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How do you know if a product is natural?

I know many people are keen to embrace a greener, more natural way of life. Not just to improve their own health, but to support the planet. 

But wanting to use more natural products is one thing. Knowing how to find them is another. You can’t just rely on the honesty of labels to help pick natural products. You may want to, but you can’t.

It’s taken me a while to learn, but I think I’ve grasped the knack now. But if you’re scared or struggling with trying to find more clean products, here are a few tips to help you on your quest.

First things first: what makes a product natural?

I admit the word natural is another one of those fuzzy green living terms that isn’t easy to pin down.  When it comes to food, there are regulations about the use of the word ‘natural’. But in beauty and household products, there is no hard and fast definition or standard for it.

A natural product is one that only features ingredients that can be found in nature. They might be derived from plants, from microorganisms or even from animals (if not labelled vegan of course!)

They should also not contain anything toxic or overly synthetic. 

A rule I personally always hold to but brands often don’t, is that a natural product needs to be plastic free, with limited and biodegradable packaging. 

And though we’re talking about how to tell if a product is clean or natural, don’t forget to ask the equally important question of how can I know if the product is safe?

Clean skin care might be kinder to the planet but natural products aren’t always safer for your skin. We’ve already posted about how to use essential oils safely, as they can be toxic if eaten and seriously damage your skin if not used carefully.

Obviously products sold as natural should not have high concentrations of this kind of ingredient. But if you are creating your own skincare or cleaning products, this is something to remember.

How to tell if a product is clean

The only way to truly tell if a product is natural and ‘clean’ is to read the ingredients list.

Of course, these long lists of complicated chemical names are never simple to read. You may only recognise half of them. And, even then, it can be a struggle to understand them all.

Numéro 1. Don’t Trust Broad Claims

I would love to say that any brand that shouts about being clean, or any label that calls a product natural can be trusted. I would love to say it, but then you wouldn’t be able to trust me!

Clean living is a movement. Cynical brands can see it as a bandwagon and they think it’s good business to jump on it. They don’t understand that it’s a way of life. They really don’t understand that living this way of life comes from a deep-held desire to do better by our health and by our planet.

So they slap these terms (whose use is often completely unregulated) on their products in the hope we’ll trust them and we’ll buy because of them. But the words don’t mean anything.

There are some certifications you can trust. If something bears the Soil Association logo in the UK, it is definitely organic. Anything with the leaping bunny logo can be trusted to be cruelty-free. But anything else, any vague claims around clean or ‘all natural’ products, should be treated with scepticism unless you can verify them yourself.

Numéro 2.  Use An App

Not everyone has time to spend hours digging down into lengthy lists of ingredients. It’s not exactly a fun way to pass the time.

Apps like ‘Think Dirty’ and ‘INCI’ have popped up in app stores to take on this detailed detective work. They draw on big databases of products and ingredients to work out just how toxic (or not!) a product might be.

They are generally simple to use. You scan a barcode, and the app will draw up all the product details and give you a rundown on how natural it is. Usually, this will include an overall rating and a few details on how it was decided.

These apps can be a helpful shortcut. Especially if you’re new to clean living and overwhelmed by all the things you need to look out for.

But they aren’t perfect.  Artisan products or small brands aren’t going to feature in their database. There are some ingredients that they don’t have a lot of information about and their ratings for these are limited and harder to trust.

As with so much technology, these apps are a strong starting point but can’t be relied upon entirely. There is only one person you can trust to pick out products that are natural. That person is you!

Numéro 3. Read The Ingredients 

So, yes, the only way to tell is by reading the ingredients list. The only person who can reliably do that is you.

For all the appeal of apps and quick hacks to do it for you, once you’re familiar with key ingredient names, what to avoid and what to seek out, it will get easier to do it yourself. 

Places like the EWG have glossaries and guides covering different ingredients that you can check for support.

To get you started, here are a few tips to help you with reading ingredients lists:

  • The higher in the list, the higher the concentration.

This is also an important tip to help you judge how beneficial a product might be. Don’t splurge your cash on a product claiming one of its ingredients will revolutionise your life if that miracle ingredient is the second to last on the list. Chances are, it will have less than 1% concentration of that particular ingredient and you could be paying a lot of money for fillers.

  • Don’t be scared by chemical names.

Many common, natural ingredients will be listed by their Latin names. And even water can become confusing when it’s listed as ‘aqua’.

Luckily most will include the common name in brackets afterwards too. Keep an eye out for common plant names among the Latin.

  • Avoid anything vague.

If you care about clean products, you probably already know to avoid anything featuring fragrance or perfume. But did you know this umbrella term can cover a big range of synthetic chemicals? Sometimes essential oils or other natural ingredients are listed as specific sources of fragrance and that’s great. But otherwise, stay away from anything with generic labels like this. 

What are the best skincare brands for natural products?

Pop this into Google, and you’ll be flooded with lists telling you about clean beauty brands you can trust. Obviously, these are never faultless either, and even brands who have built a name on being completely natural might have different standards from you.

This is one reason why I stick to homemade and artisan products. 

If someone is taking the time, and the risk, to make their own products, you can trust that person is driven by passion. Passion for what they’re doing, and a belief in the reasons they’re doing it. 

They won’t be adding a splash of cheap synthetic nasties just to finish a formula off cheaply, or making offhand claims they have no right to. They care and take pride in their creations.

It seems obvious that we would want to use the best possible products in our homes and on our bodies. Natural products often make safer choices for us and don’t damage the environment. 

It might take some practice to get used to identifying what is natural and beneficial but it is worth the work. And if in doubt, buy direct from artisans or small businesses and then you can ask them yourself!


À bientôt,

Jessie