What Does 'Natural' Really Mean When It Comes to Baby Products?

We talked to an expert to find out what it truly means when a baby product has the word "natural" on its label.
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Any parent who purchases a baby product for their child does so in the hopes they are selecting something effective, yet safe. Many parents prefer to buy "natural" products to care for their little ones, or those that contain nontoxic ingredients that won't cause harmful side effects.

I know I read the labels on products like baby wipes and washes, and would typically trust that when it says "natural," well, that it is. So did San Diego mom Brittany Sebastian. She says she purchased Huggies Natural Care Baby Wipes because the packaging claimed the product was "natural," "gentle," and "hypoallergenic."

But now, according to CBS News, Sebastian is bringing a lawsuit against the wipe-maker, Kimberly-Clark, claiming that the supposedly-natural product isn't, as it contains the synthetic chemical phenoxyethanol, an ingredient added to keep wipes fresh that has also been linked to skin irritation, vomiting, and diarrhea, and is even poisonous if ingested.

It's worth noting that many baby-product makers, including Jessica Alba's Honest Company, use the chemical. And in a statement, Kimberly-Clark is denying any wrong-doing.

"Nothing is more important to Huggies than the safety and well-being of those families that use our products, and we stand behind our claims that Huggies Natural Care baby wipes are safe, having passed rigorous internal and independent safety evaluations that support our confidence in the quality and safety of this product," said spokesperson Terry Balluck.

Whether this case is with or without merit, it does bring up a very interesting question. How, as a parent, are you to know whether the products you are buying to care for your baby are actually natural?

We talked to Galen Roth, Stabile Law Fellow at the Enviornmental Working Group (EWG), to learn more. According to him, it's difficult for the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees personal care products, to regulate companies' claims about being natural. "Claims that products are 'all' or '100% natural' when they in fact contain synthetic ingredients are easier to identify as misleading than claims that products are 'natural,' because according to the agency it's less clear what exactly consumers expect from a 'natural' product. In fact, the FDA has not yet defined the term natural for cosmetics and other personal care products."

"In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission, which has authority over the marketing of personal care products, took action against some companies claiming that their personal care products were not 'all natural' or '100% natural,'" Roth told us. "The FTC said that companies should not call personal care products 'all natural' or '100% natural' if they cannot substantiate the claims with reliable evidence. However, the FTC has not taken any action on claims that personal care products are merely 'natural.'"

He further cautions: "Parents should understand that 'natural' has no legal definition. Personal care products may use terms like 'natural' on their labels and in their marketing when they in fact contain synthetic ingredients." Roth continues, "'Natural' does not necessarily mean 'safe.' For example, 'natural' claims don't guarantee that a personal care product is free of ingredients linked to allergies or other negative health effects. In addition to 'natural,' other claims on the front of labels that go unregulated include 'gentle' and 'hypoallergenic.'"

And unfortunately, as Roth explains, "Companies don't have to pass any tests to label their personal care products 'natural,' even when the products are intended for babies or children, [because the FDA] has very limited resources and authority to regulate their safety." That even goes for everyday baby products like wipes, believe it not.

He recommends reading product labels, and also using EWG's Skin Deep database to research specific products and ingredients.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and soon-to-be mom of four. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of yoga.

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