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5 Ways to Figure Out Misleading “Green” Product Labels

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In the past decade, the market has responded to our desire for cleaner, safer, and purer personal care products. Today, you can find so-called “green” products just about anywhere, from your local whole foods store to online shops like Sephora to your standard Walmart.

The problem is that a lot of these products may say they’re “natural” or “organic,” but fail to actually live up to their claims. Manufacturers know that today’s savvy customers are willing to pay a few pennies more for a product they believe will be better for their health, so they pile on the hype, shouting about how green their products are, when in reality, they may have simply thrown in a plant extract or two and called it good.

Why does this happen? Profit, plain and simple. Imagine you’re Joe CEO, head of a huge corporation, and you’re tasked with improving your bottom line for the following year. You haven’t hit the “green” market yet, so you set your teams to work on a new product line. They come back with two scenarios: 1) use real natural ingredients and either increase prices to cover the costs or take a hit on profit margin; or 2) keep the same standard formula, but add a few green-sounding ingredients to satisfy the health-conscious consumer, while keeping prices low and profits high. I don’t  have to tell you what many corporations choose!

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This is why it’s so necessary for us to read labels and continue to educate ourselves about what’s safe and what’s not. I’ve already given you a convenient “Ingredients to Avoid” card you can take with you when you go shopping, but here are a few more tips to help you determine the wheat from the chaff.

1. Read the label. It’s the easiest way to discover the truth. Read to find out what’s really inside the product!

2. Look for ingredients you can pronounce, and use caution with words like “natural” and “organic.” So far, we have no regulations in this country concerning the use of these words, so even if a product puts just one organic ingredient in a formula, they can call the whole thing “organic.” Some organic products can still contain potentially harmful carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and other harsh chemicals. Real organic stuff will contain simpler ingredients you can actually pronounce. If you see a USDA seal, that’s also a good sign, as that means that the product is 95 percent organic. Just make sure the other five percent doesn’t include phthalates, petrochemicals, and the like.

3. Pay attention to pecking order. In the world of personal care products, being first is important. What’s the first ingredient on the list? How about the second and third? Lots of products claiming to be natural or green will throw in herbs and extracts, but you can tell they’re frauds when you see these near the end of the ingredient list.

4. Don’t be deceived by “naturally derived.” Boiling hot water may be “naturally derived,” but does that mean it’s safe? Of course not. The source may be water—perfectly natural—but at a boiling temperature it’s plenty dangerous. Manufacturers love to put “naturally derived” on their labels to make you think they’re natural. Take something like PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate. Yes, it comes from coconut oil, but the problem is what happens between the coconut and the product. In this case, the ingredient is put through a lot of processing, which can include the use of chemicals and may result in dangerous by-products. Don’t be fooled. Just because the source is safe doesn’t mean the end product is.

5. Forget fragrance. I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating: the word “fragrance” is a handy term manufacturers can use to cover up whatever they’re using to create that fragrance—which is often lots of chemicals.

Do you have other tips for scouting out safe products? Please share.