What Does Natural Really Mean?
In theory, all the ingredients contained in a commercial natural cleaning product are derived from natural sources. This is the primary feature differentiating "natural" from a larger umbrella term like "green."
What are the Benefits?
The goal of all natural cleaning products is typically to provide benefits for the environment and benefits for human health, in much the same way that green cleaning products should.
But it is important to remember that natural only refers to natural sourcing and does not necessarily mean the final product is any different in molecular composition. For many natural cleaning products, this means benefits to both the environment and human health often come from differences in the production process rather than how the chemical affects people and the environment during or after use.
Each product and chemical has unique consequences on human health, the environment, and resulting effectiveness at cleaning. For this reason, each product requires individual evaluation regarding the value of natural sourcing.
The Work Behind Evaluating a Single Chemical
As an example, let’s focus on SLES – sodium lauryl ether sulfate.
Many common cleaning products contain SLES as a synthetic surfactant. Replacing it with a similar chemical can demonstrate the complexities involved with weighing benefits of natural cleaning products.
Synthetic SLES in cleaning products is not itself overtly harmful to health. Rather, the main concern with the chemical is the creation of 1,4-Dioxane as a byproduct during manufacturing. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies 1,4-Dioxane as a Group 2B carcinogen which is possibly carcinogenic to humans. Trace amounts of this byproduct contaminate the product and people using it.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a viable alternative to SLES with similar cleaning properties. The production of SLS does not create 1,4-Dioxane as a byproduct, making the chemical safer for human use.
SLS can be sourced naturally from plants like coconut and palm oils, or synthetically created from petroleum. However, the extraction or synthesis of the natural vs. synthetic product will have different consequences. And not all natural sources are inherently Earth-friendly.
Synthesis from petroleum of course perpetuates use of crude oil and refineries with their associated consequences. But natural extraction from palm oil fuels the emerging exploitation of rain forests. Thus, naturally sourced SLS specifically from coconut oil sources is the optimal alternative to synthetic SLES for natural cleaning products.
The resulting chemical structure of the naturally sourced vs synthetic SLS is exactly the same either way, giving them both the same cleaning properties. This is usually the case with synthetic vs natural chemicals, however there are exceptions. For example, synthetic Vitamin E is actually a sightly different structure than it’s natural counterpart, making it about 1.4 times less effective.
Product testing is a part of many green product seals. It reassures consumers that the product performs as well as the conventional counterpart. While there are no product testing programs specifically for natural products yet, many natural cleaning products may fall under a green product certification which performs the testing.
How to Navigate Through the Complexities
The above example probably seems like a lot of research to do just for one chemical. Looking into every chemical in every commercial product that thoroughly is a daunting and nearly impossible task. This is why having experts to do the work for you is ideal.
For industrial practices, associations such as the GCA assist companies so they don’t need to devote excessive resources to researching and obtaining the best products. Larger industries in general have the resources to research and navigate the complexities. Individuals most likely do not.
For individuals, simpler and fully disclosed ingredients lists reduce the need for such complicated research. Many natural cleaning products have short lists of only 5 to 10 ingredients, and some even list the natural source next to each ingredient. The everyday consumer can look at the list and have a decent idea of what everything in the product is and where it comes from.
For both individuals and larger industries, third-party verification are the best resource. This is especially true because, of all the green buzzwords, natural is one of the least regulated and difficult to confirm. In this regard, we’re still in the early stages of establishing reliability for natural cleaning products.
Confirming Natural Cleaning Product Claims
Misleading claims are extremely prevalent and have significant effects on the market of natural products. They essentially steal money from people intending to spend it on certain environmental “services” which are not actually being provided. This money going to illegitimate claims shifts market share from companies fulfilling their claims to those which have no real benefits. The divergence of funding away from the truly environmentally conscious markets reduces innovation in the area.
The false claims can perpetuate this decreasing investment in the environmental industry by increasing cynicism and doubt regarding the validity of environmental claims. People will stop buying into the “natural” schemes if they see their money is not actually going where they expect. But because no actual regulation is in place for the term “natural,” an abundance of false or misleading claims continue to exist.
This is also true for green products in general, making third-party labeling schemes important for guiding consumers away from supporting the wrong companies. While there are hundreds of verified labels for green products, only one currently exists for natural products in particular.
The One and Only Natural Seal
The only seal in the United States specifically certifying natural product claims is the Natural Seal from the Natural Products Association (NPA). It evaluates ingredients of personal care and home care products.
The NPA’s Natural Seal requires that at least 95% of the ingredients, excluding water, are natural or from natural sources. In addition to just natural sourcing, it requires use of biodegradable or recycled material in packaging, and avoidance of ingredients with health risks or animal testing. All the ingredients must then be disclosed on the package label (which is not required by law).
Natural products’ goals are valiant, but it is important to remain vigilant and support the validation of natural claims. Like green products, the number of natural products seals will likely increase over time. This will help individuals, businesses, and entire industries have knowledgeable reassurance about the eco-friendly and healthy products they support.