What Does Non Toxic Mean? Clearing Up The Confusion!


I recently chatted with a friend about what ingredients to avoid in skincare. My advice to her was to choose non toxic products whenever she could, and I have to say, she raised a great point! She asked me, “Well, Candice, what does non toxic mean, and what makes a product non toxic?”.

From makeup companies to sustainable food brands, the companies that sell non toxic products do very little to define what non toxic means. As consumers, this can be VERY confusing when trying to make more sustainable choices and not fall victim to greenwashing. So, let’s define non toxic! 

According to Merriam-Webster, toxic means “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation.” Based on this definition, one would assume nontoxic therefore means, well… the opposite of this. 

The National Cancer Institute, on the other hand, defines non toxic as “not harmful or destructive.” But while this definition is certainly to the point, it leaves me with more questions than it does answers. Does non toxic mean chemical free? Does natural mean non-toxic? Does organic mean non-toxic?

I admit that I use the term non toxic every so often here at The Eco Hub, so I think it’s about time we answer these questions and dive into how we (The Eco Hub) define “non toxic”!

Different Types of Toxicity

Before defining non toxic, we first have to define the different types of toxicity…

Human vs. Environmental

When toxins are released into the natural environment, they can have serious consequences. Take garment manufacturing, for example, we use toxins like synthetic nitrogen-based and azo dyes to make our clothes, and these don’t degrade in the natural environment if released into waterways. 

A famous example is the "blood red" waters of the Jian river that runs through Luoyang, Henan province, in northern China. This river became quite famous a few years ago when red dye from a clothing factory upstream made its way into the local waterways, and the river turned a bright crimson color.

The river has since been cleaned up. However, this example isn’t uncommon in countries like China and Bangladesh.  The residents of Luoyang have said before that this river changed color quite often from all the toxic chemicals regularly dumped in the river. 

Acute vs. Chronic

Toxins can also negatively impact human health, resulting from “acute” or “chronic” exposure. The time spent in contact with a toxin is relatively brief in acute exposures. While in chronic exposures, the time spent in contact with a toxin could be over a very long period of time.

Depending on the toxin and its concentration, chronic and acute exposure to toxins can sometimes be fatal. According to The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, toxic pollutants are responsible for 15 percent of all premature deaths worldwide.

Let’s take a look at another example to illustrate this point... Many homes in Bangladesh are covered in lead-based paint. Lead-based paints would be considered a toxin since they cause damage to the brain and nervous system, liver and kidney damage, and developmental delays (in children). This example would likely be considered a “chronic” exposure since it may occur over many years.


What Does Non-Toxic Mean?

There is no legal definition of non toxic since “non toxic” isn’t technically regulated in the US. 

The US Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 does offer some guidance by overseeing over 80,000 different industrial chemicals. However, the TSCA doesn’t cover food, cosmetics, personal care products, pesticides, or drugs.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) was meant to provide the FDA the authority to regulate drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and food (which are not covered by the TSCA), but this hasn’t been the case, and the FDA tends to regulate through post-market enforcement.

For example, in the case of cosmetics, the FDA doesn’t even have the power to order a recall; rather, they can ask for a company to initiate a recall voluntarily. 

Speaking of food, I was outraged when I learned that 10,000 chemicals are allowed in food sold in the U.S., like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).

Food and chemicals companies have found a legal loophole where chemicals can be “generally recognized as safe” and bypass the Food and Drug Administration. 

These stories are prevalent across many different sectors… whether toxins in our food, beauty products, cleaning products, clothing, etc. 

We have seen some progress from a legislative perspective in the beauty sector (particularly for women of color), but still not enough if you ask me. Just last year, congress announced the Safer Beauty Bill Package

The Safer Beauty Bill Package was supposed to “ban 11 of the most toxic chemicals; increase protections for women of color and salon workers who are most often exposed to these toxic chemicals, and make ingredient transparency the new industry standard”. 

Currently, only 11 substances are banned by FDA regulations. These include Bithionol, Chloroform, Methylene chloride, Hexachlorophene, and others. You get a sense of how far behind we are here when you consider that in Europe, more than 1,328 different substances are banned

This issue has prompted some states in the US to go above and beyond. For example, in 1986, California released Proposition 65, which required products that could potentially cause cancer or reproductive issues to be labeled accordingly. They also now have a list of 25 different substances banned in cosmetics.

Examples of Non-Toxic Products

Let's recap what we talked about so far… First, what does non toxic mean? In my opinion, non toxic products are those free of chemicals of concern that might pose a risk - acute or chronic - to human or environmental health.

Based on my definition, I have many examples of non toxic products here at The Eco Hub! Regarding household products, check out non toxic rugs and house decor, non toxic cookware, non toxic mattresses, and non toxic dryer sheets and laundry soap.

