The terms organic & natural frequently go together and there is no shortage of products bearing that organic and all-natural claim. But while this is true, the two aren’t the same thing.
In fact, they have plenty of notable differences. And when talking about the difference between organic vs. natural, it pays to have a good grasp of the terms separately.
In this article, we’ll talk about the main differences between organic & natural products and ingredients. We will also cover the different certifications available and how they vary by location so you can easily identify which products to trust.
If you’re curious about what your cosmetic or food label means, keep on reading.
What Does Organic Mean?
As it is used in the food and personal care industry, organic refers to better farming methods that promote environmental sustainability.
You will often see the organic label on food products, but it is also pretty present in beauty and personal care items.
Generally, organic means that a particular food product or ingredient was farmed or grown without the use of GMOs, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, artificial growth hormones (hormone-free), sewage sludge, genetic engineering, genetically modified seeds, among many others.
The point of organic production is to move away from destructive sourcing methods. Furthermore, most organic food is minimally processed and does not contain artificial flavors or potentially harmful ingredients.
Organic products are also not fundamentally altered and retain their original composition as much as possible.
Because of this, though, there are certain classes of items that can never be considered organic such as minerals or polymers. The organic designation is only applicable to living materials sourced organically.
Does Organic Have A Universal Definition?
Generally, yes. Organic has an overarching definition. But when it comes to labels and what producers can market as organic, it’s a whole different story.
Meaning, what classifies as an organic product in the US might not be classified as organic in the UK and other countries.
For this reason, it’s important to be aware of laws regarding organic labels where you are. A general idea of organic farming is important, but we have to highlight that the rules aren’t the same worldwide.
We will discuss the different certifications in further sections.
What Does Natural Mean?
Natural, on the other hand, basically means anything you got from nature. It’s a far less specific team than organic, and organic already isn’t something that’s set in stone everywhere.
Unlike organic ingredients, natural foods and ingredients are not very well-regulated. There aren’t many third parties that certify whether a product is natural or not, but more on this later.
Plus, the organic symbol is frequently government-regulated, unlike that of the natural label. This makes it a bit more difficult to truly identify which products are natural or not.
On top of all that, not all-natural products are good. For example, despite all its negative impacts on the environment, petroleum is technically a natural resource! So is mica sourced by exploiting children for cheap labor.
But in practice, natural certification bodies don’t actually consider petroleum a natural ingredient despite coming from nature.
Animal products like wool, leather, silk are all-natural products, but they come with complex issues around animal welfare. There are countless other items in nature that we can consider as natural but aren’t really the best ingredient available.
Interested in knowing everything about vegan fabrics? Have a look here.
That isn’t even mentioning all the issues that crop up when natural ingredients (e.g., floral extracts) are used excessively, potentially causing allergic reactions.
The point is that, unlike organic, debating over natural items should not be whether they are good or bad. Labeling something as all-natural does not give it an ultimate pass.
A natural product is not guaranteed to be better or more sustainable than its competitors. If anything, all it says is where the product or ingredient was sourced and absolutely nothing about its impact.
But when done right, all-natural products often end up being the better choice for sustainable living. It is important that we, consumers, think critically about what we buy; beyond what it says on the label or how a brand promotes it as such.
Although the definition of natural is not very standardized, certifying bodies make sure that they adhere to a strict definition of what natural is. This usually means production without preservatives, artificial pesticides, and other harmful chemicals.
Are Certified Organic Foods Better For You?
In the organic vs. conventional foods debate, there’s a lot of buzz around whether or not organic foods are actually better for your health or not.
This line of thought stems from the fact that organic foods aren’t cultivated with any growth hormones, synthetic pesticides, or artificial fertilizers. Many people like to believe that eating organic food is part of healthy living.
But unfortunately, these claims do not have any conclusive proof yet. There are, of course, anecdotal pieces and opinion articles online that talk about the health benefits of certified organic food.
This study in 2017, for example, states that organic food is likely to have an overall benefit to human health. Still, many of their findings are either residual or only marginally relevant. In any case, the study provides that the data still isn’t conclusive on the matter .
Should that stop you from consuming organic foods? Absolutely not! In choosing organic food, you are buying into the system of organic farming and natural foods, which is much better for our environment overall.
