What is "Natural?" (Candles Part 2)

[Note: This post is both a discussion of the "appeal to nature" fallacy as well as a continuation of my candle production saga]



When I started Zu Foos it was my intention to provide spiritual services (at the time reiki and tarot) and to produce natural home and bath products. I created undiluted essential oil blends, aromatherapy sprays, bath salts, and even a solid lotion bar. I didn't use any artificial fragrances or added dyes and prided myself on providing a simple, clean-looking line of products.

However, it wasn't long into my business journey that I discovered problems with almost everything I made. The aromatherapy sprays (essential oils and distilled water) seemed to have a pretty short shelf-life, developing sediment within a few weeks. They still smelled good, but it looked ugly.

The bath salts (Epsom salt and essential oils) lost their scent within days. After trying an array of packaging with no luck, I mitigated the problem by making bath salt as it was ordered.

My lotion bars included unrefined shea butter and, therefore, had an extremely earthy/nutty smell, regardless of the essential oils I added to the blend. Some people didn't mind it, but I did.

I was very frustrated at the obstacles I ran into again and again with product production. I did lots of research before creating a potential new product and I worked from existing recipes on popular blogs and websites. I used high quality (and expensive) ingredients, followed recipes exactly, and ended up with products that had a very short shelf life and/or where underwhelming to say the least. What could I be doing wrong that everyone else was doing right? How could my results be different when all the variables were the same?

In part, the answer (which isn't the main point of this post) is that people are completely happy to lie, whether knowingly or not, in order to appear knowledgeable. So many mommy blogs and online educational resources straight up lied about the quality of the products they produced. I know that they lied because I followed their recipes, used their ingredients, and ended up with junk.

The bigger question here, though, is why did they lie? What motive could they have for lying about their recipes? There are several answers to consider: ad revenue, inflated ego, internet cred, wanting to be a guru, etc etc etc. All of these answers, though, sit on a shared foundation: The Appeal to Nature Fallacy.

The appeal to nature fallacy says that because something is natural, it must be good. Because something is unnatural (or synthetic), it must be bad. You see this kind of thinking every day. Walk through any grocery store and see how many packages say "all natural" on them. The clear implication here is that the "all natural" products are better for you, more effective, and more environmentally friendly than their unnatural counterparts.

This line of thinking is absolutely false, as it turns out, because the efficacy and the safety of a given item are not tied to the "naturalness" of it.

For example, Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is a natural plant. It is native to some parts of Europe and wasn't bred to exist as it does now (it is, therefore, not genetically modified (non-gmo)). It looks like Queen Anne's Lace (wild carrot), except it grows up to 18 feet (6 meters) tall. The giant plant was introduced to other countries (where it became invasive) as an ornamental plant (to be fair, it's absolutely stunning to see in real life). However, despite being completely natural, the plant is extremely dangerous. The sap of the plant is exceedingly phototoxic, meaning that if contact is made with your skin (even if the sap is then washed away) contact with sunlight or ultraviolet light will cause severe burns and inflammation that may require hospitalization and can leave dark burnt scars that last for years. Because this plant is so dangerous to people and animals, many localities ask citizens to report sightings of the plant so it can be eradicated.

Giant Hogweed is an extreme example, but hardly a unique one. There are countless plants and fungi that are deadly poisonous if touched or ingested. Despite being completely natural, these things are not "good" or safe for humans.

However, examples like these are seen as the exception to the rule that natural plants and minerals are somehow more safe than man-made synthetic things. It's this line of thinking that empowers individuals to become their own doctors, spurring things like the "anti vax" movement, a movement centered on the idea that vaccines are "bad" and that giving them to your children may cause autism (despite extensive proof that this is not the case).

I have strong feelings about this because I started my journey into Zu Foos subscribing to many of these ideas. Before I started ZF I learned about essential oils by becoming a Young Living wholesale member/independent distributor. I learned that Young Living's oils were "good" because they were not only natural, but so pure that they were safe to ingest. This appealed to me since I couldn't understand why essential oils would ever be marked "external use only" if they were made from plants. Clearly, if a company said you shouldn't ingest lavender oil, it must mean it's been diluted with something bad.

