Guest author: 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 percent 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 percent organic. If the product is a blend of several ingredients (like an herbal tea), each of the ingredients is required to be 100 percent organic. If even one of the ingredients is certified only 99.99 percent organic, the 100 percent 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 percent 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.
Made With Organic USDA Certified “Made With Organic” means that 70-94.9 percent of the ingredients are certified organic. BUT, the USDA symbol is not allowed on the front panel of the product. The company logo may not include the word organic even though it is certified. The front label claim can only say, “Made With Organic” whatever the ingredient is. IT’S CONFUSING! But at least 70 percent of the ingredients must be certified organic, and the remaining ingredients must be on the “allowed” list. Bottom line: Look for the seal and the name of the independent third party certifier on the back of the package.
NFS/ANSI 305 Contains Organic Ingredients The USDA list of approved raw materials does not allow even for some of the safe chemical processes necessary to make personal care products, so an equivalent standard for personal care products called the NSF/ANSI 305 Standard was created. NSF/ANSI 305 products must have 70 percent or more organic ingredients, and the remaining raw materials must be on the approved list. Bottom Line: Look for the NSF symbol on the front of the label and the independent third party certifier on the back.
It’s elementary! There are a lot of claims out there, and you want to make sure your pregnant body and your sweet angel inside is getting the safest products possible. When you see catchy, safe-sounding words get out your magnifying glass and check the label. If you see ingredients you don’t know, go look them up (a great resource is the Skin Deep Database). It’s a lot of work once you get in touch with your maternal Sherlock Holmes, but knowing how to tell the truth from the buzzwords will help keep you from getting stung!
Melinda Olson is a nurse and herbalist and creator of Earth Mama Angel Baby, an industry leader in natural and organic herbal products. She is also a contributor to Dr. Elliot Berlin’s Informed Pregnancy® Project.