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How to Read Natural and Organic Product Labels

Get out your loupe, because it's time to read some labels. This is by far the hardest thing to do when it comes to choosing personal care products, but it's also the most instructive, and the most important. Because of lax cosmetics laws, it can be very hard to know if a product you're using is as clean and safe as you want it to be. There are laws about ingredient disclosure, however, which means that the list of things listed in your product have to be true. To help you on your way, here are some tips:

1. Get in the habit of reading labels and deciphering ingredients. This isn't easy at first, because ingredients are listed according to their chemical name and many of us might not know off the top of our heads what DMDM hydantoin is. But it's a worthwhile undertaking, and there are some great resources to help you get started. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database allows you to search for a product, ingredient, or company. The section of the website dedicated to Whole Foods' Premium Body Care standard has lots of useful information and videos, and the Teen’s Turning Green’s Dirty Thirty is a great cheat sheet for ingredients to avoid and why.

2. Know that “natural” is ambiguous. "Natural" has no official definition when it comes to personal care products. In the absence of federal regulations for the term, it is necessary to read labels to decide if the product is truly natural or not. Note that “natural” is just one factor that constitutes a so-called “green” product. Sometimes products labeled as “natural” do not take efficacy or environmental impact into consideration in their manufacturing.

3. Learn the difference between "natural" and "organic." Natural and organic are not the same thing. While “natural” probably means that a product or ingredient is derived from a natural source, the term “organic” applies to plants grown and managed using earth-friendly agricultural methods without the use of toxic or persistent pesticides. It's worth noting that you may also see body-care manufacturers making claims for individual organic ingredients in the ingredient listing of their products, even though the product as a whole does not meet the USDA organic standard for food.

4. Look for third-party certifications and symbols. The USDA organic seal on a beauty product means the same thing as when you see the seal on foods, because there are currently no federal organics standards for personal products in the United States. To carry this seal requires 95 percent organic ingredients and places strict restrictions on the substances that can be used in the remaining 5 percent. Meanwhile, products with Whole Foods’s Premium Body Care Symbol meet the strictest standards for quality sourcing, environmental impact, results, and safety. And products with the NSF International/ANSI 305 certification must contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients while meeting strict requirements regarding organic ingredients, materials, processes, and production specifications.

5. Try to avoid the following ingredients, none of which are allowed in products that meet the above standards: Synthetic fragrance, which can be highly irritating and are also a potential source of questionable sub-ingredients such as phthalates; formaldehyde-donor preservatives—such as diazolidinyl urea, DMD hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate—which under certain circumstances of formulation and storage, these ingredients have the potential to release formaldehyde in very small amounts; and chemical sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate, have safety concerns since many have been shown to have endocrine-disruption activity.

Jody Villecco is responsible for researching, coordinating, and maintaining the Quality Standards at Whole Foods Market.

This is the eleventh installment in a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Tuesday and Thursday.

Read more on their blog.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Alternativemeans

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