Lead in lipstick, formaldehyde in hair straightening treatments, phthalates in perfume: with a steady stream of undesirable ingredients coming to light in our personal care products, it’s no surprise that consumers want to play it safe by going back to nature. “Going natural” with personal care resonates with so many consumers that beauty brands are taking notice—and positioning their products to meet the growing demand for natural ingredients.  The only problem? The word natural on a beauty product label doesn’t offer a single guarantee about what you’ll find inside. You might think that natural means green, but it’s one big gray area.

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Defining natural: What does the term “natural” mean anyway? The Natural Products Association (NPA), a non-profit organization that created the nation’s first natural product certification, defines a natural product as having “ingredients that come or are made from a renewable resource found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral), with absolutely no petroleum compounds.” That may be what most of us expect to get when we purchase a natural product, but a single, agreed-upon definition of “natural” does not exist in the personal care industry, where most marketing claims, including the term natural, still go unregulated. In light of this ambiguity, it’s increasingly common for personal care companies to create their own guidelines for natural. “Natural can mean absolutely anything in the personal care industry right now,” says Ni’Kita Wilson, YouBeauty Cosmetic Chemistry Expert.  “Every manufacturer has their own definition of natural, so it makes it very difficult for the consumer to grasp what natural really is.” The term ‘natural’ has no legal bearing on the ingredients in personal care products, so your natural rose moisturizer could contain only ingredients that meet the NPA standard like shea butter and rose essential oil—or it could be full of synthetics, right down to its rose fragrance.

And there’s no sign that the confusion will be cleared up any time soon. “The government has made it quite clear that they are not going to define natural. The word means different things for different product categories,” explains Dr. Cara Welch, Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs for the NPA. At the moment, there doesn’t even appear to be any repercussions for companies that misrepresent the ingredients in their products as natural. “The only regulatory consequence [for false advertising] would be with the Federal Trade Commission, which looks at advertising to determine that it’s truthful and not misleading. However, since there really is no definition of natural, it’s difficult to decide what is truthful and not misleading. So it’s not likely to be enforced,” explains Welch.

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When nature doesn’t know best: To further prove that ‘natural’ isn’t always a clear indicator of safety, Mother Nature complicates things with a few tricks of her own.  Even if a product truly is made only from ingredients found in nature, not every natural ingredient is guaranteed to be safe or desirable to put on your body. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that natural ingredients are safer. Soy is a natural ingredient but has also been flagged as an endocrine disruptor—just like parabens!” says Wilson (parabens being the controversial synthetic preservatives commonly found in beauty products). Petroleum byproducts like propylene glycol and petrolatum are made from crude oil, a natural substance, but many consumers actively avoid them. Just because an ingredient comes from nature should not give it an all-access pass into your beauty regimen. On the flipside, some truly natural ingredients carry names that you might perceive as coming straight from the lab. “Sometimes ingredients have very chemical-sounding names, but they’re completely natural, like myristyl myristate, a mix of alcohol and acid,” says Welch.

How to shop natural: With no clear guidelines for deciphering a product label or an ingredient list, what’s a concerned shopper to do? There are a few strategies to ensure that you get exactly what you bargained for in your beauty regimen. The most restrictive route, says Wilson, is to choose only products that are directly pressed or extracted from botanical sources like trees, flowers and herbs. This could mean seeking out small-batch brands and manufacturers that offer transparent information about the origin of every ingredient. A more practical route may be to look for products that bear a seal guaranteeing that their ingredients meet a rigorous quality standard. The NPA seal, for example, certifies that a product is made with at least 95 percent natural ingredients, according to the NPA’s definition of the term. Since its inception in 2008, more than 800 personal care products have been certified by the NPA. Other product seals, like Natrue, BDIH and Cosmos (which includes the Ecocert and Soil Association seals), certify varying standards of natural and organic. With a little exploration, you can find a seal that aligns with your personal ingredient standards. And next time you shop, you’ll have security where it matters most—inside the bottle.

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