Organic, Natural, and Nontoxic— What do these terms really mean?


These words are frequently used on product labels (especially our beauty and cleaning products), but what do they really mean?

My family looks at me a little odd when Saturday morning cleaning time rolls around. I am dressed in my old goggles from undergraduate chemistry lab, an N95 face mask, bright blue elbow-high latex gloves, and pulled together with my special rubber cleaning shoes. When I shared that this is my cleaning get-up with friends, they all gasped and asked, “What are you cleaning with to need to wear that? Everything I use is natural?” This interaction inspired this post exploring what organic, natural/ plant-based, and non-toxic mean when you see them on product labels and if you can use these unprotected without adverse risk to your health.

One Word – 3 Different Meanings

  1. Organic Chemistry – is a subdiscipline involving the study of the structure, properties, and reactions of compounds and materials primarily composed of carbon and hydrogen but that may also have oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorous. You might be wondering why this needs its own discipline within chemistry. The answer is that these few elements form so many different conformations that they are the fundamental units for pharmacy, energy, plastic or polymers, and natural products industries. 
  2. Organic Food – USDA-certified organic is a highly regulated label stating that foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines that encompass soil, animal raising practices, chemicals, and use of additives. For example, organic produce must have been grown in soil that had no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides for three years, and organic meat must have been raised in natural conditions (ability to graze or roam) and not given hormones or antibiotics. 
  3. Organic cleaners, textiles, and dietary supplements – These are outside of regulation by the USDA. This means that companies can label products as organic, and unless legal action is pursued, there isn’t much ramification. Some companies include organic if they use chemicals in their products from The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, but this list is more targeted at requirements for organic food. 

Natural, sometimes known as plant-based, is often included with the organic descriptor, and often, the first thought that comes to mind is that if it comes from nature, it must be safe. Here are a few chemicals that come from nature and cause a lot of harm. Lead is naturally occurring, and lead carbonate (carbon and oxygen) was used in face powder for centuries and caused severe health problems. Queen Elizabeth I was a heavy user of this face powder, and it is thought to be a main contributor to her death. Other examples include arsenic, which is naturally occurring in soil and found in groundwater but is highly toxic, and many plants like the Oleander and Foxglove produce cardiac glycosides, which are deadly if too much is ingested. Household cleaners often use natural to indicate that the cleaning chemicals are not synthetic, as in not manufactured in a lab. Natural cleaning products are usually safer for the environment and, depending on the natural product, can be safer if they come into contact with your body. However, they aren’t necessarily always better than synthetic products. A natural product can still be a health and environmental hazard if too much is used. I still recommend, even with natural cleaners to wear gloves, goggles, and a face mask when cleaning to ensure that you’re not breathing in odors that could be harmful and it’s not getting absorbed through your skin.

A chemical is considered toxic if a relatively small amount is harmful and nontoxic if it would take a considerable amount to cause a negative human impact, but this is very vague, and a general concept used to help chemistry students grapple with the terms. There is no actual rule or regulation regarding how a company uses the term non-toxic on their products. In a lawsuit against S.C. Johnson for labeling their window cleaner non-toxic, they argued that no reasonable consumer would understand non-toxic to mean that the product causes no risk of harm at all. The plaintiffs felt that the company was improperly using non-toxic because the cleaner could cause eye and skin irritation. The issue with leaving this term vague on product labeling is not knowing how much of the product will result in a toxic impact. From personal experience, my sister uses a nontoxic household cleaner that she routinely uses to clean her fruits and vegetables. When I asked her if that was safe for food, her response was that it’s nontoxic; you could drink it if you wanted. It wouldn’t be correct to equate non-toxic with safe for consumption. When cleaning surfaces for food or food items, a food-grade product should always be used. For a product labeled nontoxic, I would still wear my goggles, gloves, and mask when I used it in my house.

This might not have been as uplifting as you had hoped to have those feel-good takeaways about chemicals in products, but with knowledge comes the ability to use products and reduce the risk they bring to yourself and your family. Advertising companies are always clever in using language to make us feel at ease. Organic, natural, and non-toxic as it relates to products are all currently not highly regulated, so always read product labels, wear the proper fashion for cleaning, and ensure anything you use around food is food-grade.

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