The word “natural” has no meaning on a label.
What does natural mean to you? To me, it means something you could find in nature or close to its state in nature. To me, it doesn’t include artificial colors, harmful preservatives, lab-made chemicals, artificial fragrance, ingredients that aren’t proven safe for human health, or genetically modified ingredients. But all those things may be in products with “natural” in big letters on the label. Keep reading to know what to look out for.
In terms of food, a product cannot be labelled natural if it contains added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances (see the FDA website). That means that that “natural” food you are buying can still contain genetically modified ingredients. Doesn’t quite sound natural to me. Natural flavors, too, are far from natural. Although there is a difference between natural and artificial flavors, natural flavors are still made in a lab, isolated and extracted and completely different from how they are in nature.
Something you also don’t see on the natural definition by the FDA is a consideration for pesticides. So you can be eating something ridden with pesticides that calls itself green and natural.
Even more problematic than the “natural” label on foods is on cosmetics. Cosmetics are one of the least regulated products on the shelves. In fact, the FDA has no authority to require pre-market safety testing for cosmetics. And there is no legal definition for the words “natural,” “green,” and “safe” on your cosmetics. Your shampoo could put rat poison as an ingredient and still slap natural on the label and get it on the market without any safety testing.
Reporting of ingredients in cosmetics is on a voluntary basis. The FDA can’t even require product recall without going to court. Honestly, how much do we really know what’s in our cosmetics? There are no safety standards or labeling requirements.
If the word organic appears on your cosmetic label without the USDA label, it means nothing. It has as little regulation as the label natural on cosmetics. Even USDA organic certification for cosmetics is lax. A cosmetic label can be USDA certified as “organic” while containing only 95% organic ingredients. The label “made with organic ingredients” only requires 70% of the ingredients to be certified organics.
If you aren’t worried enough about cosmetics, the word “natural” has no meaning on your cleaning products either. Most companies use the word “natural” when some of the ingredients come from plants. Doesn’t sound reliable to me. That’s just something the industry does, it isn’t even a legal standard. The word “organic” also has also means nothing in absence of a USDA certified organic label. And if your cleaning product calls itself “non-toxic” it means nothing. There is no standard for that either. It’s hard to know what you can trust when these words have no standard meaning.
So what can you do about it?
If after reading this you are left with a scary impression about how to deal with your labels, don’t worry. Although natural, and even organic, may mean nothing on a label, you can still find good actually natural products.
In general, it is safest to buy organic products. For food this means anything that is labelled as organic is safe, because that is actually regulated. If you shop at whole foods they also label non-GMO products. Educate yourself about ingredients. A short ingredient list with words you can pronounce is the best way to go. An app called fooducate can help you find out what foods to avoid (think of it in terms of finding high quality foods, not losing weight).
For cosmetics, you need to look for the USDA seal that says 100% organic. That way you know there are all high quality ingredients. If you have a smart phone you can download apps, like Think Dirty, where you can scan a barcode and it will give you a rating for how harmful the product is. The Environmental Working Group has a database of cosmetics that you can look up. Read the label of every cosmetic you buy. Even something labeled “fragrance free” on the front can have fragrance in it. Learn what ingredients to avoid. (follow this link to download a free printable with the 13 worst ingredients to avoid).
The same goes for cleaning products. The Environmental Working Group has a database of cleaning products as well. The Think Dirty app also has information on cleaning products. Read the ingredients of every cleaner you buy and bring your free printable on ingredients to avoid with you.
So, the bottom line is, you can trust an ingredient list and your own judgement much more than the words on a label.
If you want to go even a step farther, you can make your own products. Making your own cleaning products is way easier than you think (and cheaper!). You can read my guide on how to switch to green cleaning. Baking soda and vinegar can clean pretty much anything. Making your own beauty products is slightly more complicated, but still much easier than you would think. With some basic oils you can replace pretty much anything in your medicine cabinet.
Take action, and don’t fall for marketing tricks. You are your own best advocate. Make choices with your money and support products and brands that use good ingredients. You can make a bigger difference than you realize.
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning
- Living Well Spending Less’s 10 Essential Green and Thrifty Cleaning Products
- Eat Well Guide
- Center for Food Safety
- Top Green Cleaning Products
- Good Guide Database of Personal Care Products
- Think Dirty App
- Fooducate App
- 13 Worst Ingredients to Avoid Free Printable