With increasing awareness about the toxicity of products, you’ll find the term “non-toxic” on more products than ever before. On one hand, this is a stunning success on the part of all the advocates who have fought for product safety for the past generation. Go team! On the other hand, without standardized regulations for the term, it’s hard for the average consumer to understand what it means and when it’s simply greenwashing.

What Does Non-Toxic Mean to Honest?

Allow us to try to make some sense of the situation.

First of all, let’s look at the most basic definition of “non-toxic” (and it’s probably exactly what you’d assume). Simply put, “non-toxic” means something will not cause harm to health or the environment.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, it’s not. When it comes to the real life application of the word, it’s not quite so black and white because, technically speaking, all things can cause harm at some level — even water.

As the 16th century toxicologist Paracelsius said, “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.”

The dose (or exposure level) of a chemical is where things start to get really tricky. Some things, like Vitamin D, are necessary for good health but can be fatal in high doses. Others, as scientists only recently learned, pose higher risks at lower doses (as in the case of hormone disruptors). Add in the fact that all the chemicals we are exposed are constantly interacting with each other and potentially turning into new chemicals or creating byproducts and you have quite a complicated mess—called life.

Yes, it’s true. All of life is made of chemicals (water is a chemical) and since the dawn of time, they’ve all been interacting and doing wonderful and sometimes horrible things. Humans have added tens of thousands more into the mix in the past few generations and that’s complicating things even more, but the essential facts don’t change. And, the fact is, nothing is completely non-toxic.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what “non-toxic” means (or doesn’t mean) as it relates to the science of toxicology, what do you think it means in regards to product labels and marketing?

Not much. Currently, as it applies to products and labeling, “non-toxic” is not a regulated or universally defined claim.

According to Consumer Reports’ Eco-Label Guide:

“Non-toxic” is not meaningful and can be misleading. There is no definition or standard used for judging whether a consumer product or its ingredients are “non-toxic,” and no assurance that such a claim has been independently verified. A product that does not meet the definition of “toxic” according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission should not necessarily be considered non-toxic.

Essentially, manufacturers get to individually define what they mean by “non-toxic” (as long as their product isn’t acutely toxic as defined by government regulations). And they don’t necessarily need to tell you how they define it.

We’re happy to tell you!

We define “non-toxic” as chemicals that are generally safer for humans and the environment. While most manufacturers’ assessments of toxicity only take acute impacts into consideration, we also assess chronic impacts, exposure routes, unique windows of vulnerability, and a wide spectrum of potential health impacts including carcinogenicity, teratogenicity, allergenicity, neurotoxicity, and more.

We know that perfection is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to do better. Every. Single. Day. You can rest assured that we’re doing our very best to understand every nuance of the complex world of toxicology. If you ever have a question, we’re happy to answer it. And, if you ever have a recommendation, we’re grateful to hear it.

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  • Jamie

    Sodium Borate scores an “F” for toxicity on the environmental working group’s cleaning guide. It has this score because of concerns over developmental and reproductive toxicity, asthma and respiratory, and environmental reasons. It is in your stain remover. http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/5465-TheHonestCohonestlaundrydetergentfreeclear

    • http://www.facebook.com/its.is.my.life Jenni Garling

      I did not see an F

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Hi Jamie,

      Sodium borate is a natural mineral salt that’s been used for generations. In it’s straight form (aka Borax, the white powder sold as a laundry boosting product), it can indeed pose risks. Our approach to “non-toxic” is all about formulation and real-life exposures to our products. In the case of our stain remover, the sodium borate is extremely diluted, as well as being neutralized by other ingredients. It’s the nature of chemistry – your end product is not simply an aggregation of your original components, it’s a transformation of them. Hope that helps!

  • Anna

    Now I finally understood what it means. Thank you for explaining to us :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/amask Ashlea Mask

    I do. A lot of your products score not great with ewg. This really confuses me since everything looks good on the label. Can you explain more?

