Product Labels: Is A Product Really "Organic" or "Natural"?
Every personal care product on the market these days seems to have the words "organic" or "all-natural" somewhere on the label - but don't let that label fool you!
The definition of the word "organic" is "any chemical compound that contains carbon" and "natural" means "from nature" (and doesn't everything come from Nature?), so manufacturers can claim to be either one, without requiring independent certification of their claims. There are several agencies and organizations who oversee the certification of organic and natural cosmetics, in the United States, but no manufacturer is required to do so.
Chemical Extraction of Natural Ingredients
In the US and around the world, some manufacturers act as if an ingredient which is derived from a natural source is, well, natural, and it's just a short step from natural to organic. What they're ignoring (very conveniently) is the fact that they take a natural source and chemically extract the ingredient they want ... and the process of chemical extraction alters the ingredient.
Take a look at this chemical break-down of the ingredient label for a skin care product, adapted with thanks from a chart by Australian organic activist Narelle Chenery. What it shows is the way a manufacturer can manipulate a label to mislead a consumer who's taken the time to read the claims made on the package - with all those plant extracts and vegetable compounds in the list, it's easy to believe the words "Natural" or "Organic" might actually mean something!
Natural vs. Organic Ingredients
Organic ingredients are broadly defined as those which derive from natural sources, are processed in such a way to preserve the integrity of those ingredients, and which are produced in an ecologically sustainable manner. A personal care product may use organic ingredients but not be eligible to call itself "organic" because of how it is produced; in which case, it may be labeled "natural". Standards are still evolving, but at this point, a product can only be certified organic if it contains 95% or more certified organic ingredients and if its production, packaging and processes meet sustainability standards; a certified "natural" product contains up to 75% organic materials.
Organic ingredients are generally held to be less dangerous to human health and to possess qualities that work as well or better than synthesized alternatives; however, because of the processing and certification requirements, organic or natural products are often more expensive. These claims have not been wholly supported by research, but there do seem to be more allergic reactions to synthesized ingredients then to those derived from organic sources, and, while a rare occurrence, some of the synthesized ingredients commonly found in modern cosmetics have been linked to the absorption of toxins into the body, where they accumulate in the liver.
Take a look at this list of common ingredients found in organic products and the synthetic ingredients they replace.
A Growing Emphasis on Certification
Consumers trust products that are certified by reputable bodies, and there are a number of well-respected non-profit and governmental agencies that will certify products. Once certified, the products are easily distinguishable by a seal that identifies the body of standards the product has met.
There are several government or industry-funded agencies that will certify personal care products in one of several ways: organic, all-natural, natural, etc. These certified products are clearly labeled and have ingredient lists and production details on file with the certifying body, as well as test results and product monitoring information. Until the laws on labeling personal care products are tightened, certification is the only easy way to determine if a product is actually organic.
The annual growth in sales of natural and organic cosmetics has been in the double digits since 2009, compared to 5% or 3% for traditional cosmetics over the same period. More and more consumers prefer natural products produced in an environmentally friendly way, which do not contain the harsh chemicals found in some personal care products.
But just as organic food certification has undergone changes in the past decade, change is coming for the personal care products market. Driven by consumer demand and by various legislative initiatives to ban the use of certain substances, cosmetic labeling will undoubtedly face the same requirements as those for food.
These would include using only natural vegetable-origin raw materials produced without pesticides or other chemical interference, that all ingredients be produced using natural and environmentally friendly procedures, that packaging be non-contaminating and recyclable, etc. As of July 2013, the laws of the European Union will require that all personal care products file a list of ingredients and their source - and American and other foreign cosmetic manufacturers seeking to call their products "organic" will have to pass certification under stringent standards if they wish to export to the EU.
Which could mean that pressure from the largest cosmetics and personal care products manufacturers in the US could finally push the American market towards standard definitions, labeling and product information files - just like they'll have in Europe.
Which will make finding sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner that much easier here at home.