Members of Young Living taught me to cure every known ailment with essential oils. Lavender cures insomnia, orange cures depression, the Thieves blend cures the flu; I even learned that if you combine copaiba, frankincense, and fir needle oil, you'll have created something known as a "morphine bomb" that will cure just about any pain there is (when taken internally). I started cooking with essential oils, using them in my skin care, cleaning with them, even adding them to my morning oatmeal. I never thought twice about any of it because they're natural, you see. They come from plants so obviously they're safe.

I went so far as to knowingly avoid getting a flu shot because I was convinced Thieves oil would keep me healthy through the winter months.

It was from this place that I started making natural products to sell for Zu Foos and, I'm honestly ashamed to admit this, but I never thought anything was a problem until the products I made proved to be sub-par (to say the least). I readily believed that doctors wanted to keep me sick and that anti-depressants were a scam because believing that made me feel powerful.

I had stumbled upon The Truth and found the secret that they don't want you to know: that all the answers to our problems are in nature and we can even cure cancer with enough tea.

It's important to note that it wasn't lost on me that this thinking was flawed. If we could cure cancer with tea, why weren't we doing that? If doctors wanted to keep us from discovering The Truth about herbs and essential oils, why don't they just start selling them and make profits that way?

Despite not being fully on board, I still believed that there must be some truth to the idea that natural was better, even if it had a lot of holes. I went out of my way to use as much natural and/or homemade stuff as I could. I bought everyday items from the natural section of the grocery store, and made what I couldn't find there.

Making my own products to replace commonly bought (and SYNTHETIC) items made me feel morally superior to everyone else. I did the same stupid thing that all the mommy blogs do; I whipped up a batch of natural toothpaste, brushed once with it, and promptly published a blog post talking about how amazing it is and how everyone should do it.

I knew something was amiss when these handmade products failed me. My natural dishwasher detergent didn't clean my dishes (in fact it seemed to make them worse). My essential-oil-based toothpaste rewarded me with the worst state of dental health I'd ever had. Natural deodorant just didn't work or stained my clothes (most of it was coconut oil based). Time and time again I found myself returning to evil synthetic products because the natural ones didn't work or degraded the situation.

During all this trial and error I realized that Young Living is a scam and I promptly left the company. I enrolled in an aromatherapy education course to learn Actual Real Science™ about essential oils. I'm so glad I took that course, and so thankful for what I learned, but, ironically, the education I received in that course led me farther away from essential oils all together.

A major part of that course was learning the chemistry of essential oils. We memorized scientific-sounding words and read studies about the effects of certain chemical constituents found in essential oils. This is where a lot of problems set in for me.

We learned that an essential constituent found in lavender oil is linalool. We read studies about linalool and its effects on mice (sometimes on people, too). Because of these studies, we know that linalool is likely to have x effect, and to achieve that effect, we will want to use an essential with lots of it, like lavender. Simple enough, right?

Well, no, actually. I have a lot of questions. In some studies, mice were fed linalool. Are we absorbing enough of the chemical by putting oil on our skin? Or by just smelling it? Is that enough of any chemical to have a physiological effect?

And, these studies used a lot of a given chemical to observe a change. Can we expect that same change when we are using much less of the chemical? Sure, essential oils are concentrated, but it's still a numbers game, right? We can see that a percentage of a given oil is composed of the chemical we want to use, and we know how little oil we are using (often just a few drops), so isn't it obvious that we're using a minuscule amount of the chemical?

AND another issue comes when we consider natural variation in plants, and, therefore, in essential oils. What if this particular lavender is heavy in camphor and not linalool? Can it still be used for linalool applications? Since most essential oil companies don't offer batch-specific GC/MS testing to determine the chemical makeup of a given batch of oil how are we supposed to assume what any given oil actually contains?

There are too many variables for me here. Now, don't get me wrong: I love essential oils and I've used them to actually cure physical issues I've had. My point, though, is that I don't have any way to prove the connection between the cure and the essential oils. I don't know what part cured what or why, and that's a serious problem. Once we loop back around to here is there any difference between the "science" of aromatherapy and mommy bloggers? I'm just reading what should happen and then blogging about it. [By the way, I'm talking in this post about at-home aromatherapy practiced by thousands of people across the world, not commercial aromatherapy that is typically a much larger operation and focuses on actually doing scientific research on actual essential oils, not their chemical parts. That being said, it's important to note that many, many scientific studies find that essential oils are beneficial to general wellness, and not to actually curing a given ailment.]

