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Breaking It Down: The Real Difference Between Organic and Natural

Better Goods

Oct 7, 2021

organic vs natural

Organic and natural: what's the difference between the two labels? It might be more complicated than you think.

You might be surprised to know that there's actually a big difference between the two terms, and one of them is a lot more trustworthy than the other.

Today, we'll take a look at the terms natural vs. organic, what they really mean, and what you should know as a conscious shopper.

Organic

The term organic is legally regulated in many places, including the United States. In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains a list of standards for a product to be USDA organic certified. Products and factories must undergo certification and inspection to ensure compliance.

USDA Organic Standards:

  • No toxic and persistent pesticides
  • No synthetic growth hormones
  • No petroleum-based fertilizers
  • No cloning
  • No artificial colors or flavorsinspecture
  • No artificial preservatives
  • No irradiated products/ingredients
  • No GMOs (genetically-modified organisms)

"Made with organic..." is a USDA-regulated term mandating that the product contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining 30% of ingredients can't be produced with prohibited practices like genetic modification, but might contain otherwise non-organic ingredients.

"100% organic" products must contain, besides salt and water, 100% organic ingredients only.

"Organic" products must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients besides salt and water. The remaining 5% covers non-organic agricultural products and a list of non-agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic.

Because the term "organic" is federally regulated in the United States, it's a safe and dependable logo. Generally, you won't find many beauty or personal care products labelled "100% organic", as many need ingredients that can't be certified organic.

Natural

The term "natural" is generally not regulated in most countries. In the United States, it's not completely unregulated for food products, but just barely.

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

USDA

In the US and Canada, the term "natural" on beauty and personal care products means absolutely nothing.

This means that as consumers, we must do our own due diligence in purchasing not only food, but our beauty and personal care products as well.If you see the term "natural" on a product, it doesn't mean much. For example, there is no guarantee that any plant-derived ingredients in a product haven't been heavily subjected to pesticides.

However, while the USDA won't step in to punish brands misleadingly using the term "organic", the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) might. In 2016, the agency brought charges against four brands for using the term "natural" in a misleading manner.

According to the FTC, each of the following companies made the all-natural claim in online ads:

  • Trans-India Products, Inc., doing business as ShiKai, based in Santa Rosa, California, markets “All Natural Hand and Body Lotion” and “All Natural Moisturizing Gel” both directly and through third-party websites including walgreens.com and vitacoast.com. The lotion contains Dimethicone, Ethyhexyl Glycerin, and Phenoxyethanol. The gel contains Phenoxyethanol.
  • Erickson Marketing Group, doing business as Rocky Mountain Sunscreen, based in Aravada, Colorado, uses its website to promote “all natural” products such as the “Natural Face Stick,” which contains Dimethicone, Polyethylene, and other synthetic ingredients.
  • ABS Consumer Products, LLC, doing business as EDEN BodyWorks, based in Memphis, Tennessee, markets haircare products on its own websites and at Walmart.com. It makes “all natural” claims for products including “Coconut Shea All Natural Styling Elixer” and “Jojoba Monoi All Natural Shampoo.” In reality, the products contain a range of synthetic ingredients such as Polyquaternium-37, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, and Polyquaternium-7.
  • Beyond Coastal, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, uses its website to sell its “Natural Sunscreen SPF 30,” describing it as “100% natural.” However, it also contains Dimethicone.
  • California Naturel, Inc., located in Sausalito, California, sells supposedly “all natural sunscreen” on its website, though the product contains Dimethicone. The Commission has issued a complaint alleging that California Naturel has made deceptive “all natural” claims in violation of Sections 5 and 12 of the FTC Act.

So in the United States, falsely claiming a product to be "natural" might be punished as "false advertising." However, such cases seem to be exceedingly rare, so it's not clear how much of a danger this might actually be to a deceptive company.

For you, this means to be skeptical if you see the term "natural" on a product label or packaging. This term—being unregulated—might be used to trick you.

The US Natural Cosmetics Act (HR5017)

In late 2019, a bill was introduced to congress called the Natural Cosmetics Act. Its aim is to amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to stipulate the following: cosmetics packaging or labeling cannot bear the term "natural" unless:

  • It contains at least 70% natural substances that aren't water or salt
  • No fragrance that isn't a natural substance, or naturally-derived
  • It contains no ingredient that isn't natural and has no feasible natural alternative
  • Is not made using: alkoxylation, deterpentation, halogenation, ionizing radiation, sulphonation as the main reaction, treated with ethylene oxide or mercury

Currently, the bill was introduced nearly two years ago and hasn't been acted upon. If passed, it would be a good step toward regulating the cosmetics industry in the US, which is historically very lightly regulated.

Organic vs. Natural: In Summary

Be wary of the terms "natural" or "all natural" on beauty, personal care, food, or any other consumable product.

"Natural" is mostly unregulated in the USA and all other parts of the world, so just because a label says "natural", it doesn't actually mean that it is.

"Organic" is another story. Being a regulated term, it's against the law to label a product as such without strict approval in the USA, Canada, Europe and most parts of the world.

Always look for USDA-certified organic logos if shopping in the USA. Otherwise, purchase knowing that the product might not actually be as organic as it says, and the government might be on their case shortly.

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