As the demand for natural products continues to grow many skin products now sport the word “natural” on the label. A Consumer Report survey found that 45% of people believed that the “natural” label is verified in foods. They also found that among those that buy natural, 87% would be willing to pay more if the “natural” label met their expectations. Among skin care consumers, the increasing mindfulness about personal health and the environment is also driving the demand for “natural” skin care products. Clearly, labeling products with a “natural” has a market advantage.
But what does the label actually say about the product? Does it mean that it is 100% natural? How is this “natural” label regulated?
What Are the Regulations? “Natural” vs “All Natural” or “100% Natural”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a strict definition for what the label “natural” means. The FDA is looking to set some ground rules on how the label should read, but as of September 2016 there are no clear guidelines from the FDA. In effect, there are really no direct rules on using the word “natural” on skin care products.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a regulatory agency that assures marketing of products is not deceptive to the consumer. If a company uses the label “natural” and its product contains some natural ingredients, it is hard to say that the label is false without a strict set of guidelines.
The exception is when companies use the label “All Natural” or “100% Natural” since this implies that every single ingredient is naturally derived and not synthetic. The FTC has started to regulate this by penalizing companies that state “All Natural” or “100% Natural” when they use some synthetic chemicals in their products. So, the “All Natural” and “100% Natural” tag appears to be meaningful.
Are There Any Guidelines?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that there are no guidelines that are enforced for the “Natural” label except if the “All Natural” or “100% Natural” tag is misused. However, there are guidelines that have been developed by the Natural Products Association (NPA), a nonprofit organization representing retailers and manufacturers of natural products, and they certify products that meet their criteria. Here are some of the criteria that the NPA uses and the full guidelines can be found here.
For a product to be labeled or branded as “Natural” it must contain at least 95% natural ingredients (except water). Synthetic ingredients need to be environmentally friendly and may not have health risks to humans based on peer-reviewed scientific publications.
No petrolatum is allowed in the ingredients and the NPA defines natural ingredients as those that are considered renewable products from nature.
No animal testing is allowed (except as required by law).
Heavy metals should be within the limits set by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
While neither the FDA nor the FTC enforce the guidelines, you can still make a more educated evaluation of product labels. As a rule of thumb, if a product label states “Natural” and does not carry a certification from the NPA, it does not say more than that there may be some natural ingredients in the product.
Does Natural Mean Safe?
No. Remember that poison oak is natural and causes a bad rash! Natural does not refer to how safe a product is or how well it will make your skin feel. Many natural products will contain essential oils that can be irritating to sensitive skin. The best approach is to try a product out in a small area and see if it causes irritation before using it regularly.
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Kim S, Seock Y-K. Impacts of health and environmental consciousness on young female consumers' attitude towards and purchase of natural beauty products. International Journal of Consumer Studies.2009;33(6):627-638 Link to research.