Company Checkup – So What Does ”Natural” Mean, Anyway?

Okay, so you’ve taken the decision to change your cosmetic habits. You’ve read a little bit about the cosmetic industry and realized that a lot of the ingredients they put in their products are just cheap filling agents that even might be harmful for your skin and body in the long run.
So you narrow your shopping down and start looking in the sections labelled ”natural”. Here you are likely to find zillions of products that scream FROM NATURE WITH LOVE and 95% ORGANIC INGREDIENTS. Some products tell you NO ADDED PARABENS/TALCUM/SILICONE/[enter any ”bad” ingredient here], others WITH ADDED OLIVE OIL/ARGAN OIL/VITAMIN E/[enter any ”good” ingredient here].

So where to start, which ones to choose? Are all natural products equally natural just because they are in the natural section of your local shopping mall? This is what I want to find out in my new post series, which I have named Company Checkup. One by one, I will go through several companies who name themselves natural, organic or anything like that.

Before starting to look at the actual companies and their claims, I wanted to find out what if there is any legal regulation or requirements that a brand or product needs to fulfill to be called ”natural”. Based on what I have seen of so called ”natural” products, my hypothesis was that there aren’t any regulations, and that a company decides themselves if they want to call their product natural or not.
So I started looking around for a pro who could answer my questions. This turned out more difficult that I had imagined. Apparently somebody should know this, but nobody really knows who does. First I contacted the Swedish Consumer’s Agency, where they said “the answer isn’t as obvious as you might think…” and forwarded my emails to the Swedish environmental department, who gave me several other tips including one person in their own department – none of which could answer my questions. After many emails back and forth, I finally got in touch with a person at the Medical Products Agency (more or less the equivalent of the FDA in USA), where I finally got some answers to my questions. This is what Tomas Byström at the Medical Products Agency had to say (freely translated from Swedish). For those of you who understand written Swedish, you can read read the original interview in Swedish in this PDF.

These answers are based on the situation in the EU and Sweden, but according to Byström, it’s more or less the same thing in the rest of the world.

Are there any regulations as to what a product should contain for it to be called ”natural”? What’s the definition of natural and how large percent of the ingredients should be natural in this definition for a product to be called natural?
There is no general standard about this, it’s all a big mess. The Council of Europe wrote a document with recommendations in 2000, which it would seem only few companies have read, and even fewer practice. I know that the International Organization for Standardization are working on a standard for the terms ”natural” and ”organic”, and it seems the European Commission are waiting for this before they write more specific guidelines about these claims in the guiding documents for the upcoming european legislation of cosmetic products.
Eco-certifications have their own criteria regarding what the word ”natural” means, but this is of course not very general if you look to the vast amount of products claiming to be natural.
The European legislation says the following about marketing: ”Text, names, trade marks, pictures and figurative or other signs are not used to imply that these products have characteristics which they do not have.” But if there is no set definition of ”natural”, there is no way to tell if a product claiming to be natural is implying to have characteristics it doesn’t.

What are the rules of eco-certification? Is there a difference between the different eco certifications?

Even this issue lacks proper legislation.

There are mainly two ecocertifications in Europe – COSMOS and NaTrue – and in principle there is little difference between these two, they only differ somewhat if you look at details. The initiative for NaTrue seems to have come mostly from the industry, while COSMOS comes from interest organizations. NaTrue has one certification, but all of the stakeholders within COSMOS have their own brand (BDIH in Germany, Soil Association in Great Britain, EcoCErt and CosmeBio in France and ICEA in Italy).

The criteria for both of the certifications is that the ingredients are naturally derived, and only processed through a few approved physical and chemical processes.

I’ve seen products marketed with one ingredient in large letters on the bottle, but when I look at the INCI, this ingredient is a very small part of the formula. Are there any guidelines about which ingredients can be enhanced in this way, for instance a certain percent of an the product should be this ingredient?

If I may refer to the legal text quoted earlier – it’s true that any ingredient can be marketed in large letters on the front of the package, as long as this ingredient is included in the product. Then of course it’s highly questionable, even illegal, to refer to something which is only included in such minimal quantities that it won’t have any effect. But some ingredient can be effective even though they are included in very small quantities.

It is often a question of reading or listening to what is said or written, and it is not always what you want to read or hear.

Is a company obliged to write the INCI of their products on their webpage or webshop?

Not as of today. However, considering how common internet shopping has become, it is currently discussed in the EU. Also, one of the points about the INCI is that one should be able to read before one buys and that’s not possible online.

If a company says that they do not test their products on animals, could this still mean that some of the ingredients have been tested on animals in an earlier stage of production?

If the product is made in the EU, this is a non-claim, because animal testing on products is prohibited since 2004. Basically it’s also forbidden to sell products or ingredients where animal testing has been done at any stage since 2009. Some animal testing can still be done on ingredients as there are no alternatives to this date. Also, products often contain old ingredients, such as cetearyl alcohol, and these have definitely been tested on animals at some stage. Note however that animal testing is done in the toxicological evaluation of ingredients, which is done once or a few times for each ingredient.

What is the difference between Sweden, the EU and the rest of the world regarding the questions above?

Sweden and EU have the same regulations, and as far as I know, there is no huge difference between the EU and the rest of the world.  About animal testing I have to admit that I have no idea how it is outside of the EU.

Is there anything in particular one should think about when ordering products online, and especially when ordering from another country?

Watch out for products that seem to be all too effective, they might contain drugs which are forbidden in the EU for health reasons – like hydroquinon. Also look out for products that seem too cheap, there might be false products and it is difficult to control ingredients and quality in webshops.


So there you go. My interpretation of this is that just because a product says ”natural” there is no way to tell if it actually is or not, and you basically have to know how to interpret the INCI and make your own opinion. We can only hope that this will get better at some point. There’s a bit more to go after when buying organic skin care products, as they need to have a eco-certification to be allowed to call themselves organic, but even here there are differences and it can be difficult to know what to buy.

Good thing you have me to take you though all this, huh? Now we’re going to start going through companies! So don’t forget to check back, or subscribe to the feed.


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