  • randydutton

    Volatile corrosion inhibitor (VCI) manufacturers, one in particular, used to claim ALL their products as ‘non-hazardous’, despite the MSDS’ showing them to be carcinogenic, toxic, sensitizers, irritants, flammable, etc. The President of Cortec once told me ALL his products were non-hazardous because he’d been mixing chemicals for 20 years and never got sick. OSHA Hazard Communication 1910.1200(c) is a good start for deciding what’s safe and what isn’t.

  • HE

    I have read the SAP is the problem chemical in diapers …apparently the chemical that keeps the wetness inside the diaper…but I don’t see that listed in the chemicals you do not use. Could you help me to clarify this? Perhaps the only way to get rid of SAP is to use cloth diapers? I’m just learning all about this, so thanks!

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Thanks for the inquiry. The Honest Company diapers have no harsh chemicals—they’re free of chlorine, latex, dioxins, PVC, heavy metals, finishing treatments (silicones), fragrances and lotions (usually made using phthalates). They’re mostly made with plant-based, biodegradable, and sustainable materials, and our super-absorbent bio-core significantly reduces the need for sodium polyacrylate (SAP) – the gel used in conventional diapers that gives them their absorbency. We’re working to move away from SAP entirely. Even though it’s been rigorously tested and found to be safe and non-toxic, we’d rather find something that’s not petroleum-based. For more information, feel free to check out how our diapers differ from others here: http://blog.honest.com/whats-inside-natural-disposable-diapers/#.Umm2rLToGFI.

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  • Mireya Mendoza

    What about GMOs?? You seem to be dancing around that in your long, well thought out answers. I’m going to go ahead and assume your products DO contain them as you refuse to directly address it.

    • Heidi

      There is a GMO company out there if you would like to know more you can contact me at heidi.doody@yahoo.com

      • Heidi

        Sorry GMO FREE!!

        • Mireya Mendoza

          There are a lot of non GMO companies out there. I’m trying to find out if this one also is one.

          • mm

            You’re not eating the cleaning products.

          • Mireya Mendoza

            They make more than just cleaning products. Any chemical that comes in contact with the skin is also absorbed into the body.

  • Carla

    If you don’t use parabens or formaldehyde in your products, which are added to lengthen the shelf life of the products, what do you use instead?

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Hi Carla,
      We use a variety of types of preservatives to protect our products and extend their shelf-life. Caprylyl Glycol, Silver Dihydrogen Citrate, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Capryloyl Glycine, and Citric Acid are just a few. With increasing consumer awareness and concern about the health risks posed by parabens and formaldehyde releasing preservatives, chemists have actually been developing quite an array of safer alternatives and we’re happy to use them! Please let us know if you have any more questions!

  • Christie

    Do you use carrageenan in your products? I understand that it is banned in Europe but the FDA allows it in the US. My daughter is at risk for an intestinal disease and carrageenan has caused ulcer-like symptoms in lab animals. We are avoiding carrageenan all together. Thanks for being honest!

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Hi Christie,
      Great question and we understand your concern as a parent! Our toothpaste currently uses carrageenan. You can read about its use here and let us know what you think as we explore alternatives: http://blog.honest.com/carrageenan-facts-myths-safety-toothpaste/#update. Please let us know if you have any other questions about the toothpaste or other Honest products. We’re here to help!

  • Jennifer

    What about GMO’s? I sent an email inquiry over a week ago and no answer…..

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Hi Jennifer! We’d love to get you an answer to your question.

      GMOs are definitely on our radar, and kudos for being attentive to those that can pose risks to your family’s health! We’d love to use non-GMO ingredients in all of our products some day, but right now it’s simply not feasible.

      There is currently only one facility in the US that processes corn into plastic (for things like the PLA we use in our diapers). Unfortunately, at this facility there’s no method for processing non-GMO corn separately from GMO corn, so it all gets mixed together. Fortunately, the corn is broken down and processed to such an extent that the molecular make-up is completely transformed and none of the GMO attributes remain in the final product.

      In regards to our other products, anything listed as “organic” cannot be a GMO. And, for the most part, the other ingredients we use are not ones that are genetically modified crops. We hope this helps, but we’re always here if you have additional questions!

