and planting methods, sourcing, and the labor and ethics involved. It’s a tall order, and it’s possible for any ingredient (natural or synthetic) to not make the cut.
Let’s start with harvesting and planting: “You can have something that is natural and even has a really good safety profile, but it can be grown or created in a way that is not sustainable,” notes Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact at Credo. Perhaps the most famous example is palm oil; in terms of skin safety, it’s generally well-tolerated and thus popular in many personal care items, but planting and harvesting palm can wreak havoc on the surrounding ecosystems. “It’s often planted in plantation-style farms,” says Davis. “So [people] get rid of all these wonderful native plants that are necessary for a healthy ecosystem and plant palm.” Essentially, because the consumer demand is so high (you can find it in nearly half of all packaged products), we create these monocultures that reduce the natural biodiversity of the forests.
Some natural ingredients also take a large amount of natural resources during the harvesting or extracting process. Take “thirsty crops,” for example: “Certain crops in the world take a crazy amount of water in order to grow,” says clean cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline. “Sugarcane, rice, and soy are classified as thirsty crops.” Pure vanilla bean also famously takes a lot of water to grow and extract—according to the Water Footprint Network, it can take up to 126,505 liters of water (around 33,000 gallons) to produce 1 kilogram of vanilla beans.
And to produce an ingredient on such a large (sometimes global) scale, brands need a lot—like, loads—of the plant to meet the demand. This is often the case with natural fragrances: “It can take 50 roses to make a single drop of rose essential oil,” says board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., in a recent TikTok, so imagine how many roses it would take to create an entire sweet-smelling face cream—let alone hundreds to distribute across the country. Not to mention, some fruit essential oils, namely citrus, are way too strong for the skin (remember: Our clean beauty philosophy emphasizes safe ingredients for your skin and the planet).