If given the choice, many people prefer natural products over items made with chemicals and toxins. According to a survey conducted by Natural Foods Merchandiser, natural products retailers racked up $36 billion in sales in 2010. But is it possible to know if a product is made with natural ingredients just by reading the labels?
"There are very few guidelines when it comes to labeling and natural products," said Caroline Freedman, founder of NurturMe Organic Baby Food. "If something is 'all natural' or says it's 'non-GMO' (Genetically Modified Organisms) or even 'gluten free'— there is no government standard certification to prove this."
Freedman said while there is no governing body in place for products that claim to be "all natural," there are now different organizations that have taken steps to certify glutens and GMOs.
"Organic certification is monitored but there's nothing to hold companies accountable for all these other natural claims that you will see on the labels," she said. "We know this is something our customers are very concerned about."
And it's not only food items that have this labeling confusion. Suki Kramer, who started the Suki line of natural skin and hair products in 2002 after years of battling eczema, said the cosmetics world is a free-for-all when it comes to label regulations.
"We govern ourselves," Kramer said. "It's a voluntary process where the companies submit themselves to the FDA rather than being required to report to the FDA."
Kramer, who is creating an advertisement for her products that lists synthetic ingredients to inform consumers, said it just takes a little bit of education to stay clear of the chemicals.
"You don't have to become a chemist," Kramer said. "But synthetic ingredients are really cheap so they are everywhere."
Experts also suggest being wary of items with a long list of ingredients.
"The more ingredients you see on a label, the more likely it is that chemicals are involved," said Eric Boyce, CEO of Vaska, a natural laundry care line. "Our laundry detergent has eight ingredients. Brands with chemicals will often have more than 30."
Here are some tips to breaking down those natural product labels:
Look for an official certification. "'Kosher Certified' has been in place for a long time and their guidelines and standards are very specific," Freedman said. "And the QAI label — or Quality Assurance International — means the product is certified organic, and made with no pesticides or pollutants."
"The EPA recognition for DFE — Designed For the Environment — is one you can trust," Boyce said.
"I really like LeapingBunny.org," Kramer said. "They put their name on products that follow their protocol. In 10 years, nobody has ever come to my building and looked at what I do, except for them."
Beware of products with warnings. "Our label says 'dilute with water', not 'call poison control,'" Boyce said. "I actually drank our product to prove a point. It tastes terrible and it's not recommended, but it's safe enough to consume."
Avoid dyes and fragrances. "Dyes are really unnecessary and can be full of toxins," Kramer said. "The same goes for scents. The most harmful are listed as 'parfum' or 'parfume.' "
Get educated about synthetic or toxic ingredients. Kramer recommends you avoid parabens, formaldehyde, dimethicone, dioxin and pthalates.
"Any unfamiliar long scientific sounding words — that to me says it's heavily processed or a preservative," Freedman said.
Higher price doesn't mean higher quality. "Even the really expensive brands will have most of the same ingredients as the pharmacy brands," Kramer said. "It's very rare to find things that are 100 percent natural. So turn that product around and read the label panel.
"We do a lot of research with what we put out there and once people hear that 60 percent of what you put onto your skin goes into your bloodstream, you really start to pay more attention."