Natural vs. Organic Products: Know the Differences


By Bridget M Burns in Natural Products


When shopping in the personal care aisle, you may notice a wide variety of packaging claims. There's natural vs. organic, as well as claims such as "nontoxic," "all-natural," and "no artificial ingredients." But what do these claims actually mean? More importantly, how can you be sure that the products you buy are formulated as advertised?


The truth is, some companies are cashing in on the popularity of natural products. You may see products labeled as "natural" even though they contain ingredients you personally consider questionable. Luckily, there are just as many companies committed to making products with naturally derived or organic ingredients that your family can trust. With just a little research, you can learn to recognize the differences.


Sign advertising natural and organic products


What Does "Natural" Mean?


According to the Environmental Working Group, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never legally defined the term "natural" as it applies to personal care products. There is also no regulation around the terms "nontoxic," "plant-based," and "free of."

These lacking regulations have opened the door for companies to label their products "all-natural" or "100 percent natural" even if they contain synthetic ingredients. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has charged several companies with misuse of these labels. Unfortunately, these charges came after products were already on sale.


When it comes to food, there are loose guidelines for labeling something as "natural." The FDA has begun evaluating what "natural" means for food products in direct response to consumers and considers the term to exclude all artificial and synthetic ingredients. Because this is still a vague interpretation of the word, the agency asked for public comments on how the term should be regulated on food labels.


Now, can you imagine if the same thing happened for personal care products? By making your voice heard and choosing brands that you trust, you can potentially help inform the future of product label regulation.


What Does "Organic" Mean?


When it comes to product labeling, the biggest difference between natural and organic is that the term "organic" is regulated. While this personal care product claim isn't monitored by the FDA, use of the term "organic" is subject to regulations from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means any personal care products that contain agricultural ingredients claiming to be organic must meet USDA standards.


It's important to note that a product being labeled as natural does not preclude it from being organic, and vice versa. Overlap may exist between the two labels, especially due to the specifications that the USDA outlines for different types of organic labeling. For example, a product might be labeled as natural, but only a portion of the ingredients might be labeled as organic.


To better understand that, you should know the four possible organic labeling categories through the USDA:


  • "100 percent organic." A product with this label must contain only organically produced ingredients, with the exception of water and salt.
  • "Organic." At least 95 percent of the product's ingredients must be organically produced to earn this label, excluding water and salt.
  • "Made with organic ingredients." This label applies to products containing between 70 to 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
  • "Organic [ingredient]." Products made with less than 70 percent organically produced ingredients may only identify the specific ingredients that are USDA-certified as being organically produced.


Sign for 100% organic produce on farm


How Do Companies Define "Natural"?


With no formal regulation around the term "natural," companies must determine their own definition when applying it to products. For companies that produce both natural and conventional products, it's especially important to define those differentiating factors. As a consumer, look for transparency around a company's reasons for using "natural" on their product label to help guide your purchasing decisions.


For Tom's of Maine, this means publishing the company's Stewardship Model online, including definitions for "natural," "sustainable," and "responsible" in terms of the products they manufacture. Tom's of Maine also includes some of their guidelines for what makes a product natural directly on their product packaging for added transparency.


It's also important to remember: just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe. For example, would you want to use a skin lotion that contained ragweed? Be sure to read the ingredient list for any product you are considering adding to your personal care routine. This includes smaller companies, too, such as those selling products at your local farmers' market. While the FDA does advise these small businesses to make sure their labels are truthful and free of claims that would mislead customers, that is the extent of their oversight.


How to Shop for Personal Care Products


So, what is a concerned consumer to do? Your best bet in assessing how your personal care products measure up is to learn how to read ingredient lists, regardless of any front-of-pack claims. If you notice an ingredient that you do not personally consider natural on a product that is labeled as natural, feel empowered to reach out to the manufacturer and let them know. Changes in product formulation can take time. But, if enough consumers exercise their voice and buying power, companies do listen.


The hope is that companies will be transparent in explaining what makes their products deserving of a "natural" or "organic" label. In time, as the popularity of natural products continues to grow, the FDA may even implement more stringent regulation around these terms. For now, your own education is your first line of defense in making sure the products you purchase meet your own personal standards for what is right for you and your family.


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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.




Why It's Good

An important step in understanding personal care product labels is learning the difference between "natural" and "organic" and the regulation behind each term. You should also feel comfortable reading ingredient labels to determine if they meet your own definition of natural. A small amount of research before you go shopping can help you feel confident choosing the best products for your family's needs.