What Does “Non-Toxic” Really Mean?

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.