      • Jennifer

        Thank you for the quick response!! I appreciate it!!

        • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

          You’re welcome! Please let us know if there is anything else we can help with.

  • Jennifer

    Do your vitamins contain gmo’s? They are not labeled as organic.. Why folic acid instead of folate in the prenatals? Folic acid is synthetic. Thanks

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Hi Jennifer,

      Both our Kid’s Immunity Boost and Immunity Defense are non-GMO. We will work towards getting the non-GMO certification soon as well!

      Our DHA/Omega-3 cannot be considered GMO free because its gelatin casing is made from bovine. We strive to use non-GMO ingredients when we can, and we are working very hard with R&D to move towards a fish or veggie gelatin that is GMO-free.Rest assured that the gelatin used is of premium quality and purity. We work very closely with our manufacturing partners to ensure the quality and purity of our ingredients (we use some of the latest technology and test, test, test!). Our manufacturing partner is required by law to test all fish oils and gelatin for contaminants, heavy metals, BSE, etc. First, the raw materials are tested and then again after every production batch. If any of the tests fail, the product is quarantined immediately. The FDA regulates gelatin and capsules very carefully, and we ensure our Quality Assurance team meets and exceeds these requirements.We take quality and purity extremely seriously here at Honest and as such, we find that all of these tests are not only necessary, but an absolute requirement. Our job is to provide wholesome supplements to our customers and in order to do that, we believe that quality and purity must come first. And again, we are currently in the process of finding alternatives such as a fish or vegetable-based gelatin too.

      And thank you for your questions regarding folic acid. We want to provide you with the most detailed response, so we’re going to check with our product team and get back to you. In the meantime, we can share a blog post we have discussing the value of folate in folic acid form: http://blog.honest.com/folic-acid-the-pre-pregnancy-vitamin/#.U4v6VFyRJg0.

      We hope this answers your question, but please let us know if you have any other questions!

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  • CuriousMama

    Hello, I really like the Honest Company products, however, Sodium Coco Sulfate (A Coconut-Based Cleanser) is a common ingredient in most of you cleaning products and bath & body products which has the same potential estrogenic disrupting properties (or endocrine disrupting) as sodium lauryl sulfate. Have you ever considered using actual unprocessed plant based ingredients rather then ones “derived from” (which means processed to be unnatural and potentially unsafe). Just food for thought.

    • gloria

      Have you gotten an answer on this yet? i had sent in a request. i used to be a fan until i read the ingredients. I’m now with ava anderson all natural products and love them. http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/gloriapires

    • http://www.honest.com/ Honest

      Hi there, thanks for your feedback! We always appreciate people taking the time to share their thoughts. Regarding Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS), there’s an enormous amount of misinformation floating around online about this ingredient and there’s nothing in the scientific literature that points to it being an endocrine disruptor. Believe us, we dig and dig to uncover everything we can about each ingredient before we choose to use it. We also try to keep an eye on emerging studies to watch for any red flags that might prompt us to reformulate. If you’re aware of a study (or studies) showing the endocrine disrupting potential of sodium coco sulfate, we’d be happy to review and reconsider our choice.

      In regards to using unprocessed natural ingredients, we do as much as we can. (Technically, all ingredients go through some sort of processing, but we understand what you’re implying.) Still, there’s nothing unprocessed that can provide the bubbles and lather of SCS (and people LOVE their bubbles and lather).

      Ultimately, it’s chemistry and chemistry is a marvelous thing! The manipulation of molecules has been the backbone of humanity since ancient times and by 1000 BC, people were already using chemistry to extract chemicals from plants for medicines, dyes, and perfumes; extract metals from ores; render fat into soap; and much more. Where would we be without chemistry?

      Thanks again for taking the time to share! Please let us know if you have any other questions.

  • sarah jean pierrre

    thank this really help me with my work but I still need to know the real meaning of it

  • Taylor C

    We recently discovered our daughter is allergic to latex! We’ve switched to honest co since it’s advertised as latex free, but she’s developed a rash where the elastic lining touches her skin again. My question is, are all the diapers latex free and what do they use as an alternative for elastic.