This post doesn't even broach the subject of essential oil safety, which is an enormous topic. Suffice to say that it's hard to find definitive proof that essential oils hold curative properties, and many essential oils can be very dangerous to humans and animals.

Knowing all of this, I set out to create aromatherapy products that just simply smelled good. That's it. I didn't want to worry about any other aspect of essential oils aside from their scent. Even there, though, I failed.

I created a line of candles scented only with essential oils. After years of experimenting I was perplexed and angry that my candles didn't smell as clear or strong as commercially made candles. I did loads of research and finally found one (ONE) source that reflected my experience with essential oil scented candles: don't do it. You can find tons of recipes online for essential oil candles. The ones that I've been selling in my shop are actually based of a recipe I got from my aromatherapy school; which frankly irritates me. I followed those instructions with those ingredients and I didn't end up with a good candle. The cold throw (scent of the unheated wax) was always amazing, but the hot throw (scent when the candle is actually burning) was always, always underwhelming or just plain bad.

Essential oils, you see, are extremely volatile, meaning they evaporate quickly. In a candle, that means that they can essentially burn away in the heat, leaving no scent, or a burnt scent. Fragrance oils, which very often contain essential oils, include other additives (solvents and oils that dilute the essential oil) that help the essential oils fare better in the hot wax. And, since companies are allowed to classify their fragrance oils as "trade secrets," no one is motivated to actually tell you what is in there. Your grapefruit candle probably includes grapefruit essential oil, but it probably also includes other ingredients and aroma compounds to improve the scent and the hot throw.

Allllllll of this is to say that it's become clear to me that essential oils do not a good candle make. And people dealing in essential-oil-only candles are either accepting of a sub-par aromatherapy product, or are lying about the candle's ingredients. I know these are ugly accusations, but I truly can't find another answer.

And, because of all this, I will not be making essential-oil-only candles any longer. They just simply aren't good, guys. The cold throw on all of them was amazing, and those aromas will find their way into other applications where essential oils really shine (like soap or perfume!). For candles, though, I've been experimenting with fragrance oils. And, I have to say, it's nice to make something that actually works the way you expect a scented candle to work.

While it's great to have candles that actually smell good and have a brilliant hot throw, I am disappointed that there is much less creativity to be had with fragrance oils. Because of this, I won't be featuring candles in the same way I have in the past. Instead of the central item in my business, candles will be more a fun side project. I've already begun testing scents that fit in with the feel of Zu Foos and that will be a compliment to the ethical witchy folk's home.

[It's worth noting that the supplier I've chosen to use for fragrance oil (CandleScience) provides oils that conform to the standards set by the RIFM (Research Institute for Fragrance Materials) and the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) and they include certificates and safety data sheets for each oil on their website, which is super handy. Most of their oils are phthalate-free and they are constantly working to update old formulas that aren't. I have only been testing phthalate-free fragrances. Not all fragrance oils are created equal. In the same way that natural does not equal good, synthetic also does not equal good. Products, whether natural or synthetic or both, need to be ethical and the only way to know they are ethical is to research the manufacturer and ask questions. I feel confident that this supplier is ethical.]

For some, this might seem like a departure from what Zu Foos has been all about lo these many years. I'd argue that Zu Foos is about finding Truth and Authenticity and that, having discovered these truths, I have to change how I work when I learned that what I'm making could be better, and when I learned that synthetic doesn't have to mean bad (and often doesn't!).

My candles will still be soy. The wicks will still be metal-free. The jars will still be glass. The only difference is that instead of an expensive candle that smells like burning, you'll have a much more reasonably priced candle that smells like, say, tomato leaf (one of my all-time favorite candle scents).

Thank you so much for sticking around with me on this (probably too-long) journey. There is so much more to talk about here, and I'm sure many more posts in this vein are on the way. If you don't agree with my conclusions, or don't care, that's totally fine. I would, though, suggest that you take this Zu Foos approach into your life, as well. Ask questions. Do research. Find out why you think the stuff you think. You might find some Truth out there.
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