Organic, All-Natural, Non-Toxic, Chem-Free—What’s the Difference?

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The green beauty industry has become one of the fastest growing cosmetic segments around. More and more people are looking to switch from conventional products to those that are safer for humans and the environment. However, as the industry booms, so has the number of companies making claims that their products are safe, non-toxic, and all-natural. But, what do these terms actually mean and can you really trust them?

Lack of Regulation in Beauty: Don’t Trust the Buzzwords

Many people are surprised to learn that while claims like organic, natural, non-toxic, GMO-free, and others are regulated for agricultural and food products, these terms are not regulated in the cosmetics industry (source). Neither the FDA nor the USDA regulates the use of the term “organic” as it applies to cosmetics. However, because organic beauty products may contain agricultural ingredients, it is possible for them to be certified organic by the USDA’s standards.

According to the USDA, the organization “has no authority over the production and labeling of cosmetics, body care products, and personal care products that are not made up of agricultural ingredients, or do not make any claims to meeting USDA organic standards.

There are also other third-party certifying organizations from other countries (such as Ecocert, Australian Certified Organic, and the Organic Soil Association) which have different standards than the USDA but can still market their products as “organic” in the United States.

That means, if you don’t see a USDA Certified Organic seal or another third-party organic seal on a beauty product, there is no way to know if the product actually contains organic ingredients. In that case, you’ll have to do your own research on the brand, their ingredients, and their products.

What Does the Term “Organic” Really Mean?

The term organic means something that has been produced without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage, ionizing radiation, antibiotics, and growth hormones (source).

 

If you want to make sure that a product is truly “organic,” then you should look for a seal from a third-party organic certifying organization. In the United States, the highest standard we have is the USDA Certified Organic program. If you don’t see the USDA seal, then there is no guarantee that the product meets organic quality standards. However, even if a product is USDA Certified Organic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is made from 100% organic ingredients. In fact, a product can contain as little as 70% organic ingredients and still receive the USDA seal.

 

Sound confusing? It doesn’t have to be! There are a few ways to evaluate a product to ensure that you’re buying something high quality. When shopping for organic beauty products, here are a few things to keep in mind:

 

· Read the ingredients label. How many ingredients are listed as “certified organic”? Which organization certified those ingredients?

· Research all non-organic ingredients online. Are they generally safe?

· Look for a seal from a third-party certifying organization such as the USDA, Ecocert, Australian Certified Organic, or the Organic Soil Association. If you can’t find a seal, then the product may not actually contain organic ingredients.

· Even certified products can contain both organic ingredients and non-organic ingredients. Quality matters.

· Just because a product is organic doesn’t mean that is safe or effective. For example, a poisonous or allergenic plant can be organic and unsafe.

All-Natural

The terms “natural” and “all-natural” are heavily used in the beauty industry. However, there are no official regulatory standards which define this term. Even the FDA has no formal definition of the term natural (source). That means that any cosmetic product can claim to be “natural” while still containing a ton of synthetic ingredients. So, how do you determine if a beauty product is actually all-natural? You’ll have to take matters into your own hands and study the label and ingredients carefully.

Even though the FDA has no official definition for the term, they have stated that they believe the term to mean the following:

Nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation.

Using that definition, the terms “all-natural” and “natural” essentially mean the same thing. The product should not contain any synthetic ingredients or additives. Here are some tips on how to identify a product that is truly natural and all-natural:

· Do you recognize the names of the ingredients? Natural ingredients tend to be easy to read and recognize.

· Ingredients on labels are listed from the highest percentage to the lowest percentage. So, make sure that the ingredients at the top of the list are natural.

· If a product does contain unnatural ingredients at all, then make sure that those ingredients are at the bottom of the list.

· Some synthetic ingredients are perfectly safe and even preferred over natural versions. For example, natural vitamin C facial serums often contain synthetic versions of ascorbic acid because they are more stable and less irritating than natural vitamin C.

· While you should be able to recognize the names of truly natural ingredients, not all ingredients with scientific names are unnatural. If you don’t recognize an ingredient name, simply do a quick internet search on it to see if its natural.

· Check to see if the product certified natural by a third-party organization.

 

Non-Toxic

The term non-toxic means “a substance that is not expected to cause symptoms or be dangerous” to humans or the environment (source). Luckily, there are some legal rules which regulate the use of the term non-toxic (source). When a cosmetic company claims to be non-toxic, they are referring to the absence of ingredients which have been linked to toxic responses in humans such as death, organ failure, reproductive and hormonal disruption, and cancer. Thus, ingredients like phthalates, formaldehyde, petroleum & petrochemicals, parabens, asbestos, and ethoxylated ingredients should not be found in a beauty product which claims to be non-toxic.

Chem-Free

The term “chemical-free” or “chem-free” is by far the worst marketing term you’ll come across. Not only is the term completely unregulated, but it is also misleading and deceptive. Why? Because all ingredients in a product are technically chemicals! Even water is a chemical. Therefore, you should avoid all beauty products that are marketing themselves as chemical-free. If they are willing to make such a ridiculous claim about their product, what else are they misleading you on?

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