Don’t Get Stung by the Buzzwords! | By Melinda Olson, RN/BS
Hooray, you’re pregnant! But now you find out all that stuff you’re using on your body is going IN your baby too. Quick, to the local healthy goodies market! Now it’s time to become a label detective. You want to get something that doesn’t have toxic ingredients, something safe for your baby and your pregnant body. So many products, so many labels, so many buzzwords! The label says it’s “organic” so it must be good, right? If you think reading the words “natural,” “pure,” or “organic” on your shampoo, lotion, stretch mark cream, toothpaste, or nipple cream guarantees your personal care product is safe, think again. Most people think the FDA is keeping an eye on labels, but surprisingly it has a very limited role in policing the safety and organic claims of personal care products. As a result, even some so-called “organic” and “natural” personal care products can contain everything from petroleum byproducts to endocrine disruptors, and potentially cancer-causing synthetic ingredients that are toxic to organs, nerves and immune systems. It’s natural, so it must be good! There is currently no real or certifiable definition of “natural,” and no way to tell if a product is truly natural. Some certifiers have taken on the task of defining natural really is, but there’s currently no way to tell with certainty how they are defining it by looking at the label. Even though it can be true, be skeptical if the word “natural” accompanies a lot of unnatural sounding ingredients, and go look them up! If the label says organic, can’t I trust that it’s safe? You would think, wouldn’t you, that the word “organic” on a label should mean it is safe. But this is one time when you really have to be a sleuth to make sure you’re getting what you think you’re getting.
A product can list organic lavender, organic calendula and organic shea butter and still not be certified organic. It all depends on: whether or not there’s a third party certifier verifying those organic claims, the amount of organic ingredients, how the product was made, and what else is in it. Says who? There are different organic standards for food and for personal care products (lotions, soaps and shampoos), but who is verifying label claims? Organic label claims are not credible unless they adhere to one of the organic standards and state the name of their certifier on their product. The certifier administers, inspects and assures that the organic claims on the label are compliant with the strict rigors required to legitimately make these claims. In short, if a product uses the word “organic” but there is no third party certification, you have no guarantee that their pretty claims aren’t just greenwashing buzzwords. It’s tough to be certified organic! A company has to submit to annual inspections, in-depth label claim assessment, and has to keep track of every ingredient from grower through manufacturing, until the product is sold. And the company itself gets to pay – a lot! – for this increased scrutiny. Some companies elect to go through this demanding process so that consumers can be assured that they are getting what they think they are getting, without the empty buzzwords. To add to the confusion, there are varying levels of organic. USDA standards have very clear labeling requirements which can help consumers look for label claims and words that indicate a product is truly, honestly organic. But it’s not easy! The words “100% Organic” on the label are the legal organic claim. If the product being certified is one ingredient (like lettuce), it’s easy to know if it’s certified 100% organic. If the product is a blend of several ingredients (like an herbal tea), each of the ingredients is required to be 100% organic. If even one of the ingredients is certified only 99.99% organic, the 100% claim cannot be made. Bottom line: Look for the USDA seal on the front of the package and the name of the independent third party certifier on the back.
Organic The word “organic” on a product label, along with a trustworthy certifier, means that the ingredients are 95-99.9% organic. Any nonorganic ingredient must be on the USDA approved list. That means no prohibited substances, artificial fragrances, dyes, or other potentially harmful ingredients. The only claim word that can be on the label is the word “organic.” Bottom line: Look for the USDA seal on the front of the package, and the name of the independent third party certifier on the back.