We use words like “non-toxic” a lot here at The Filtery. But what does non-toxic mean, really? And what about similar words like “natural” or “eco-friendly” or “clean”?
You might be surprised that these words don’t actually mean anything specific.
So in this article, we’re going to talk about how these different terms are generally used and some of the things to keep in mind when you see them on product labels or marketing materials.
Table of Contents
- What Does Non-Toxic Mean?
- Acute vs. Chronic Toxicity
- Depends on the Product
- “Non-Toxic” For Whom?
- Keeping in Mind Lack of Research and The Precautionary Principle
- More Terms Like “Non-Toxic”
- “__________ – Free”
- “Eco-Friendly,” “Sustainable,” or “Green”
- Third Party Certifications Can Help
- So… Does this mean we should stop using these words?
- How we approach these terms here at The Filtery
What Does Non-Toxic Mean?
In the United States, there aren’t actually any standards or qualifications that have to be met in order for a company to slap a “non-toxic” label on a product.
Instead, companies are mostly deterred from using terms like “non-toxic” inappropriately because of the threat of negative PR or lawsuits. We’ve seen companies like Method and Thinx get in trouble for marketing their products as “non-toxic” and “natural” and then get sued when someone tests their products for a substance that’s known to cause health concerns.
Usually, these types of lawsuits end up getting resolved through a settlement, without the brands having to admit wrongdoing. But it can be financially costly and can damage the trust the brand has built with consumers as well.
So if there’s no real standard for the word, then let’s look at what it could mean…
Acute vs. Chronic Toxicity
One thing to keep in mind when you see the word “non-toxic” is the difference between acute and chronic toxicity.
Acute toxicity refers to a reaction that is relatively immediate and often short-lived. Things like shortness of breath and skin rashes fall into this category.
Chronic toxicity refers to effects of an ingredient that is more longterm and/or develops over a long period of time. This includes things like cancer and reproductive damage as a result of endocrine disruption exposure.
The controversy surrounding “toxicity” is often a result of this issue of acute versus chronic toxicity. In a more traditional sense, something is considered “toxic” when there is a known acute effect. Something was basically only considered “toxic” if it could kill living things (whether that’s rats in the lab or humans in the real world) or if it led to some other immediate and severe effect. Whether or not it led to cancer a decade later isn’t really considered (especially when it comes to new chemicals just hitting the market).
However, an increasing number of scientists, doctors, activists, and lawmakers are putting more recognition on the longterm effects of the chemicals we introduce into our world. (We also take these chronic health concerns into consideration when we talk about whether or not something is “toxic” or “non-toxic” here at The Filtery.)
Depends on the Product
Another thing to keep in mind is that what “non-toxic” specifically means might change depending on the product.
For example, a few specific things you’ll want to look for in “non-toxic” cosmetics are talc, heavy metals, and phthalates (among other things). Whereas when you’re looking for a “non-toxic” sofa, you’re going to want to watch out for some different kinds of chemicals, such as flame retardants and stain-repellant PFAS.
This is one way companies can confuse consumers and greenwash products—they label something as being free from a certain toxicant when that chemical wouldn’t have even been used in that kind of product in the first place. As an example, these sandwich bags are labeled as “BPA-free,” but BPA wouldn’t have even been used for soft plastics like this in the first place. Phthalates, however, are very commonly used for soft plastics! So phthalates, not BPA, is one of the main chemicals of concern for this specific product.
(As a reminder: greenwashing is basically when a brand advertises something as “natural” or “sustainable” or “non-toxic” when it’s really not.)
“Non-Toxic” For Whom?
Here’s another question to ask when we think about the definition of “non-toxic.” When we say something is “non-toxic” or “safe” for someone, who exactly are we talking about?
Something may not be harmful for a healthy adult but it may cause serious problems for a developing baby. Someone with an autoimmune condition, a genetic predisposition, or a greater overall body burden are also at an increased risk of experiencing the negative effects of toxic chemicals.
