28/09/2016 10:52 AM AEST | Updated 28/09/2016 10:52 AM AEST

Are 'Natural' And 'Chemical-free' Always Best For Your Baby?

Almost every product on the shelf contains chemicals of some kind.

How much spin can a teddy bear?
How much spin can a teddy bear?

In today's world, our desire to do what's best for our families, in particular our babies, has led to us sorting through a minefield of supposedly 'toxic' products. It's known that many new parents are willing to pay a price premium for something "natural" or "chemical-free" because they believe it's 'safer' for their bub. But while every parent wants the best for their baby, part of the motivation for paying the heftier price tag is a subtle anxiety about chemicals, known as 'chemophobia', that's been rising in recent years.

Fuelled in part by the whirlwind of claims on product labels, chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals based on the false assumption that 'natural' chemicals are good and 'synthetic' chemicals are bad. But have you ever wondered, what do the terms 'natural' and 'chemical free' actually mean?

These definitions depend on where you live, as the word 'natural' is regulated in the UK and Canada but has almost no legal meaning in the US and Australia. This means farmed food, GMOs and synthetic preservatives can be legally labelled as "natural" if the manufacturer wishes to do so. In fact, according to a study from The Food Standards Agency in the UK, over one third of products were misusing the term 'natural' on their packaging, despite regulations already being in place.

Because manufacturers are allowed to write "natural" and "chemical free" on labels so freely without any clinical evidence to support these claims, shoppers have good reason to be sceptical when they see the word "natural" or "chemical free" on baby products. This leads to the misconception that "natural" products are free from chemicals. Defined in the dictionary as a "distinct compound or substance, especially one that's been artificially prepared or purified", the term 'chemical' is a nebulous term that encompasses almost all the ingredients in all products -– including those that are harmless, harmful and beneficial -– all in one word.

That said, almost every product on the shelf contains chemicals of some kind, as it's virtually impossible for anything to be truly 'chemical-free,' despite what many brands have been unscrupulously claiming. For instance, a 'natural' blueberry for instance, isn't 'chemical free', as it naturally contains methylparabens, which is also a synthetic preservative found in many cosmetic products.

What consumers need to be aware of is that brands have been positioning baby and personal care products with synthetic, or laboratory produced ingredients in a negative light. However, the truth is, 'synthetic' and 'chemical' are simply not synonymous and chemical isn't dangerous as we're led to believe.

Consumers are placed in an awkward position as they're coerced into paying extra for a product that might be no better, or worse than a product that features synthetic ingredients. With the pharmacy shelf a noisy battleground of competing ideologies and brands fighting for your hard-earned dollars, shoppers are faced with a tide of misleading information and undeserved feelings of guilt and anxiety about choosing the right product for their families.

How are shoppers supposed to make an informed choice amidst all this noise?

1) Pick a product that's safe and effective for your baby as opposed to 'naturalness,' which is never a good indication of these two criteria. In fact, many natural ingredients such as orange oil are well-known skin irritants and allergens. As an adult you have the right to experiment with the latest trends and fashions with skincare products, but when it comes to your newborn, skincare is an essential daily ritual that needs to be consistently safe and effective, so remember to give them products that prove this.

2) Buy products that have been supported by rigorous scientific testing. As a consumer, it's important not to succumb to the fearmongering and 'greenwashing' that certain brands have been creating, but focus on what has and hasn't been tested. With laboratories with leading scientists formulating and testing products, ingredients for personal care products have been ensured to be of a consistently high standard and finished products are tested under a multitude of conditions.

3) Labels that say "clinically proven mild," "no harsh ingredients" or "hypoallergenic" are much better indications of a quality product. These claims require expensive clinical studies and hundreds of refinements to the manufacturer's secret product formula before they can be written on the package. So-called 'natural' brands can't afford to do that testing -- or they have no incentive to do so.

Finally, synthetic ingredients aren't as scary as they might sound. They might have long names, but they were named by chemists who like that sort of thing. Synthetic ingredients are purer, more affordable and more reliable too, and the scientific testing that happens behind the scenes is far more rigorous.

Bottom line: Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals based on the false assumption that 'natural' chemicals are good and 'synthetic' chemicals are bad. Some companies capitalize on this fear, knowing that consumers will pay more for perceived piece of mind. Don't be fooled into paying extra cash for a 'natural' product that's much less certain to work or work safely. Making the right decisions for you and your family starts with being educated.