PET. BPA. Sulphates. Cruelty free. Biodegradable. Recycled. Natural.
Look at the back of an average household product or toiletry staple like a shower gel, and you’ll be met with a litany of acronyms and terminology.
Some of it will be important information based on compliance with standards and regulations. Some of it to reassure us of the quality and ethical status of the ingredients. Some of it sadly to ‘greenwash’ us into believing a product is skin and environment friendly when on occasions it may not be.
But when we glance at all the words and logos on the back of bottles, how much does the average person understand about what’s there? While there may be general awareness of some of the jargon among consumers, much of it is not largely understood.
When we see something quoted as ‘XYZ-free’ we’ll automatically assume it’s a good thing, and happily buy.
The danger of this is that we are not alert to what might be missing. The use of the wording may be clever but misleading. And even if it’s all accurate and in good faith, isn’t it better to understand what you’re reading?
Our helpful glossary of commonly quoted terms should help you understand better what’s in your toiletries and sort the earth-friendly wheat from the misleading chaff.
We now see PET quoted all over the place, wherever there’s plastic involved. You’ll often see it on plastic drinks and food packaging. But what the devil is it?
PET is the abbreviation of Polyethylene terephthalate (so no wonder the shortened version is used). It’s part of the polyester family, and as such is used in fibres for clothes, but also moulded for container use, for drinks, food, personal products and used in engineering.
It’s a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic, and it has a number of positive properties which is why it’s considered better than other plastics.
The environmental benefit is that PET is 100% recyclable, unlike many other plastics. This means it can be argued to be a sustainable material. Also, the fact it is lighter weight than other plastics may reduce the carbon footprint of transportation.
The aesthetic, practical, and consumer benefits are that it’s clear, strong, and does not react with liquids or food substances (therefore ideal for drinks and food). It’s also shatterproof and lightweight.
So as plastics go, PET is a superior option, and its increased use is a good thing.
However, it’s still a plastic. It’s not biodegradable (this is what gives it its practical qualities). And just because it can be recycled, it doesn’t mean it always is recycled. Sadly, we know that due to a lack of demand for recycled plastics, and the processes involved, far too little plastic is recycled in reality.
Staying with plastics, on your drinking bottles and other containers you’ll often see this acronym – BPA, usually expressed as BPA-free.
You’d probably assume that’s a good thing, and you’d be right. But do you know why?
BPA is an abbreviation of Bisphenol-A. It’s a chemical compound of phenol and acetone used in manufacturing to strengthen and improve the performance and durability of plastic and other packaging. An industrial, synthetic chemical, it was often used in baby food packaging, other plastic or canned food and drinks packaging, and in many other household products.
The concerns over BPA relate to when BPA seeps into our bodies, either through contamination of food or drink or in products we use on our skin. Those concerned about BPA have highlighted a wide range of health conditions and risks associated with BPA including infertility, hormonal related issues including cell repair, energy levels, and thyroid problems, infant development, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Given the bad name that BPA has developed, it’s no wonder many brands and manufacturers have moved away from it, stating ‘BPA-free’ as a benefit of their product.
It is worth noting however that this whole area is controversial, and subject to debate among health professionals and scientists. Indeed, some believe that the replacement for BPA which is often simply an alternative Bisphenol still can leak into and contaminate our food and other products with unknown implications.
The best, and possibly, the only way to protect ourselves entirely from it is to eliminate as much plastic packaging from our food, drink, and personal care choices as possible.
Once again, if you see the word Sulphate on your toiletry product it will likely say sulphate-free. Because containing sulphates is not something brands will generally shout about.
So, what are they?
Sulphates are salts, which are found in small quantities in nature, in water, minerals, food, rocks, and soils. They are extracted and then manufactured through a chemical process for use in many household cleaning products and shampoos.
The benefits of sulphates for cleansing products are that they act well as detergents. When used in soaps and shampoos they create a satisfying lathering effect, removing particles and oils and leaving skin and hair feeling refreshed.
So, on the surface, they sound great, don’t they? But unfortunately, certain sulphates are linked to a number of alarming, harmful effects, and these relate specifically to Odium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES).
The biggest concern over these sulphates in particular is that they can act as irritants to the lungs, eyes, and skin. Therefore, for those with allergies or respiratory problems they can be especially harmful. More worryingly, some critics believe long term exposure to sulphates can lead to serious conditions like cancers, infertility, and issues with development. This is yet supported by medical evidence, however, especially as the quantities we would ever find in our bodies would be very small.
Due to their controversial reputation in the personal care industry many brands (like us) have distanced themselves from these sulphates to offer consumers alternatives that deliver the same cleansing quality and lathering experience, without the irritation and health risks.
Terms you understand, but need a closer look
In among the alphabet soup of abbreviations, there will be terms that you do recognise and understand.
But even these are deserving of closer inspection. And that’s because some widely used phrases on our personal care and household products are often vague, unquantified, or misleading.
Here are a few examples to look out for;
Ah, good old ‘natural’. What can be wrong with ‘natural’? It sounds like it should be great for our bodies, our environments, and the planet. But is it?
Well, natural also doesn’t always mean good. After all, poisons and harmful substances occur in nature, while some synthetics have been very carefully and beneficially created.
Something that is of concern and frustrating to many genuinely natural brands like us, is that the use of the word ‘natural’ is unregulated and unquantified. It can therefore be used to describe many products, even where the proportion of natural ingredients is minimal. The best way to be sure is to double-check the list of ingredients to work out for yourself just how much of the product is truly natural.
Cruelty-free is of course a positive and essential piece of terminology to look out for. But even this seemingly clear term can hide unethical practices. And that’s because while the final, finished product may not have been tested on animals, the individual ingredients may not have been, and entirely within the law.
The best thing you can do is to look out for the Leaping Bunny logo but also educate yourself and even support the campaign to ensure the integrity of the cruelty-free term by making it relate to the full supply chain of ingredients.
Recycling is good. It’s a positive term connected with one solution to a big challenge for our environment, namely plastic pollution and landfill.
But, when a product is stated as recycled or recyclable, do look closer.
If it’s recycled – is it 100% recycled or just part of it, with virgin plastics or other unsustainable materials making up the rest (with labels and lids particular culprits).
And if it’s recyclable, does that mean in our general weekly recycling? Or does it require specialist recycling which means it’s most likely to still end up in landfill or using up a lot of resources in the process?
A bit like recyclable, biodegradable sounds good on the surface. It means that the item should disintegrate in the earth and decompose naturally due to the effects of bacteria and fungi, without any negative polluting impact on the environment.
But some materials (like plastics) may take hundreds, if not thousands of years to biodegrade. Others need industrial set ups with certain conditions to enable degradation. And in this case, that process itself may use up resources and be a cost to the environment.
You should also watch out for this term being interchanged with ‘degradable’ and ‘compostable’. These descriptions may be true and sound beneficial but may be hiding a less eco-friendly reality if the product requires specialist treatment for the processes to happen.
Get squeaky clean with confidence
Next time you’re shopping, checking labels, or bored in the bath and reading the backs of your bottles, you’ll be well informed. You’ll have a better idea about what’s in the bottle, what it means, and what’s worthy of a bit of further investigation.
And if you want to be sure of authenticity and transparency, you can feel safe with our soaps and other products. They contain no harmful chemicals or irritants, they are fully cruelty-free, they are made from pure natural ingredients, and they are environmentally friendly.