Defining natural | PCC Natural Markets

Defining natural

A new standard for body care products

Sound Consumer | May 2009

by Samia McCully, ND

collage of health products
Alaffia, Aubrey, Burt's Bees, Dr. Haushka, Mychelle and Weleda: some of the 47 brands of body care products at PCC that already comply with the new definition of "natural."

(May 2009) — Another novel initiative means PCC is likely to have the highest health and safety standards in the country for body care products.

By January 2010, PCC will carry only products from companies that have agreed to comply with a new definition of “natural.”

This initiative follows a pledge in 2007 that all body care products also will be “free of chemicals known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects” by 2010. PCC was the first U.S. retailer to pledge to meet those standards set by the European Union Directive.

Many consumers still are unaware of the lack of regulation in the personal care industry. This includes cosmetics, skin and hair care products. As more companies take advantage of the growing demand for natural products, regulation has become imperative.

In fact, the natural products industry is growing five times faster than conventional body care products.

The National Products Association (NPA), founded in 1936 and formerly known as the National Nutritional Foods Association, stepped up and created a standard for the word “natural” as it applies to cosmetics and beauty aid products. Companies who choose to comply with this standard and complete the certification process will be allowed to emboss the NPA seal on their products.

Until recently, there was no standard definition for the word “natural.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) never limited use of the term for food and personal care products.

Both Sara Lee and the Sugar Association petitioned the FDA for a definition in 2007 but were denied. In an article published by Food Navigator USA in January 2008, it was reported that the FDA had not put the “natural issue on its priority list because there [was] not enough evidence that the current situation” was misleading consumers.

Historically, the definition of natural was anything that existed in nature. With cancer and other diseases so prevalent, food and product safety is a growing concern. Scientific advances and the invention of new chemicals and processes each year forced the need to define use of the word “natural.” Spearheading the movement is Aubrey Organics, Badger Balm, Burt’s Bees, Trilogy Fragrances and Weleda.

NPA definition of “natural”
The NPA Web site states that, “Under the Natural Standard for Personal Care Products, allowed ingredients come or are made from a renewable resource found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral), with absolutely no petroleum compounds.” The site lists 839 ingredients as safe. The NPA seal may be used only if a product contains upwards of 95 percent natural ingredients.

Each ingredient must be listed as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA and follow its good manufacturing practices (GMP). The standard also states that a company must be fully transparent, listing its ingredients “accurately and truthfully.”

The NPA standard does not allow animal testing for ingredients or final products. It also requires that companies strive to use only recyclable or post-recycled packaging.

There are 39 banned ingredients, including parabens; sodium lauryl sulfate; sodium laureth sulfate; petrolatum/mineral oil/paraffin; chemical sunscreens (avobenzone/oxybenzone); glycols; phthalates; and formaldehyde donors. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors and toxic irritants.

The ban against these commonly used ingredients and presence of the NPA seal brings simplicity to choosing a healthier product. The NPA seal allows the consumer to trust the word natural. The standard also provides manufacturers clear manufacturing guidelines, as well as a seal reflecting label claim integrity.

5 percent synthetic allowance
There are some caveats to this “natural” standard. Clearly defined synthetic ingredients are allowed in a product with an NPA seal up to 5 percent. Those allowed synthetics are:

  • Non-paraben, non-formaldehyde-donating synthetic preservatives
  • Non-phthalate, non-irritating synthetic fragrances
  • Quaternary anti-static hair conditioners
  • Coco Betaine

This allowance, however, is geared for elimination in 2010.

The only synthetic ingredients allowed will be those that are chemically identical to a “natural” ingredient. A common term for this is bio-identical. This standard will follow the German BDIH (German Trade Association) personal care standard.

Ecological processing
The Natural Standard allows only ecological processing. The Web site states, “Ecological processing is minimal processing, sometimes known as ‘Kitchen Chemistry.’ This approach, including processes like distillation/condensation, extraction/steamed distillation/pressure cooking and hydrolysis, maximizes purity and minimizes negative effects on the ingredients.

“Additionally, there are several processes that dilute or change the composition of an ingredient. These processes, including sulfination, ethoxylation, polymerization and unfavorable varieties of quaternization that use caustic solvents, impurities and residual compounds, should always be avoided.”

The NPA list of allowed processes does not include nanotechnology. Yet two ingredients on the safe list contain nanoparticles, which currently are being investigated by the European Commission.

Nanoparticles vs. nanotechnology
Nanoparticles are nothing new. They have been around for millions of years.

A nanoparticle is anything that measures 100 nm (nanometer) or less. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is 80,000 nm wide. Hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells, measures 5 nm.

Nanoparticles are present in the body as proteins and in nature — for instance, the ash of a forest fire. Nanotechnology, however, was started only in the early 1980s. Particles found in nature are of different sizes. Not every piece of ash is a nanoparticle. Some are smaller and some bigger.

In nanotechnology, particle sizes created are typically of uniform size. These are not naturally found in nature and are potentially hazardous. If there’s any hole at all in the NPA Natural Standard, it’s that it does not require a company to reveal the presence of nanoparticles.

For instance, two ingredients often used in “natural” sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They’re used in nanoparticle form to make them more aesthetically pleasing; the technology changes the color from white to clear. Both Aubrey Organics and Badger Balm say their sunscreens contain some nanoparticles but they also say they don’t use nanotechnology in processing those ingredients. (See sidebar for differing views on nanotechnology.)

The highest standards for safe shopping
Currently PCC carries about 85 different brands of body care products. Approximately 47 of those companies are compliant with the new Natural Standard. This means that 38 of those companies either will have to agree to change their formulations or be discontinued.

More than 100 products currently bear the NPA seal for Natural Standard Certified. Companies with certification are:

  • Aubrey Organics
  • Boom LLC
  • Burt’s Bees
  • Highland Laboratories
  • JR Watkins Natural Apothecary, Nature’s Way
  • S and V Corp
  • Yes to Carrots

Details of the Natural Standard and a complete list of products that currently carry the seal can be found on the NPA Web site, at The Natural Standard is a work in progress; new companies and products continually will be added to the list.

What if my favorite product has no seal?
The easiest way to find out would be to call the company itself. There are many companies that comply with the standard but their products do not bear the seal. You can find these at PCC.

Similar to the process of becoming a certified organic food, certification to carry the seal is costly and some companies may choose not to become Natural Standard certified. PCC is not requiring companies to be certified but we are asking for assurance that they’re complying. It’s reported that the cost of certification will cause a nominal increase in product costs.

The beauty of the standard, however, means that products must meet a threshold for health and safety. It enables PCC shoppers to purchase any body care, skin or hair product and trust that it has the most stringent standards of safety in the U.S. marketplace.

Dr. Samia McCully received her degree in naturopathic medicine from Bastyr University and has a private practice in Menlo Park, Calif. She is expecting her first child in September. She’ll be reading labels carefully on all body care products. She may be contacted through

More about: health and body care products, Natural Standard