Keeping in Mind Lack of Research and The Precautionary Principle
One last thing to keep in mind on this issue is that sometimes things are deemed “non-toxic” when they either have only gone through minimal testing or haven’t even been tested at all. For the most part, the chemicals that do get tested before they’re deemed “safe” and hit the market are researched for a maximum of three months… But that’s not always long enough to determine whether or not something is really “non-toxic,” especially when it comes to things like carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. (Again, going back to the issue of acute vs. chronic toxicity.)
This brings up the topic of the precautionary principle. This is basically an approach that “advocates measures to prevent harm when serious or irreversible damage is possible but scientiﬁc consensus is lacking.”
It basically means that even if there is reason to be concerned despite the fact that there is not yet enough conclusive data to say something is definitely toxic, then we should proceed with caution and consider not putting that chemical onto shelves unless its absolutely necessary.
There are a lot of chemicals that are now ubiquitous in our environment which we were once told were “safe” and “non-toxic” but now we know are not at all. This includes things like PFAS, DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, cigarettes, and more.
More Terms Like “Non-Toxic”
Here are some related words that you’ll see beside “non-toxic” and how they are generally used:
You can pretty much apply all of the info above to the word “safe.” What does “safe” actually mean? Are we talking safe in an acute way, or a chronic way? How much research has actually been done to determine the chemical as “safe”? And for whom exactly is it safe?
This one is most often used in relation to “clean beauty.” It usually means that beauty products are free from things like animal testing, phthalates, parabens, talc, formaldehyde releasers, and more.
But here again, there’s actually no standard to what “clean beauty” actually means. Each brand’s definition may look a little different. Ingredient transparency and third-party certifications can help give you some more info about how “clean” a brand or product really is.
This is a confusing one because technically, everything is a chemical. And of course, not all chemicals are bad.
Usually what people mean when they say “chemical-free” is either “synthetic-chemical-free” or more generally just “non-toxic.” So it can be helpful to clarify what someone really means when they say “chemical-free.”
“__________ – Free”
Although terms like “phthalate-free,” and “BPA-free” can be helpful, they are often incomplete. Companies sometimes use these types of labels to discretely communicate to customers that a product is truly non-toxic, but it’s really only addressing one chemical.
For example, a skincare product can be “phthalate-free,” but that doesn’t mean anything about whether or not it contains parabens (which is another type of endocrine disruptor).
Or to use another example, something can be “BPA-free,” but still contain other bisphenols like BPS or BPF, which are just as bad as BPA.
Again, this one doesn’t really mean anything at all. As we know, natural doesn’t automatically mean “safe” or “non-toxic.” (Lead, for example, is natural and is toxic.)
Companies frequently use “natural” to greenwash as well. For example, you might notice a phrase like “Made with natural ingredients,” which might make you think it’s a 100% natural or non-toxic product. But just because it’s “made with natural ingredients” doesn’t mean it’s made with ALL natural ingredients, right? Theoretically, it could contain 50 ingredients, with only two of them being natural ones, and they could put a “made with natural ingredients” phrase on the bottle.
Other sneaky phrases include things like:
- “nature-inspired” or “garden-inspired”
- “infused with essential oils”
- “thoughtfully-chosen ingredients”
- “spring meadow,” “April fresh,” “lavender breeze,” etc.
In general, “plant-based” usually means that the product or specific ingredient was sourced from a renewable resource instead of petroleum. Here are a few things to keep in mind with this one:
- Just because something is “plant-based” doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing is made from plants or natural ingredients.
- Just because something is sourced from a plant does not necessarily mean the end product can still be considered “natural.” Bamboo fabric is a good example of this. Bamboo has to go through such an intense manufacturing process that by the end of the process, it’s considered a “semi-synthetic.”
