A Health and Wellness Shopper’s Guide, Part 1: 15 Product Labels and What They Mean

Learn about the certifications and seals you might find on cosmetics, food packaging, produce and appliances and what they mean.

family grocery shopping

When choosing personal care products like lotion, deodorant, or toothpaste, it can be difficult to decide between various brands.

Each one seems to offer a different reason to buy, such as “longest-lasting” or “fragrance-free.”

Many brands also add certification labels to signify a health, environmental, or ethical benefit of the product.

But what do those certifications really mean?

We have compiled a list of common certifications or labels you might find on your personal care product labels to help you make the most educated choices while shopping.

In Part 1 of this series, we talk about the certifications and seals you might find on cosmetics, food packaging, produce, and appliances. In Part 2, we discuss the pros and cons of each certification. In the final, Part 3, of this series, we discuss “green” product marketing terms.

The “BPA-Free” label means that the plastic components of the packaging or item do not contain bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an endocrine disruptor and should be avoided. However, the replacements, such as BPS, are suspected to be equally harmful.
In general, if you want to avoid BPA, avoid hard plastics (#3 or #7), especially in food storage and preparation. Also avoid touching paper receipts. Note: this label is listed by manufacturers themselves, and NOT verified by any governmental or non-profit organizations.


California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is a nonprofit organization that promotes organic agriculture through product certification, education, and advocacy. Products with the CCOF mark have been inspected to ensure that
    1. Produce is grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
    2. Animals are given 100% organic feed, are not given antibiotics or growth hormones, and are raised in conditions that follow their natural behaviors
    3. Processed products are free of artificial preservatives, flavors and dyes


      The Vegan Awareness Foundation (VAF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about veganism and assisting vegan-friendly businesses. The VAF Certified Vegan label indicates that products do not contain any animal products or byproducts and have not been tested on animals. The foundation regulates every step in the manufacturing process to ensure that no contamination has occurred.

      Cosmebio is an association dedicated towards informing customers what products are truly natural and organic in efforts to combat greenwashing. Cosmebio offers three certification categories:

      • The Cosmetique Bio seal: At least 95% of the ingredients of the total product must be made with water and mineral or mineral-based ingredients; at least 95% of the plant-based ingredients must be organic; and at least 10% of the ingredients of the total product must be organic.

      • The Cosmetique Nat seal: Approximately 95% to 100% of the ingredients of the total product must be of natural origin (with water and mineral or mineral-based ingredients considered as natural).

      • The Cosmetique Bio COSMOS Organic seal: Approximately 95% to 100% of the ingredients of the total product must be of natural origin (with water and mineral or mineral-based ingredients considered as natural); 95% to 100% of plant-based ingredients must be organic; and 20% minimum of the ingredients of the total product must be organic.

      ECOCERT is a company that inspects and certifies organic agricultural products and cosmetics to protect the environment.Products with the ECOCERT label are renewably sourced and are packaged in biodegradable or recyclable materials. ECOCERT checks for the absence of GMO, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicon, PEG, synthetic perfumes and dyes, and animal-derived ingredients. For the natural and organic cosmetics label, a minimum of 95% of all the plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming.


      The Environmental Working Group (EWG) labels personal care products including cosmetics, baby, skin, hair, and sun care, cleaning products, and more. EWG Verified products do not contain any of the chemicals that are on EWG’s “list of concern.” EWG does not perform any product testing, and manufacturers submit their product and manufacturing information to EWG for verification.


      The Fairtrade Mark was developed by Fairtrade International. It informs consumers that purchasing the labeled product is an ethical choice to support workers, farmers, and their communities. A Fairtrade product meets international social, environmental, and economic standards of fair trade practices. Certified products are traceable from production to the shelf.


      The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) promotes environmentally conscious, socially sound, and economically viable management of the world’s forests. The FSC verifies that materials sourced from forests meet their standards at every stage of processing, transformation, manufacturing and distribution. This label can be found on personal care product boxes and shows that the paper and/or cardboard is manufactured from FSC certified forests, recycled material or other controlled sources.


      The Leaping Bunny label indicates that products are “cruelty free.” It is managed by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC). In order to be certified, products must adhere to stringent qualifications as defined by the CCIC. These include not testing any product or ingredient on animals or purchasing any ingredient from a company that tests any of its products on animals.


      The MADE SAFE label indicates that products are made without ingredients that are known to be toxic to people. Rather than performing research, they rely on a scientist-developed toxic ingredient list. MADE SAFE products must undergo screening once every three years in order to ensure the product contains the same safe formula as when screened.


      The Natural Product Association (NPA) is a nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes the interests of the natural products industry (dietary supplements, natural health & sports nutrition, medical & functional foods, probiotics and natural personal/home care products) by participating in regulatory and legislative issues. The NPA defines ‘natural products’ as having been formulated without artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. The NPA has also created a label that is specific to certified natural personal care products.


      NATRUE is an international non-profit association committed to promoting natural and organic cosmetic products. In light of the lack of an internationally standardized definition of natural and organic cosmetics, NATRUE advocates for better regulation and transparency of ingredients. They also work to combat misleading claims (i.e. “greenwashing”). Products marked with the NATRUE Certified label undergo strict inspections to ensure that their marketing claims are true to their actual formulas.


      The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that strives to educate consumers, preserve and build sources of non-GMO food, and verify non-GMO products. GMO stands for genetically modified organism, and products with this seal have been verified to be free of GMOs. To be verified, a product must pass ingredient screening as well as possible GMO testing and onsite inspection.


      The NSF certification is run by NSF International, a global public health and safety organization. They certify a variety of products from home and kitchen appliances to water treatment systems to ensure that materials are compliant with food and water safety standards. This means that they make sure that verified products are easy to clean, resistant to bacteria growth, and contain no toxic chemicals or contaminants that might harm human health. In addition, NSF certifies vitamins and supplements for label claims and contaminants. The organization relies on product testing, material analysis, and plant inspection to certify products.


      Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) is a non-profit organization that certifies, educates and advocates for biologically sound and socially equitable organic agriculture and products. OTCO aims to educate farmers, legislators and consumers about the need to develop sustainable agricultural practices, such as the promotion of soil health, conservation of natural resources, and prevention of environmental degradation. Products with the OTCO certification are assessed using the USDA National Organic Program criteria. This certification involves on-site inspections, strict production standards and legally-binding contracts.


      The Rainforest Alliance seal verifies that a farm, forest, or tourism enterprise meets standards of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. To be verified, a business, farm, or product must pay to be audited to ensure that the sustainability standards are met. Recently, the Rainforest Alliance merged with UTZ, which certifies coffee, tea, hazelnuts, and cocoa, so a new combined certification will be revealed soon.


      The National Organic Program (NOP) is a government organization that develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling and enforcement of all U.S. Department of Agriculture organic products. Organic products must be produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge; must be produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances; and must be overseen by the USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agents. At least 95% of the total number of ingredients must be certified organic in order for a product to be considered “organic.”

      For more information about health and wellness product labels and marketing terms, check out Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.