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Non toxic and natural and clean – oh my! What do these words even mean?
There are a lot of confusing terms and buzzwords on the market, and consumers need to be aware of what they mean. So I picked some of the top ones I see related to cosmetics, body care, or personal products so you can stay informed.
Before we get started, you need to know that cosmetics, body care, and personal products are regulated by the FDA, but they are not approved (other than color additives). This means that the law only states that these products “must be safe for consumers when they are used according to labeled directions, or as people customarily use them.” So it’s up to the companies to ensure their products are safe and properly labeled.
Non toxic, Clean, and Safe
Well, they don’t really mean anything, at least not legally, because there’s no regulation on these terms. And because there’s so much disagreement on what ingredients are harmful, what one company says is non toxic may be considered toxic by another company.
Some people believe that these ingredients are safe at the low concentrations used in cosmetics and personal care products, while others believe that any amount of an ingredient shown to have adverse effects is unacceptable.
Another thing to remember here: Not all natural ingredients are safe, just like not all synthetic ingredients are bad. Shoot, even drinking too much water can be toxic.
When it comes to product labeling, the FDA states that “cosmetic labeling must be truthful and not misleading.” There are some labeling requirements, such as listing the ingredients, the net weight of the product, the business name and address, and an “identity statement” indicating the nature and use of the product.
This term is used to describe products that are developed with minimal environmental impact; however, it’s often used broadly to describe whether ingredients are safe and natural.
When companies make false or misleading claims about their products being safe, natural, and/or environmentally friendly. The term originally referred to a company’s misleading claims on its environmental impact, however it’s now often used to describe claims regarding natural and non toxic ingredients.
A product that comes from a natural source and has been obtained by “physical means, such as distillation, maceration, solvent extraction and squeezing.”
Ingredients that come from a natural source but have been chemically processed.
Guess what? The FDA doesn’t regulate this term as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products. It’s only regulated by the USDA as it relates to agricultural products certified through its National Organic Program.
However, if a cosmetic, body care product, or personal care product contains or is made up of agricultural ingredients, and can meet the USDA/NOP standards, it may be eligible to be certified.
There are four organic labeling categories: 100 percent organic; organic; made with organic ingredients; and less than 70 percent organic ingredients. (Read this fact sheet to learn more about the labeling of organic cosmetics, body care, or personal care products.)
Also, something to note: USDA Organic does not mean pesticide free. A pesticide is a substance used to prevent or destroy pests or weeds, and USDA Organic standards do allow the use of some substances.
Chemists believe that anything that has matter is a chemical. For example, salt is a chemical compound consisting of sodium and chlorine. In the clean beauty space, people often misrepresent chemicals as being “bad” or only made in laboratories. This goes back to the idea that not all natural ingredients are safe, just like not all synthetic ingredients are bad.
Products are made without animal testing.
Products do not contain animal products or byproducts. Products that contain things like honey, beeswax and lanolin are not vegan. Vegan does not mean cruelty-free; in other words, products might not contain animal products, but they might still be tested on animals.
Products that do not contain gluten.
U.S. regulations allow a company to list fragrance ingredients simply as “fragrance,” because these formulas can be considered to be trade secrets. These mixtures can include many natural and synthetic ingredients, some of which are known to cause health effects like cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.
Certification Programs and safe ingredient databases
Certification programs and safe ingredient databases are useful when you don’t have the time or energy to review every ingredient for safety. They are starting points for me, but I also spend some time reviewing brands and products on my own. Wanna know why?
Because while these databases include many brands and products, they don’t include them all. Just because a product isn’t listed in the database doesn’t mean it’s not safe to use. Some of my favorite products are not listed in either database (although some are).
Also, brands have to apply and pay money to be reviewed and certified. Being certified by these organizations does not necessarily mean that these products are safer than ones that are not certified. (I think it’s a marketing tactic more than anything, TBH.)
And I try to avoid products that use phenoxyethanol as a preservative, but the Environmental Working Group certifies products that use it. So I always have to read the ingredients to see if a product includes it.
(I should also say, because I like to offer both sides to the story, that these databases and the activist groups that run them, like the Environmental Working Group, are controversial and often criticized by the scientific community. You can read more about that here and here.)
This is a program run by Cruelty Free International that certifies that a brand and its ingredient suppliers do not perform animal testing on cosmetics, personal care products, and household products.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit that produces guides to help consumers make healthy choices on things like food, cosmetics, and water. It also has a database that allows consumers to see what personal care products are safe for use. (It does more than that, but we’re sticking to this description for the sake of this blog post.)
However, these databases (and the activist groups that run them) are controversial and often criticized by the scientific community. The American Cancer Society states that there is a lot of uncertainty in the long-term use of various ingredients in cosmetics because many have not been thoroughly tested, or they’ve been found toxic at levels much higher than what’s found in cosmetics. Plus, the way ingredients are used in cosmetics might be different than how they were used in the tests.
This is a program run by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that certifies that a product does not include any ingredients on the EWG’s “Unacceptable List,” provides full transparency, including ingredients, and uses good manufacturing practices.
This is a program run by Nontoxic Certified that certifies that a product does not include any ingredients from its “Ingredient Database” of known harmful chemicals. It also examines ingredients for “bioaccumulation, persistence, and general and aquatic toxicity.”
This is an app that allows consumers to see what personal care products are non toxic and safe for use. It also has a verification program that means the organization has carefully reviewed a company’s ingredients against the Think Dirty database and has determined the products to be safe.
This is a program run by Ecocert Greenlife that certifies cosmetics and has two standards: natural and organic cosmetic; and natural cosmetic.
The natural and organic cosmetic certification requires that at least 95 percent of the total of the ingredients are ingredients from natural origin and organic, and at least 10 percent of the ingredients in the finished product (after processing) are certified organic.
The natural cosmetic certification requires that at least 95 percent of the total of the ingredients are ingredients from natural origin, at least 50 percent are organic, and at least 5 percent of the ingredients in the finished product (after processing) are certified organic.
For both Ecocert certifications, there are other requirements regarding manufacturing, packaging, etc.
This is a program run by an international association consisting of organizations from Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom that certifies cosmetics. Similar to Ecocert, it has two standards for products: COSMOS Organic; and COSMOS Natural. It also has two certifications for ingredient certification and raw material approval.
The COSMOS Organic certification requires that at least 95% of the physically processed agro-ingredients must be organic, and at least 20% of the total finished product must be organic.
The COSMOS Natural certification does not have a minimum organic requirement but products must meet other requirements in the standard.
For both COSMOS certifications, there are other requirements regarding manufacturing, packaging, etc.