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Organic vs. Natural: The Real Meaning Behind Common Terms

Organic vs. Natural: The Real Meaning Behind Common Terms

by Caitlin Reid

Did you know American brands can use ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ on their packaging with no regulation? As more of us look to lead a life with fewer chemicals in it, the quest for clean beauty and personal care products is gaining popularity. Without regulation though, terms like ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ are leaving some confused or worse misleading them altogether. Here’s everything you need to know about common marketing terms used on personal and home care labels.

Clean

Clean products, like clean beauty or clean household products, generally mean (1) they’re made without any ingredients proven or suspected to harm human health (hormone disruptors and carcinogens being of prime concern to many consumers). Officially though, the term ‘clean’ on a product doesn’t mean it’s better for your health or completely natural (1,3). It can still contain synthetic ingredients that a brand deems are safe. The term isn’t regulated (2,3), and so brands can use it on their product labels and define what it means to them.

Non-Toxic

The word toxic conjures up skull and crossbone poison signs, so a claim that a product is non-toxic sounds appealing to most of us, and it’s often synonymous with the clean beauty movement) (1,3). Non-toxic products are essentially the same as ‘clean’ products, meaning they don’t contain known human-harming ingredients but could still have synthetics that a brand deems are safe. Unfortunately, this term also isn’t regulated in the U.S. so don’t rely on it to make your purchase decisions; it’s best to read the ingredients list and do your own research.

Organic

The term ‘organic’ when used in body care and personal care products needs to be officially certified by an official seal in the U.S. (4) If you see the term used without the seal, the product isn’t officially certified. Organic claims on cosmetics are regulated by The U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the term only applies to the agricultural ingredients used in personal care products. The FDA has no official definition of ‘organic’ in cosmetics, as it’s not defined by the FD&C Act or the Fair packaging and Labeling Act which regulate cosmetics (4). Officially:

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not define or regulate the term “organic,” as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products. USDA regulates the term “organic” as it applies to agricultural products through its National Organic Program (NOP) regulation, 7 CFR Part 205.”

This means if a product contains agricultural ingredients, and can meet the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing and labeling standards, it may be eligible to be certified under the NOP regulations. In other words: The term organic can’t be officially used on personal care products unless it contains a high level of certified agricultural-derived organic ingredients. 

Some products do contain high levels of organic ingredients (greater than 95%) though, in which case you will see the official USDA seal (6). This seal will say:

  • “100% organic” which means the product only contains certified organic ingredients. (6)
  • “Organic” which means >95% of the ingredients are organically products, and the remaining 5% are on an approved list of substances. (6)
Natural

If you’re looking to use fewer synthetic ingredients, natural is a term that you can look for. But it only means the product contains some ingredients derived from natural sources. There are currently no regulations for brands to use the term ‘natural’ in the U.S. either. In fact, in 2016, the FTC filed complaints against four companies for using synthetic ingredients in products they marketed as ‘all-natural’ or ‘100% natural.’ (7)

Confused? Don’t be. If a product says it contains ‘natural ingredients,’ know that one, or some, of the ingredients are naturally derived. This doesn’t mean they’re regulated or even make up most of the product. If a product says ‘100% natural,’ it’s likely it contains very high levels of natural ingredients, although even this wording isn’t specifically regulated in the personal care industry (6,7). 

When it comes to natural vs. organic skin care, there's an official seal for products containing very high levels of organic ingredients, but there is no such thing for ‘natural’ products. It’s always best to read the ingredients list of products to get a solid understanding of their true origin.

Eco-friendly

The term ‘eco-friendly’ implies a product is less harmful to the environment than other options, often by reducing carbon footprint during production and transport. This doesn’t mean it is non-toxic to human health or made from plant-derived ingredients; it may purely relate to the production process of the product.  

Eco-friendly products are important though, as personal care is one of the leading contributors to waste (8). Just think of all the shampoo, body wash and moisturiser bottles you use each year. While many are recyclable, we know the world is in the midst of a recycling crisis. Recycling alone isn’t the answer; consuming less plastic is the only option. 

Personal Care Labelling in a Nutshell

If talk of regulations and official seals has left you confused, here’s what you need to know when choosing products that are considered safe for you and your family:

  • ‘Green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ relate to a product’s impact on the environment, not on human health
  • ‘Clean’ and ‘non-toxic’ are synonymous, and simply mean a product’s ingredients are deemed safe for human health. But these terms aren’t regulated.
  • You will only see an official organic seal on products containing over 95% agriculturally certified organic products in the USA in personal care.

The key message is this: Regulation around these terms in the U.S. is poor, so it’s up to brands and consumers to take control of what we introduce onto our skin and into our homes. Familiarize yourself with safe ingredients. Real labels. Do your own research.

References:

  1. The Good Face Project: What Does “Clean Beauty” Mean in 2021?.
  2. VOX The “natural” beauty industry is on the rise because we’re scared of chemicals
  3. Washington Post - ‘Clean’ beauty has taken over the cosmetics industry, but that’s about all anyone agrees on 
  4. FDA - "Organic" Cosmetics
  5. USFDA - https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/cosmetics-body-care-and-personal-care-products?dDocName=STELPRDC5068442
  6. EWG - ‘Natural’ or ‘Organic’ Cosmetics? Don’t Trust Marketing Claims. 
  7. FTC: Are your “all natural” claims all accurate?
  8. National Geographic - The beauty industry generates a lot of plastic waste. Can it change? 
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