You can also find articles here on non toxic personal care products like natural lipstick, sunscreen, non toxic perfume, and non toxic shampoo and conditioner.

A quick tip: store your personal care products in plastic-free storage containers to take it further and practice sustainable living (like me)!

If you are looking for food and beverage products that fit our definition of “non toxic”, you can view a more in-depth list of what chemicals/ingredients to avoid in your food in the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Chemicals.” 

They also have a Skin Deep tool and EWG Verified database for a list of what chemicals/ingredients to avoid in cosmetics and household products. The EPA also has a safer choice list where you can browse by a specific company name or product type.


Benefits of Using Non-Toxic Products

Health benefits

One of the first benefits of using non toxic products is that you are less likely to be putting your health at risk. Take cleaning products, for example… The Environmental Working Group looked at more than 2,000 cleaning supplies on the American market and found that cleaning ingredients can be laced with carcinogenic impurities like 1,4-dioxane or preservatives that release low levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde. 

Some of these substances are linked to health problems including asthma, allergies, chemical burns, and even birth defects in newborns. By avoiding chemicals when possible, we are making a smart choice for our health and the health of our loved ones.

Environmental benefits

The production, use, and disposal of products that contain toxins don’t just end up in our bodies. They also end up in the natural environment. The release of chemicals can cause massive disruptions in our natural ecosystems and lead to eutrophication in water bodies or smog in our cities - but these are just two examples from what could be a very long list. 

Non Toxic Vs. Natural Vs. Organic etc.

Does non toxic mean chemical free? 

According to Brittannica, a chemical is “any substance that cannot be decomposed into simpler substances by ordinary chemical processes.” Chemicals can be synthetic (made by humans) or natural (already found in nature). With this in mind, everything is made of chemicals, so “chemical-free” doesn't mean anything. 

Does natural mean non-toxic? 

The terms “natural” and “non toxic” have one thing in common… They have no legal definitions in the US market and are common terms in greenwashing. To get right to the point, they do not mean the same thing because the term “natural” also has no official definition. 

Does organic mean non-toxic? 

“Organic” is a designation the USDA runs to provide credibility to products produced without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents. I think the USDA certification has its issues, which I won't explore today. If you’re interested, I would recommend reading my article about them!

Is there a difference between non toxic vs. toxin free?

The ToxicFree Foundation is the driving force behind the term “toxic free”. They define it as a product that “has been created without the use of any potentially toxic, carcinogenic, or poisonous ingredients that could be questionable in safety.”

While this definition has good intentions, the wording is vague, and the “potential” to cause harm vs. actually causing harm are very different. 

How to identify non toxic products!

These certifications ensure that products meet specific environmental and health standards.

  • The EWG Verified certification guarantees products are free from harmful chemicals and meet strict health standards.
  • The TOXICFREE certification assures that products contain only 100% natural ingredients and are environmentally safe.
  • The REACH certification confirms that products comply with EU regulations and are safe to use.
  • The MADE SAFE certification ensures that everyday products are made from safe ingredients that are not known to harm human health.
  • The UL ECOLOGO certification assesses products based on their environmental impact, including energy, materials, manufacturing, and product performance.
  • The COSMOS certification guarantees that organic and natural cosmetics meet certain standards.

Next, read product reviews… product reviews will be your best friend here. When someone reacts badly to a product, they will probably share that information and try to help someone else from having a similar experience.

Finally, check for ingredients to avoid… Start familiar with what chemicals and substances are linked to human and environmental risks.  

Questions to Ask When Evaluating Non-Toxic Products

When shopping for non toxic products, you can also ask yourself the following questions… (pro tip: keep this list handy next time you shop, and you can cover all your bases in a few minutes). 

  1. What ingredients are used in the product? Are there any I should be avoiding?
  2. Are the ingredients natural or synthetic?
  3. Has the product been tested for safety?
  4. What are the reviews on the product? 
  5. Are there any sustainable certifications here that I know and trust?
  6. Are there any eco-labels here that I know and trust?

Final Thoughts

We all deserve access to food, household products, and personal care products that won't expose us to potentially cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins that put our health (and the health of the planet) at risk.

Unfortunately, while we have seen some progress being made to legislate terms like “natural” and “non toxic” we aren’t there yet and there is no official, legal definition for these terms.

As a result, we have to do our research as consumers to ensure we are buying products that are truly safe. You can check out some examples we discussed today, but remember to look for certifications and labels, read the reviews, and always check the ingredient list!


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3 thoughts shared

  1. I’ve just seen an advert by a store in the EU with a bottle of “bug killer” on the shelf with the label claiming it’s “non toxic”!!! … I guess it doesn’t work?