The shift in mainstream culture towards a more sustainable, environmentally responsible way of living has created a booming industry for all that is pure, natural and organic.
A heightened awareness of the ills of modern industrial agriculture has made us more conscious of what we choose to buy and put into our bodies – a preoccupation that has naturally progressed to the kinds of products we choose to use on our bodies. The ever-increasing demand for natural and organic personal care products ranging from toothpastes, moisturisers and deodorants to makeup, hair care and perfume has created a global market worth US $10 billion a year.
The general consensus is that organic is better for the planet, crops are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, biodiversity – as opposed to monoculture – is nurtured and encouraged, farming practices retain and enhance soil integrity, and sustainability is at the forefront of production. Food producers must comply with strict standards and methods, which are set and monitored by regulatory bodies – either governmental or third party certifiers – in order to use the word ‘organic’ in marketing claims and on food labels. However, this is not the case for personal care and cosmetic products. Terms like natural and organic have no legal definition in the beauty realm, which means that companies can – and do – throw anything in a bottle and slap ‘All Natural’ or ‘Organic’ on the label without consequence.
Beauty and personal care isles across supermarkets, department stores and pharmacies are laden with products made with ‘100% Organic Extracts’ or ‘Pure, Natural Ingredients’. Often, the terms organic and natural occur in the name of the product or the brand itself. Yet, the majority of these products contain petroleum-derived and synthetic chemicals, including known irritants and suspected carcinogens. The handful of natural or organic extracts only make an appearance at the bottom of the ingredient labels – denoting that they constitute a smaller percentage of the total product, sometimes less than 0.01%.
It’s like sprinkling some organic sesame seeds on a McDonald’s bun and calling it an organic Big Mac. It’s not okay – or legal – to make such misleading claims about food, so why is it okay with skincare?
Adding a splash of aloe vera or a dash of organic chamomile extract to a product made from mostly synthetic and petrochemicals doesn’t result in a greener product for people or the planet – the leading reason consumers choose and don’t mind paying a higher premium for natural and organic products. Companies cashing in on consumer desires to make healthier, more environmentally and socially conscious choices is unethical at best, but perhaps worse still, the saturation of the market with uncertified products has the potential to dilute the value of the word organic, leading to consumer mistrust of certification labels and undermining brands that have a genuine desire to create cleaner, greener products.
As a consumer the only way to know that an organic or natural personal care product is legit is to purchase one with a ‘Certified’ seal or symbol on the label – which seems simple enough, but with dozens of different certifiers, each with a different set of standards and regulations, a trip to the beauty counter quickly winds up being a trip down a rabbit hole.
Currently, no country legally requires personal care products making organic or natural claims to be certified. Likewise, there is no international set of standards or certification for natural or organic products, meaning consistency across such a highly globalized industry is impossible. Companies source ingredients internationally, outsource manufacturing and export their products worldwide, yet each country has its own regulations for all the steps along the organic and natural product supply chain, from cultivation and harvesting of ingredients through to manufacture and packaging of the final product.
There are over 20 different certifications in Europe alone and dozens more across Asia Pacific and the US, all with varying definitions of ‘Organic’ and ‘Natural’. For example, to carry the USDA ‘Certified Organic’ seal, products must contain at least 95% organic ingredients (excluding water) and no synthetic preservatives. COSMOS, the leading European organic certifier, also requires a minimum of 95% organic ingredients, but only 20% of the total weight of the product must be organic – the rest can be water – and up to 5% synthetic content is allowed.
For a product to carry a ‘Made With Organic Ingredients’ seal, different certifiers require anywhere between 10% and 70% minimum organic ingredients. A number of petrochemical and synthetic ingredients may also be used during processing or in the final product under some certifications.
‘Natural’ product certifications also have a confusing and diverse set of standards and requirements. German certifier BDIH requires botanical ingredients to be used “where possible” and allows the use of some synthetic preservatives. To hold the United Sates NPA seal of approval, products must contain at least 95% natural ingredients and no synthetic dyes or perfumes. It’s also important to remember that natural and organic are not interchangeable terms. Often, natural ingredients are grown with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides or they are “nature identical”, meaning they are identical to chemicals that occur in nature but are created synthetically in labs instead. The differing and often contradictory standards, certifiers and levels of certification create a confusing shopping maze for consumers to navigate through. The reasons people choose organic food over non-organic – for personal and environmental health, sustainability and social awareness – are the same that come into consideration when purchasing an organic moisturiser or shampoo. But, unlike food, these values are often not guaranteed by buying a certified product.
Consumers shouldn’t require a degree in chemistry or need to spend countless hours researching the regulations and requirements of the myriad of certifiers in order to make an informed choice about their face wash.
Obviously, the need for an international set of standards for organic and natural products, and legal definitions and requirements for the use of these terms, is paramount to ensure consumers know what they are buying, prevent greenwashing and to keep the ethos behind all things organic and natural intact. A global standard would also surely help progress green chemistry innovations and the development of more natural alternatives to the synthetic ingredients that the cosmetic industry relies so heavily on today. Many groups – including some within the cosmetic industry – have spoken out about the need for an international regulatory body, but until one is formed, the responsibility for checking the credentials of a product lies solely on the consumer.
A few key things to look out for when choosing a certified organic or natural product:
• Percentage of organic or naturally derived ingredients – the higher the better.
• Is water counted as an organic ingredient? If yes, you are likely paying a premium price for a product that is mostly just plain old water.
• Are there sulfates, parabens, or petrochemicals? These synthetic ingredients pose a hazard to human health and the environment.
Adelle Rodda is a science writer and (excellent) hairstylist. Read more by Adelle here, on Always Sometimes Anytime.