Marketing claims about the source, safety and effectiveness of personal care products and their ingredients often do not match the labels they are printed on.

Lax federal regulations mean that claims such as “natural”, “non-toxic”, “herbal” and “free” have no legal basis in the personal care industry. With so many different claims on packaging, consumers are often confused, if not misled, about what is actually in their products.

Here’s what you need to know about the most common complaints.

Natural

Despite the widespread use of the term “natural” on personal care products, the Food and Drug Administration has never legally defined the term and has no regulations on its use. What you expect from a natural product may not always match what manufacturers use the term.

Due to increasing consumer demand, the market for natural personal care products is growing rapidly. According to the 2017 Green Beauty Barometer According to the survey results, 74% of women with children at home and 60% of women without children at home say it is important for them to buy green or natural beauty products.

A common assumption is that natural products or ingredients are safer than synthetic products. It’s not always the case.

Sometimes natural ingredients are safer and better than synthetic alternatives. But there are many naturally occurring substances that are not safe, and some of them are used as ingredients in personal care products. Most consumers would be hesitant if they considered poison ivy as one of the ingredients in a skin care product, but there is no denying that poison ivy is natural. Other natural ingredients, such as clays, can be contaminated with toxic heavy metals, and some essential oils are strong sensitizing allergens.

In other cases, products that claim to be natural may not fit that brand – regardless of the definition. A 2008 study by the Organic Consumers Association found an undisclosed carcinogenic petrochemical ingredient in more than 40 percent of the products tested that claimed to be natural. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission filed complaints versus four companies that marketed their personal care products as “all natural” or “100% natural” when the products contained a number of synthetic ingredients.

Biological

The organic rules for personal care products are not as simple as those for food. The FDA regulates personal care products, but the agency does not regulate the term “organic” for personal care products. Organic claims on cosmetics are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, and the term only applies to agricultural ingredients used in personal care products.

Personal care products that are at least 95 percent organic will carry an official USDA organic seal. The agency allows two categories of certification to display the USDA Organic seal:

  • “100% organic”, which indicates that a product contains only ingredients from organic farming.

  • “Organic”, which means that at least 95% of a product’s ingredients are produced organically and the remaining 5% of the ingredients are on an approved list of substances.

In addition to ingredient specifications, products bearing the USDA Organic seal must meet handling and manufacturing specifications, and the use of genetically modified organism forbidden.

Another organic certification found on personal care products is the “NSF Contains Organic Ingredients” seal. This certification is issued by third party certifiers such as Oregon Tilth and QAI, an organic certification company that is part of NSF International. Products may bear the seal if they meet the NSF / ANSI 305 standard: They must contain at least 70 percent organic content, no genetically derived ingredients or petrochemicals, and they must meet ingredient labeling and manufacturing requirements.

Products that claim to be organic but do not bear an official seal may not meet USDA organic standards. If organic is important to you, don’t be fooled by claims – always look for a USDA Organic seal.

Synthetic free

In the world of cosmetics, synthetic products have a bad reputation and many companies now claim that their products are free from these chemicals. But not all ingredients or synthetic products are harmful.

In some cases, the damning characterization may be warranted. A number of synthetic chemicals have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental disabilities, and other harmful health effects. But there are many synthetic chemicals that have not been linked to health damage and that play an important role in personal care products.

Non-toxic, hypoallergenic, gentle

Scientifically speaking, nothing is non-toxic. Even water, in large doses, can be harmful. However, many companies use this claim to suggest that a product is safe. The term is often used with claims that a product is non-irritant, hypoallergenic, mild, or all-natural.

“There are no federal standards or definitions governing the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic’,” according to the FDA. “The term means anything that a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit the rationale for their claims to the FDA. “

How to choose healthier options?

Ultimately, it is up to the buyers to assess the merits of the marketing claims. The best way to find out what’s in your products is to read the ingredient list. For most people, this can be a daunting task given the complex chemical names found in many ingredient panels.

But help is available: EWG’s Skin Deep® database identifies less hazardous products. Skin Deep® evaluates more than 70,000 products based on the hazards associated with their ingredients.

You can also look for the EWG VERIFIED ™ Seal, which identifies products that do not contain any ingredients on our unacceptable or restricted lists, fully discloses all ingredients, and follows good manufacturing practices. The brand helps consumers easily find products that meet EWG’s strictest health standards at the point of sale. Click here to see all products that meet the EWG VERIFIED ™ standard.

The only long-term solution to properly verifying labeling claims is for the FDA to establish labeling definitions and standards for personal care products. Until then, think twice about the words you read in the personal care aisle.


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