Is that natural product really natural?

The natural way is often the best way. So I've long been an advocate of using natural products whenever possible. In my experience, natural alternatives to drugs, and natural foods (like raw milk and grass-fed beef), just fit in with well, the natural order of things. But in these increasingly confusing times, it can be difficult to track down items that are what they claim to be. Not because they're hard to find, but because of the varying definitions of just what "natural" means.

The market for natural personal care products is already huge, and growing larger every day. Shampoo, soap, lotions, lip balms, and other goods are in high demand. Unfortunately, knowing which of these products are truly made with natural ingredients isn't as easy as reading the label. But the Natural Products Association (NPA) is trying to take the guesswork out of the process. The organization has just announced a new certification program in an effort to clear up some of the confusion.

NPA President Debra Short says that "anyone could claim their product was 'natural' even if it's 100 percent synthetic or petroleum based. That wasn't fair to consumers or to companies who make truly natural products." Short hopes that the new NPA seal of approval will make it easier for consumers.

Why all this mess? Well, unlike in food products, there's no standard definition of "natural" in personal care products that's used by the industry. And there is also no LEGAL definition of "natural" for these products. This makes the personal care product market the wild west of marketing claims. And since marketers want their products to be all things to all people, if consumers are clamoring for "natural" goods, marketers smell a profit (remember: FOLLOW THE MONEY!). So to the marketers of nearly every product, "natural" is merely a product claim that they believe will help increase demand.

And in this case, the marketers are right. According to research, about 78 percent of American women think natural personal care products are currently regulated or are not sure if it is but 97 percent of these same women believe it should be. What's more, two-thirds of the women polled believe that a personal care product with a "natural" label should contain at least 95 percent natural ingredients.

Thankfully, the NPA has stepped in with their NPA seal of approval. And their standards are no joke - there are strict guidelines that must be followed in order to get the NPA seal on a product. Products must indeed be made up of at least 95 percent truly natural ingredients derived from natural sources. The manufacturing process must be minimal, and must not use synthetic chemicals that could dilute purity. And of course, there can be no ingredients with any suspected potential human health risks.

If you want the details of what it takes for a product to be stamped with the NPA seal, go to their website, http://www.naturalproductsassoc.org/certifiednatural. And while you're there, be sure to make a note of what the seal looks like.

Make no mistake - there's still no legally binding set of rules and regulations for natural product claims, but it's a start. The seal will start appearing on products in the next few months, so be sure to keep an eye out.

Clothing chemical could cause SIDS

"Organic" is another trendy product claim, but it's far more tightly regulated than "natural." But while we normally associate the term "organic" with foods, there's increasing demand for organic floors, carpets, mattresses, window covering, and clothes. Some may think this could be taking the whole "goodness of mother Earth" thing a little far - myself included. As much as I advocate all things natural, I'm not sure I care too much about how organic the floors in my house are, or that my shirts are made from organic cotton.

But a new study is making me wonder if I should start caring. Quickly.

Most consumers believe that cotton is the most healthy and natural material available. It's by far the most popular clothing material out there. But even though cotton makes up just 2.4 percent of the world's total agricultural acreage, 25 percent of global pesticide use is applied to cotton crops. That's a lot of chemicals. In fact, it takes about a third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt.

But it doesn't stop with crop dusting. Cotton is saturated with herbicides before it's harvested in order to defoliate the crop so it's easier to pick. Then it's off to the textile mills where even more chemicals are applied - bleaching agents, dyes, stain and odor resistance formulas, wrinkle reducers, static-reducers, flame retardants and a dozens more.

But wait! There's more! Then the finished products must be washed before shipping, so there are detergents and fabric softeners, which leave their residue in the clothes. The finishing process uses chemicals like formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, and halogens.

Is this a T-shirt they're making, or Frankenstein's monster? With all that processing, it can be hard to tell.

These chemicals are no joke, and allergies and skin irritations are the least of your worries. A European study discovered that the fire retardant chemical antimony used in some crib mattresses can actually leach through the mattress into a baby's skin - and they've connected these findings to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The livers of autopsied SIDS victims were found to contain high levels of antimony.

Another study on flame retardants found an 18-month-old baby with chemical flame retardant levels in the blood that were two or three times the levels that are known to cause neurological damage in laboratory rats.

Here's what's frightening about that: US law mandates that flame-retardant chemicals be applied to children's CLOTHING. Imagine: if chemicals like antimony have the ability to be absorbed into the skin through a mattress with a sheet over it, how much is being absorbed by children wearing it NEXT TO THEIR SKIN?

Next time you're out shopping for kids clothes think organic.