More and more consumers care about the quality and purity of ingredients they put onto their skin, so natural and organic beauty products are more popular than ever. Beauty brands are taking advantage of this, using terms like “natural” and “organic” in their marketing and on their packaging to attract health-conscious customers.

However, many consumers don’t truly understand the difference between organic and natural ingredients, and some beauty manufacturers aim to take advantage by using buzzy words like “natural” to sell products chock full of harmful synthetic ingredients.  

Are your products really as green as they seem? Keep reading to learn the difference between organic and natural beauty products.

What Does Natural Mean?

The term “natural” refers to ingredients that are derived from natural rather than synthetic sources. Natural ingredients come from plant, mineral, or animal sources, while synthetic ingredients are produced in a lab.

In the US, the term “natural” is completely unregulated by the FDA. This means that a manufacturer can label pretty much any product as natural, even if it’s full of harmful synthetic chemicals. Natural products can also contain petroleum, which is technically natural although it’s potentially toxic.

On the other hand, some products labeled as natural can truly be good for you. Many ingredients (think aloe vera, shea butter, coconut oil, etc.), can be effective and beneficial for the skin and hair without being certified organic.

Your best bet? Read the ingredients list. Check the label of the “natural” beauty product to see what’s really inside, keeping in mind that the ingredients are listed from the highest to lowest percentage. Thus, if you want to limit your exposure to synthetic ingredients, look for natural products that have synthetic ingredients at the bottom of the ingredients list (if at all).

What Does Organic Mean?

The biggest difference between organic and natural ingredients is that organic ingredients are held to a much more strict standard than natural ingredients.

For example, not only must organic ingredients come from nature, but they must also be produced without the use of pesticides or petroleum fertilizers. Organic ingredients must also be non-GMO, meaning that they were not sourced from genetically modified organisms.

In order to label and advertise their products as organic in the United States, beauty companies must have their product certified by the USDA. The USDA offers two levels of organic certification:

  • USDA Organic Seal - the product is 95% or more organic
  • Made with Organic Ingredients - the product is 70% or more organic (but could still contain synthetic ingredients)

Keep in mind: certified organic does not equate sustainable. The USDA does not take sustainability or local sourcing into consideration, so if you want to buy products that are sustainably manufactured, you should thoroughly research brands before purchasing from them.

Independent certification organizations like Ecocert, NSF, and the Soil Association have their own set of standards. For example, the Soil Association certification means that the product not only contains organic ingredients, but it also doesn’t contain parabens, petrochemicals, and other harmful chemicals.

It’s very difficult for beauty companies to meet the standards of these organizations, but that’s good news for us consumers! By thoroughly vetting our beauty products, these organizations make sure we’re getting the highest quality organic ingredients.

A word of note: make sure that your organic products actually have an organic certification seal on the label. If the packaging just says “100% certified”, the product might not necessarily be organic.

Here’s how to remember the difference between organic and natural beauty products: all certified organic products are natural, but not all natural products are certified organic.

When shopping for beauty products, always check the label for a list of ingredients and an organic certification seal.