Words from Wiechers on 'Naturals'

Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.
Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.

Editor's note: This new series, "Words from Wiechers," considers the many lessons we, as an industry, can learn from the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D.; who was an advisor, colleague, insightful leader and "disruptive force" (in a good way) in the industry until his unexpected passing. Presenting Wiechers's insights is IFSCC Education Chair, Anthony J. O'Lenick, Jr.

This is the second in a series of columns (see Part I) that will discuss the concepts presented by the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D. It is my desire to get members of our society to consider his words of wisdom. While some of these articles were written 17 years ago, it is amazing how we still wrestle with the same topics.

The third chapter of his book, Memories of a Cosmetically Disturbed Mind, initially published in April 2013 by Allured Business Media, was entitled: "Naturally Good, Safe and Healthy." In this short chapter, Johann challenges us to question the concept of natural as a measure of good or healthy. The meaning of the word has been distorted, and it is important that we understand what it means and how it is used.

Naturally Misleading

Johann points to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th Edition. Here, natural is defined as “existing in or caused by nature; uncultivated, wild; in the course of nature, not exceptional or miraculous; not surprising; unaffected, easy, spontaneous”—and particularly appropriate in the cosmetic context, “not disguised or altered (as by makeup, etc.).”

Natural has changed in the context of cosmetic products to become synonymous with good, safe and healthy. Clearly this is not the case. Examples offered by Wiechers are as follows:

“Lead is a very normal element in chemistry that is abundantly available in nature. Therefore, lead is natural, and according to its newly acquired meaning, 'good, safe and healthy.' Queen Elizabeth I used this mineral frequently as a skin whitener. She lost her teeth, her hair and also, probably her life due the use of this natural thus 'good, safe and healthy' ingredient. 

"The potent alkaloids in the beautiful foxglove plant kill very easily. Strychnine and arsenic are also natural ingredients that were used [by our ancestors] to kill rodents but also killed some unfortunate characters in Agatha Christie’s novels.

"Just before World War II, you could still get live leeches—very natural creatures—in Dutch pharmacies, but do we still consider [treatment with them] as normal, let alone 'good, safe and healthy?'

"But maybe it is just me; leeches and indeed maggots are now quite widely used again in medicine—the latter to clean wounds. I could go on about poison ivy and many more. To cut a long story short, naturalness does not automatically equate with safety."

Mark Chandler, of ACT Solutions Corp., a colleague and business partner of the late Wiechers's, muses that by contorting the meaning of words, all materials come from plants, are natural and are carbon-based organics. They are natural since they are made from elements in the first 921 of the periodic chart.1 They also come from a plant—which could mean a chemical plant located in New Jersey. They also are, technically, organic because they contain carbon.

The Lesson

When using these definitions, the meaning changes. We, as an industry, need to challenge definitions and agree on how they are used with scientific precision.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.”2

We need to question the definition of these words, agree what they mean when applied to our products and make our consumers aware of what these terms mean.


1. https://www.angelo.edu/faculty/kboudrea/periodic/physical_natural.htm
2. L Carroll (CL Dodgson), Through the Looking Glass 6 205 (1934); first published in 1872
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