Marketers can have us confused between Natural, organic, certified organic and conventional products, How are we supposed to know the real difference between these words? Is certified organic really the way to go? Therese Kerr, Chemical Free Community Ambassador, clears up the confusion.

Question 1: Why is it so important to be clear on the difference between Conventional, Natural and Organic?

Sadly in the food industry ‘conventional’ implies the food is grown normally. But if you reflect on your grandparents day the use of pesticides and GMO was not normal. So conventional now means food grown using synthesized (man-made from chemicals) fertilizers, possibly genetically modified seeds, and possibly growth hormones & regular antibiotics (in the case of meat). So it is in fact anything but conventional.

Natural generally means no chemicals, genetically modified seeds, or hormones/antibiotics. As there is rigorous testing and expense involved with becoming organic, it is very common for small, local producers to market themselves as natural, non-certified organic or spray free because they generally are not doing enough business to justify the time and expense to become certified organic. Natural is not regulated so it’s not a guarantee of anything.

Certified Organic is the customer’s guarantee that all products manufactured by a company adhere to strict and rigorous criteria defined by an appropriate certifying body. Organic food is produced without using conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, antibiotics and growth hormones.

Some people lean away from conventionally grown food because they are concerned about putting chemicals in their bodies, while others are motivated by environmental concerns.

The certification criteria Certified Organic encompass every step of the process from pre-planting of the soil through to dispatch of the end product to the consumer via the warehouse.

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Question 2. Is there a simple way of looking at the difference? 

Many people think ‘organic produce’ and believe it is just about the things that are ‘added’  to the process that defines organic. It is not until prompted that the penny drops that it’s also about what is ‘missing’ with organic produce – that being pesticides, herbicides and toxic synthetic chemicals.  It is only then that organic & certified organic becomes meaningful.

If we take the cosmetic industry as an example. The Australian Certified Organics (ACO) has produced a criteria against which certified organic products are assessed.  When you review the criteria or Certified and  Natural, it is easy to see the differences. Amongst the difference is that Natural allows ingredients to be sourced from genetically modified plants.

Question 3. What do some of the Conventional and/or even so called “Organic” products contain that Certified Organic products don’t?

Most conventional skin, personal and hair care products contain TEAs, DEAs, Sulfates, Glycols, Parabens, Synthetic and Artificial ingredients, Ethoxylates, Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde derivatives.  A large number of toothpastes, mouthwash / mouth sprays for example contain Aspartame and Triclosan.

Health issues from these chemicals are infertility, skin rashes, cancer, learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive problems. As mentioned in a previous Chemical Free Community blog by Dr. Sarah Lantz, children are capable of absorbing 40-50% more than adults, therefore putting them at greater risk for health issues later in life. So it is important to minimise your children’s toxic exposure across all aspects of life.

As each country has different criteria for organic certification, some allowing a margin for non-organic and GMO ingredients, it is wise for all parents to read labels and become familiar with these nasty ingredients. If you are not sure which are safe then consult the resources like the Chemical Maze or the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database of products and ingredients.

Natural Cosmetics




Question 4. There are some pretty big words there, so if we take personal care products as an example, what are some of the key toxins we may be putting on our bodies?

If we are to be honest about conventional products, only the cosmetics companies know what they put in their products. Not all ingredients are required to be included on the label and there are many names for the one chemical.   The list of dangerous ingredients used in cosmetics is quite long — the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has stated that nearly 900 of the chemicals used in cosmetics are toxic. Some of the major ones you definitely want to avoid are:

  • Parabens are a group of chemicals widely used as preservatives in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. (Methylparaben, Propylparaben, IIsoparaben, Butylparaben). They have been
    • linked to possible carcinogenic activity.
    • believed to have an estrogenic impact on the body.
    • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked methyl parabens in particular to metabolic, developmental, hormonal, and neurological disorders, as well as various cancers.
    • used in over the counter personal products as a preservative to extend the shelf life of the product.
    • found in face, body moisturizers, body wash, deodorants and cleansers.”
  • Phthalates, plasticizing ingredients (present in nearly three-quarters of 72 products tested by the Environmental Working Group), which have been linked to birth defects in the reproductive system of boys and lower sperm-motility in adult men, among other problems. which can damage immune and nervous systems, reproductive and immune toxins per/
  • Toluene, made from petroleum or coal tar, and found in most synthetic fragrances. Chronic exposure linked to anaemia, lowered blood cell count, liver or kidney damage, and may affect a developing fetus.
  • Triclosan is a registered pesticide. It is an antimicrobial active ingredient contained in a variety of products where it acts to slow or stop the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew. Found in a large number of personal care products it is also apparently used in toothpaste to stop gingivitis. Brushing your teeth with any toothpaste containing Triclosan can expose you to the harmful effects which include impaired heart and muscle function and hypothyroidism.

Question 5. How can manufacturers put these toxic chemicals in products?

Easily. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), analysis (2010) of the 10,500 ingredients used in the range of personal care products such as, personal, hair and skincare, toothpaste, sunscreen and nail polish products, only 13% of them have been reviewed for safety in the last 30 years, and those that were reviewed were reviewed by the Cosmetics Ingredients Review, which is run by the cosmetics industry.

A report by the EWG in 2010 showed that on average, most women were likely to apply 126 different ingredients to their skin on a daily basis and roughly 90% of these ingredients have not been evaluated for safety.

Question 6. What would your advice be to try and avoid these toxic substances?

There are many non-toxic alternatives in the marketplace these days so there is no excuse not to be using chemical free products in your everyday lives:

  1. Eat organic product – minimise or eliminate processed foods.
  2. Use only certified organic household, personal, skin, hair care products.
  3. Use only certified organic deodorant. Do not use antiperspirants.
  4. If you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want to put it on your body. Ask yourself, “Would I eat this?”
  5. Look for products that are fragrance-free. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds – even thousands — of chemicals, and fragrances are a major cause of allergic reactions.
  6. Pay attention to the order in which the ingredients are listed. Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by volume, meaning the first few ingredients are the most prominent. If Lavender or Chamomile extract are the last ingredients in a long list on the label, your Lavender and Chamomile body wash isn’t very natural.
  7. Buy products that come in either glass bottles or ensure the plastic is Bisphenol A (BPA) free.
  8. Purchase certified organic products from companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly and green.
  9. Purchase either the Chemical Maze Book or the phone app and review all products when you go shopping. It’s a great way to become familiar with the things to avoid.


THERESE KERR: a mother to Miranda and Matthew Kerr, a co-founder and director of Divine by Therese Kerr, visionary, author, public speaker, Ambassador for holistic family health, the Health and Wellbeing, Ambassador for Australian Organic, an Ambassador for The Mind Foundation (prevention and treatment of autism), the Health and Wellbeing Advocate for Pink Hope (an organisation dedicated to the prevention of breast and ovarian cancer) and a Patron of Kids Helpline Australia.