Making Sense of Personal Care Product Labels

Personal care products at Moss EnvyDetective needed. Aisle 3. Body Care Products.

Think about the last time you went shopping for lotion or eye shadow. Did you feel like a detective, looking for clues to solve a mystery in the body care aisle? Trying to find safe, natural personal care products can be confusing, no doubt about it, but who wants to play detective on every shopping trip?

In an effort to help you solve the mystery before you head to the store, I thought it would be useful to explain a few things about personal care and cosmetic products labels. First of all, it’s critical to know that the words “natural” and “organic” are completely unregulated and therefore have no true meaning on their own.

Fortunately, there are a number of seals and certifications to help identify products that can legitimately be called natural or organic. When I see one of these seals, I know that someone has already done the detective work for me. I can trust that the products meet strict standards for certification. Each certification means something a little bit different, so take a look and decide which ones are most important to you and your family.

(Note: There are plenty of high-quality, safe products that are not certified by one of these organizations. My main point here is that it makes it our lives much easier when we see one of these seals of approval and immediately know what we are buying. It means less detective work on our part!)

Usda organic seal

USDA Organic

  • Personal care products must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, excluding water and salt
  • Must meet the same stringent guidelines as agricultural ingredients
  • Remaining ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances or nonorganically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form, approved on the National Organic Program’s National List
  • Certifying agent’s name and address must appear on the label
  • Most likely to be found on lip balms, body butters, massage oils and other products that do not need preservatives or emulsifiers
  • Example: Bubble & Bee
  • Learn more


The standard was created for food products. The USDA has no authority over the production and labeling of cosmetics, body care products, and personal care products that are not made up of agricultural ingredients.

NPA seal personal care

Natural Products Association

  • The product must be made up of at least 95 percent truly natural ingredients or ingredients that are derived from natural sources, excluding water
  • No ingredients with any suspected human health risks
  • No processes that significantly or adversely alter the natural ingredients
  • Ingredients that come from a purposeful, natural source (flora, fauna, mineral)
  • Processes that are minimal and don’t use synthetic/harsh chemicals
  • Transparency and full disclosure of ingredients
  • Example: J.R. Watkins
  • Learn more


Certain synthetic ingredients are allowed when a non-natural substitute is not available but only when there are absolutely no suspected potential human health risks.

NSF Ansi 305


  • “Contains Organic Ingredients” standard developed specifically for personal care and cosmetics
  • Formula must contain at least 70% organic content by weight
  • Ingredients must be USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certified
  • Companies required to state exact percentage of organic content on label
  • Limited chemical processing typical for personal care products (but not allowed for USDA Organic), such as saponification to make products lather, is allowed
  • Example: Dolphin Organics
  • Learn more and more


Some synthetic chemical processes/ingredients are allowed.



  • Minimum of 95% naturally derived, plant-based ingredients and 10% organic ingredients (including water, salts and minerals, unlike USDA Organic and other certifications)
  • Popular European certification
  • Example: The Organic Skin Care Company
  • Learn more


Can be misleading as only 10% organic ingredients are required for the organic cosmetic designation. Some synthetic ingredients are allowed.

Whole foods premium body care

Whole Foods Market Premium Body Care

  • Stringent guidelines for ingredient safety, environmental impact, source and efficacy
  • Over 400 unacceptable ingredients including parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl and laureth sulfates, artificial fragrances and many more
  • Used for both private label and independent brands sold at Whole Foods Market
  • Example: Andalou Naturals
  • Learn more


Only available on products sold at Whole Foods Market. Some synthetic ingredients allowed.

COPA seal

COPA – California Organic Products Act

  • Product must contain a minimum of 70% organic content, excluding water and extracts
  • Labels must include an asterisk to identify organic ingredients
  • Example: Juice Beauty
  • Learn more


Can only be regulated in California but has effects nationwide. Some synthetic ingredients allowed.

Do you look for any of these seals when you shop for personal care products and cosmetics?

Postsiggie4 copy


About Micaela

Micaela Preston is a marketing and communications consultant specializing in natural, organic and eco-friendly products and the health and wellness space. Micaela is available as a social media manager, green lifestyle writer, public speaker, brand ambassador and marketing manager.


  1. What a great list — very helpful! After reading “The Non-Toxic Avenger,” a list like this will be very helpful in trying to reduce exposure to parabens and phthalates.

  2. I love this post! Those labels can be so confusing. Off to share!

  3. Hi Desiree – glad you find this helpful. I read The Non-Toxic Avenger too – great book, huh?

  4. Thanks for sharing the post Lori – I appreciate it!

  5. Yes, we certainly try! Although, I find many of the specialty natural, non-toxic eczema products don’t have certifications when they’re from really small, literately mom and pop run businesses.

    Great list though!


  6. Susan Apito says:

    This statement is false: “First of all, it’s critical to know that the words “natural” and “organic” are completely unregulated and therefore have no true meaning on their own.”

    The word “ORGANIC” is regulated by the USDA NOP and applies to any product made with agricultural ingredients, including cosmetics.

    I also recently found out that the Certifying agent’s address does not need to be on the label – just the name.

    This site says “The USDA has no authority over the production and labeling of cosmetics, body care products, and personal care products that are not made up of agricultural ingredients.”

    That is true…so if the product has NO agricultural ingredients – in other words, it would have to be all synthetic ingredients, then the USDA has no authority. Like laws governing dogs don’t cover cats even though both are companion animals and pets.

    In addition to the 100% Organic and Organic category, there are two additional categories regulated under the authority of the USDA NOP.

    Claims that a product is “Made with organic” and the claims that a product “Contains organic”. Products in both categories have to be USDA Certified Organic in order to to make such claims, however neither may use the Organic seal in marketing materials or in retail displays in proximity to these products.

    The “Made with organic XYZ” product MUST display the certifying agent’s name; If a product has “Less than 70 percent organic ingredients–Products cannot use the term “organic” anywhere on the principal display panel” AND “Products may not display the USDA Organic Seal and may not display a certifying agent’s name and address.” The reason for that is, listing the certifying agent’s name and address implies the product is actually contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

    The problem with the COPA seal is that the phrase “Made with Certified Organic Ingredients” is governed by the USDA NOP, so these products would have to be USDA Certified Organic to make such a claim.

  7. How about NPA (Natural Products Association) Certified products?

  8. Baby Mantra is NPA certified.

  9. Hi Kelly – I've got the Natural Products Association (NPA) on the list! Maybe you missed it?

  10. Thank you. Didn’t mean to be rude..i love the information.

  11. Hi Susan, Thanks for the information. You are clearly very passionate about organics!

  12. I am not so sure about “Susan” saying your statement is false. Anyone can put natural and/or organic on a product without it being certified organic. For example, I have seems cosmetic products with organic lavender it in, but all the other ingredients are questionable, but organic is on the product. And I found “Susan” to be slightly rude.

    I didnt know that about the 10% organic for the eco-cert certification. Thanks, Micaela!

  13. These are by far my favorite kind of posts 🙂 As a consumer, I always want to know about the products I’m buying. Thanks!

  14. Glad you liked the post Katie! Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Hi Micaela! Loved this so I featured it on this week’s Your Green Resource and pinned it. It already has 14 repins!

  16. Thanks so much Andrea – I appreciate it!

  17. Skin care says:

    Great info. Lucky me I came across your website by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve bookmarked it for later!

  18. Never heard of the Natural Products Association.
    Thanks for all the info you posted. It is going to keep me busy for the rest of the day!


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