Organic Food And Beauty
When we’re talking about organic vs. natural products, we must add a bit of nuance to the conversation. The organic designation isn’t limited to just a food label. It is used and valued in the beauty community as well.
For one, some certifications are only specific to cosmetic products and some only apply to food.
Food will usually bear the USDA organic seal or its equivalent in other countries. Cosmetics, on the other hand, will have the COSMOS or NATRUE label on them.
These certifying bodies have different rules on food and cosmetics, so make sure you check the type of certification provided.
Organic And Natural Certifications In The US
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) seal applies to organic agricultural products or organic food.
It is crucial to understand that the USDA seal applies only to organic foods or ingredients. The FDA does not, as of the moment, regulate the term organic as it is used in the cosmetics and personal care industry.
However, if the cosmetic product is made of agricultural ingredients, then it has a shot at being certified. The product must meet USDA or NOP regulations for production, handling, and processing to be eligible for certification.
In addition to that, the producers of the ingredients and the handlers during production must also be USDA-certified.
Products certified organic by the USDA must also be made with only the allowed substances and never made with prohibited methods such as genetic engineering or ionizing radiation.
For the USDA seal, there are four main categories.
- 100% Organic- These products are made only with organic ingredients, except salt and water. Raw organic crops will usually fall under this designation.
- Organic- Products bearing this label must be made with 95% organic ingredients, excluding salt and water. The other 5% of the product’s ingredients can be made from inorganic agricultural products.
- Made with organic *insert ingredients*- This ingredients label means that products must be made of at least 70% organic components, and these elements must be specified in the ingredients list. The labeling must not indicate that it is made with organic ingredients without specifying what these ingredients are.
- Specific Organic Ingredients- These products must not contain any organic labeling on the product itself and must identify which ingredients are organic.
Needless to say, this label and the relevant organic standards are only applicable to US products. If you want to know more about the USDA certification, you can read more about it here.
National Products Association
The NPA Natural seal is used to certify that products are truly natural. The certification covers all cosmetics products defined and regulated by the FDA. The NPA also issues a certification for home products, but that’s an entirely different category.
The NPA Natural Standard takes root in four principles: natural ingredients, safety, sustainability, and responsibility.
All products with the NPA seal must have been made with little to no artificial ingredients. The standard provides a list of allowed synthetics, but these must only be a minor part of the formula.
Moreover, each ingredient should be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. It must not contain any heavy metals or the residue thereof. Allowed ingredients must come from nature, and petroleum compounds are a no-go.
You can check out their non-exhaustive list of allowed ingredients here. Bear in mind that this is not the full list of what they will allow since there is an inconceivable number of ingredients found in nature.
If an ingredient has a natural and synthetic option, only the natural one is allowed under their standards.
All products being the NPA natural seal are free from animal testing, both for ingredients and products. These products must also use biodegradable ingredients and be conscious of packaging, using only the most sustainable options available.
Manufacturers who want to get certified must undergo an audit process to check for the validity of their ingredients and claims.
Do note that this is a product certification applicable to personal care products. This certification does not cover home or food manufacturers. In addition, brands cannot get certified under the NPA as the seal only provides guarantees for individual products.
Non-GMO Project Verification
This certification isn’t really about organic or natural per se but might still be useful when you’re shopping.
The Non-GMO verification is a North American certification that guarantees a product was made under specific standards that promote GMO avoidance. They even make sure that the meat and dairy products they certify are grown without GMOs.
To be clear, they do not advocate that products with their label are better, nor do they guarantee they are GMO-free. Instead, they work with a rigorous set of characteristics which you can read more about here.
If you see this symbol along with organic or natural symbols, that’s an excellent thing. The organization continuously monitors those using their label to ensure they aren’t straying away from the standards.
Organic and Natural Certifications In The UK
Unlike the US, the UK does not have a central body for organic certification in personal products or food labels. Instead, they have a list of qualified certifying bodies that do this work for them.
Only products with at least 95% organic ingredients can be classified as organic in the UK. However, this only applies to organic foods. The UK’s rules on personal products labeled organic are not as standardized.
Different labeling rules apply depending on where the product will be sold.
Soil Association – Organic
The Soil Association is the most prevalent organic certifying body for a wide range of products, including food, textiles, beauty products, and even forestry.