- Sourcing is important here. Just because something is plant-based doesn’t automatically mean it’s sustainable. Sugarcane, for example, is plant-based can be sourced in a way that leads to deforestation and air pollution.
Out of all the terms we’re talking about on this list, organic is probably the one that has the most solid definition behind it. In general, an “organic” product or material means it was grown and processed without the use of synthetic pesticides.
Of course, in chemistry, “organic” refers to any compound that requires carbon, but that’s not what most consumers are talking about when they use the word in this context.
Third party certifications like USDA Organic and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) can help identify organic products that have actually met a specific set of standards. These certification labels aren’t perfect either, but they can definitely help.
“Eco-Friendly,” “Sustainable,” or “Green”
Again, the terms “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” don’t actually mean anything specific. Companies put these labels on their products all the time, whether or not those products are truly sustainable or not.
The term “non-toxic” is usually used to refer to a chemical’s potential effect on humans, whereas terms like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” are used in reference to Earth’s larger ecosystems.
Of course, a lot of times there is a lot of overlap here. PFAS, for example, are bad for both human and environmental health.
Other times, however, they might diverge. For example, many products made with recycled plastics are marketed as “eco-friendly,” but they cannot be considered “non-toxic” because of the fact that recycled plastics often contain endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates.
Other terms that are often used in conjunction with “sustainable” include things like:
- Compostable / Biodegradable
- Recycled / Recyclable
- Carbon Offset / Low Carbon / NetZero / Plastic Neutral
All of these terms have somewhat “gray” definitions, and brands need to be able to back up what they actually mean when they use these terms.
Third Party Certifications Can Help
Although they are also imperfect, third party verification systems can help clear up some of the confusion on these terms. Third party certifications can provide some accountability for brands to prove that their products are actually non-toxic, natural, organic, eco-friendly, or whatever else they’re claiming.
MADE SAFE, for example, is one of our favorite certifications for non-toxic products. Be on the lookout for a more thorough breakdown of the different third party certifications soon (there are a lot of them!).
So… Does this mean we should stop using these words?
If all of these words don’t actually mean anything and just cause confusion, should we stop using them altogether?
Maybe, maybe not.
GreenBiz recommends that brands stay away from most of these terms in order to “be true in advertising, earn trust and avoid lawsuits.” That’s probably good advice, especially considering that the FTC and outside advocacy groups are really starting to crack down on greenwashing these days.
However, even as frustrating as greenwashing can be, these terms can still be very useful… In my opinion, the issue is not so much that brands are using these words at all, but rather that they’re using them without backing them up.
I believe brands that use this kind of language should be extremely transparent not only about what exactly they mean but also about their ingredients, sourcing, testing, progress, and goals. They should be able to back up their claims as much as possible, with things like independent lab tests, third-party certifications, blockchain-traced supply chains, and/or other types of verifications.
As consumers, I tend to think we should use these terms as a starting point, but that we should not take them as gospel. We shouldn’t necessarily take brands at face value when we see these types of claims on products, but rather dig deeper to find out what they actually mean.
How we approach these terms here at The Filtery
We often use words like “non-toxic” in our article titles in large part because that’s what consumers are searching for on the internet (and that’s who we’re here to help!).
Then when you actually read our articles, we’ll talk about what we’re actually looking for in a “non-toxic” product in that category. We talk about the specific materials or ingredients to try and avoid, and the healthier ones to look for instead.
Sometimes there isn’t really a 100% “non-toxic” option for something, and when that’s the case, we aim to fill you in on the nuances, pros, and cons so that you can make the best decision for you (even if it’s not the perfect one).
In short: our goal is to give you the best non-toxic options (or at least “low-tox” if a truly non-toxic option isn’t available), but we’ll actually tell you what we mean by that when giving our recommendations.
What other questions do you have about these terms? Don’t hesitate to let us know. And if you’re interested in getting more tips & tricks, toxin headlines, and other fun stuff delivered to your inbox once a week, sign up for Filtered Fridays.