What IS Natural Anyway?

by Avery Chenoweth

“I hope your hair curls naturally, does it?”

“Yes, darling, with a little help from others.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

 It’s a truism worth recalling that, in times of social confusion, the wits shine more light than others can. In all his cascading wit, Wilde loved nothing more than to satirize the conflict between vanity and modesty, a modern conceit that he lampooned so brilliantly in The Importance of Being Ernest. And it’s a conflict that is still gaining traction today.

 The conflicted meaning of “natural” is one that enjoys a whole new aura of gravitas and ambiguity, and never more so than in our own age of subjective truths. No one seems to love “truthing” other people more than Americans, and with some psychological alchemy in play, we say “all natural” the way prigs would say “moral virtue” in the age of Wilde.

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 But what in the world does it mean? Natural ingredients, natural products, natural color, natural flavoring, and myriad other variations call out from shelves and online ads all to demand we take them into our lives. They come on to us like genius orphans--we must adopt them, house them, and promote them. Gentle as children, sweet as rain, they will make us pure again. Yet, as Wilde says flippantly, the word is deployed to reveal as well as to conceal, to transform an ostensible transparency into a practicable opacity: a bit of sleight of hand that a magician, marketer and politician can only admire.

 So, what is natural soap, anyway? One recent morning of chilly rain, Eva and I went to a farmers’ market where I found a great soap display. The seller’s soaps were arrayed like jewelry for honeymooners: in so many colors and scents that they dazzled, from azure to ruby, turquoise to chartreuse. Each bar lofted a scent of floral or tropical packets from palm to palette. They sizzled with flashbacks. As I stood there holding the soap, the rain flared into the tent’s opening, yet my mind skipped off to a sensual beach with shadowy palms. They whispered, “spring break...”

 “That stuff is very cool,” I said, with Eva by the heater outside in another tent, my arms folded against the cold. “And it’s `All Natural,’ too, which is amazing.”

 “Only it’s not,” Eva said, casually. “If you read the ingredients, the colors and fragrances come from synthetic chemicals. It’s ‘natural’ because she makes them at home, which is what I do. But I don’t use any of those chemicals. When we say “All- Natural” on our label, that is exactly what we mean. No synthetic fragrances, chemical detergents, artificial colors, or preservatives. A lot of people don’t know that, or don’t notice the difference.”

 Or, to put it another way, Eva’s hair is naturally curly--for the sake of the metaphor, that is, since it’s actually straight. Yet that distinction makes a major difference. Our genuine content is exactly what differentiates us out here in the vast meadow of “natural” products, flowering all around us with their man-made chemicals. 

Please do visit our “Dr. Eva’s Encyclopedia of Ingredients” for a list of the 100% natural ingredients we use in our products —where they come from, and why we choose to use them— and you’ll see why we can say All Natural without quotation marks. 

 Our discussion also raises the corollary question of whether something natural is good, and something created bad, given the lab that it came from--that of nature, or mankind.


 Eva smiled over the point. “Natural” does not necessarily mean it’s good for you. Just as much as “synthetic” is not always bad! Botulism is natural, but it is one of the most toxic substances out there. The important thing is to really understand the science, and carefully select the ingredients accordingly.” 

 I nodded at her wisdom, and saw further that something man-made can be quite good, too, like, well, ice cream--especially that salted caramel stuff? OMG, just saying.

 Welcome to our little corner of the field, where natural will always means natural, without irony, or qualification, much less semiotic deconstruction. Here at Dr. Eva SkinCare, Eva and I are more than happy to take care of your bathing essentials, as if we were friends. That’s how it all began, after all, when Eva started making soaps for her friends and family; we’ve extended that care to you if you would like the same caring attention. Now, you may also feel the same personal care and merely--enjoy, rinse, and repeat.

Eva King1 Comment