Decoding Seals and Symbols

These days it’s increasingly easy to find products that meet your preferences for production standards — whether that means kosher or gluten-free or organic — as long as you know what different certifications and their symbols mean. We were reminded of this by an article in last month’s issue of Real Simple that outlined the basics for natural beauty products, but there are a few other seals you might also see on personal and household products.

When it comes to ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ labels, many of these organizations base their certifications on different standards (e.g., what ingredients must be absent, what percentage of ingredients must be plant-based, etc.). If this subject really matters to you, we definitely recommend clicking through to their websites to see the details.


Cradle to Cradle

cradle-to-cradle-sealAdministered by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the Cradle to Cradle standard addresses five categories (material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness) and awards certification at five levels (basic, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum). In addition to spotting this seal on consumer products, you can search the certified product registry online.


 Cruelty Free

cruelty-free-sealThe pink-eared bunny logo appears in several versions and is administered by PETA. This standard seems to be far less rigorous than the Leaping Bunny certification, but PETA offers an online search and the Bunny Free app for those who are interested.

 Demeter Biodynamic Certified

demeter-certified-sealThe Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard applies to the certification of farms or ranches and their resulting agricultural products. The Demeter Biodynamic Processing Standard covers 14 product categories and is intended to “ensure an unbroken chain of accountability from the farm to the finished product.” Demeter USA also offers Stellar certification, which relates to organic production.


Design for the Environment

dfe-sealUnder the auspices of the EPA, the Design for the Environment (DfE) labeling program seeks to identify products that “perform well, are cost-effective, and are safer for the environment.” In practice, this means the product in question is made up of ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class. You can search a database of more than 2,500 DfE-labeled products on the EPA’s sub-site.



ecocert-sealEcocert is a global inspection organization that issues certifications in numerous categories, sometimes in partnership with other agencies. Here in the US, the key certification areas are organic farming, natural and organic cosmetics, fair trade, food safety, aquaculture, eco-friendly areas, and sustainable golf courses.


Leaping Bunny

leaping-bunny-sealThe Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics awards this seal to cosmetic, personal care, and household products that prove that no new animal testing is used in any phase of development by the manufacturer, its laboratories, or it suppliers. The coalition’s consumer-side site provides a complete company list, and you can download one of several PDF shopping guides there as well, or you can install one of their smartphone apps.


Natural Products Association

npa-sealThe NPA was founded in 1936, making it the oldest association for natural products in the US. It certifies for both personal care and household products (on the latter, the seal may include the silhouette of a house). You can browse and search lists of current products on the NPA consumer website.


NSF International

nsf-ansi-305-sealNSF is another long-establish group, having been founded in 1944. The organization develops standards and issues certifications in a very wide range of categories including bottled water, cosmetic and personal care products, dietary supplements, faucets and plumbing, gluten-free products, home products and appliances, organic products, pool and spa products, and water treatment products. The certified products and systems are listed online, but the interface is not at all user-friendly.


USDA Organic

usda-organic-sealThe National Organic Program regulates all organic crops, livestock, and agricultural products certified to USDA organic standards for soil quality, livestock practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. In a nutshell, these standard are designed to encourage the use of natural substances and prohibit the use of synthetic substances. As with NSF, there are searchable online databases for certified operations, but they are difficult to use.


Some symbols indicate that the product meets specific standards in other parts of the world. Thanks to globalization of consumer goods, you’ll see them on many products:


The Green Dot

green-dot-sealThe Green Dot is a European designation, originally introduced in Germany, and it relates to the packaging itself, not the product inside. It indicates that the manufacturer contributes to the organization in order to pay for the recovery and recycling or disposal of the packaging material. Not as useful a symbol here in the US!


Period after Opening

pao-symbolThe PAO symbol is part of a European labeling standard and is intended to inform consumers of the period of time after opening a product may be used without harm. Although this symbol doesn’t relate to the nature or source of any ingredients, it is still useful reminder that personal and household products can expire.



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