This organization’s standards regarding what can be considered organic depend on the type of product.
However, there is absolutely no animal testing for cosmetics, no use of genetically modified organisms, controversial chemicals (e.g., unsafe toxic chemicals), or any parabens or phthalates. There are also no synthetic dyes, colors, or fragrances.
Of course, the ingredients themselves must be sustainably sourced using organic practices.
They have different standards for leave-on and rinse-off cosmetics. For leave-on, at least 95% of the physically processed agricultural ingredients must be organic, and at least 20% of the ingredients must be organic. For rinse-off, it’s pretty much the same, but only 10% of the ingredients must be organic.
For food and drink products, the standards are a bit different.
95% of the entire product’s weight must be made of organic ingredients, as stipulated by their standards. It may contain 5% non-organic ingredients, but those ingredients must be specified according to their policy.
Of course, the product must be made in accordance with organic farming and processing.
Soil Association – COSMOS Natural
Luckily, The Soil Association also has a separate certification for natural products, specifically for cosmetics.
These products do not necessarily have to be organic, although in reality, they still often contain organic components. The COSMOS Natural certification is best for products made from non-agricultural sources and cannot be classified as organic.
Certain products like face masks, eye shadows, and bath salts often do not make it to the organic certification due to the nature of their formulas. Products that have a lot of pigment or minerals often fall under this category.
Other than guaranteeing products that are natural, this certification also guarantees absolutely no animal testing, no genetically modified ingredients, and no controversial chemicals in the formula.
International Organic And Natural Certifications
Ecocert is a bit different than the other certifications on this list. While those were localized to specific locations, this one is an international certification.
The best way to think about it is that they’re an organization that issues various organic and natural certifications. Under their wing are COSMOS , GOTS for organic cotton, USDA Organic, and even certifications for other countries like Japan.
In their certification process, they follow the standards of whichever certification they are auditing. For Ecocert to guarantee a COSMOS-standard, they will have to follow the certification’s own rules.
Regardless of this, all of Ecocert’s actions are done in the pursuit of better farming methods (and overall sourcing) as well as create a more transparent supply chain for all of their clients.
NATRUE is an international non-profit association with the ultimate goal of promoting natural and organic cosmetics worldwide.
The NATRUE certification indicates that a product is made only with natural, naturally derived, or natural-identical ingredients. They exclude water in the determination of naturalness as not to dilute the concept behind natural.
The association guarantees that products with their label are made without any artificial ingredients.
There are, of course, more specific designations for what is natural under their standard. But if you do see this label on cosmetics, you can be assured that it is natural. Read here to learn more about their criteria.
Can You Trust Brands Without Certifications?
We know it sounds like certifications are a must—and they’re undoubtedly important. But we also have to recognize that getting certified can often be an expensive task.
Brands that are starting out or those who haven’t scaled up sufficiently may not be able to afford to get certified yet. It’s entirely possible that they source organic-certified ingredients, but the products themselves aren’t certified.
In these cases, it’s important to assess whether you trust the brand or not. Dig into their practices to see if they’re transparent enough to be trusted without a certification.
When we review organic products here at Puratium, they aren’t always certified. But we always make sure there’s a significant portion of organic and natural materials used to make them.
You might probably need to exercise more skepticism with the term natural than you would for organic since it’s pretty well-regulated.
The bottom line? Look beyond what the label says. It takes a lot of patience and learning to be fully aware of what to avoid in your products, but it’s worth it!
We are hoping to see our food and beauty industry come to a point where customers and producers have mutual trust for each other. But unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.
To sum up, the natural vs. organic conversation covers a broad base of products, including organic foods, natural foods, natural and organic cosmetics, and other product categories.
But the difference between organic and natural shouldn’t be that difficult to determine. As conscious consumers, it is important for us not to be swayed by food labels or brand claims without doing our own research.
Looking for certifications is a very good example of how we can do our due diligence and ensure we’re buying consciously – according to an eco-philosophy we are at peace with.
If, to you, that means no synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, antibiotics, and more, then buying organic and checking for certifications is worth your time. In the end, natural and organic aren’t the same things despite being so often used together.
We hope this discussion gave you a little more insight into the natural vs. organic debate and how extensive research can play a role in your decisions.