Deceptively Organic- How to outfox the faux green
An "organic" label in face, body, and hair care products refers both to sustainable farming practices and to materials that have an established quantity of organic content by non-water, non-salt weight. Such products must come from certified organic farms using ecological manufacturing processes. Unfortunately, organic cosmetics are not regulated the same way as organic foods in the U.S.
There is a controversial loophole in organic skincare standards involving hydrosol, by which the specified amount of organic content on a product's label amounts to mostly water, while the remainder is synthetic. "Organic hydrosol" is the leftover water after an organic botanical has been put through a steam distillation process to collect essential oil (basically a more complicated way of making tea). By listing hydrosol as organic material, manufacturers can inflate the weight of organic ingredients in their products to make the "70% certified organic" claim. Thus, products manage to get away with "organic" branding in the public eye though the bulk of their ingredients is hardly agricultural.
Cosmetic companies guilty of this practice mount a defense that organic floral waters are somehow active components of their formulas, though their presence is immaterial and their composition is mostly non-organic. The Organic Consumers Association has filed a formal complaint against certain hydrosol offenders, such as Avalon Natural Products , which contain synthetic surfactants and petroleum-based preservatives. It has also gone after natural-sounding companies that allow the petrochemical carcinogen 1,4-dioxane in their products, including Earth Friendly Products, Ecco Bella, Kiss My Face, Life Tree, Method, Nature's Gate, Nutribiotic, and Healthy Times. As described in the OCA's press release, some of these brands have successfully reformulated their products and now test clean for the 1,4-dioxane contaminant.
Besides cosmetic manufacturers guilty of either green-washing or allowing trace amounts of harmful chemicals in seemingly organic products, there are a growing number of pseudo-natural brands. These companies adopt names or design labels that mislead the consumer to believe they are natural or organic. Some brazen examples include Pur-Lisse, with its suspect pretense of purity, and Be Fine Food Skin Care, with its deceptive "good enough to eat" slogan.
Calling a product "100% natural" is, in effect, meaningless, since everything in existence is derived from natural sources. But surely the use of the term"organic" must submit to stricter guidelines, right? Unless a product is certified by the USDA National Organic Program (considered the "gold standard" of global organic oversight), its use of "organic" on the label might amount to rubbish. This program explicitly mandates that all products with less than 70% organic ingredients may not use the term "organic" anywhere on the principal display panel (though they may identify the specific ingredients that are USDA-certified).
The USDA National Organic Program has no authority over the production and labeling of cosmetics that are not made up of agricultural ingredients nor make any claims that they meet USDA organic standards. And so, the vast majority of cosmetic products subsist under minimal, if any, intermediary supervision. The USDA's feeble powers of enforcement preclude it from reprimanding or penalizing manufacturers that flout its strict regulations, and there are presently no legal ramifications for misappropriating the term "organic" on a product's label or in a company's name.
Even more disturbing is that a number of profit-driven cosmetics manufacturers have been working with deep-pocketed industry players to convince the USDA to adopt less stringent public standards or to permit private industry standards. These revisions will inevitably further confuse consumers and will ultimately put organic farmers and manufacturers at an even more unbalanced pricing and marketing disadvantage.
You might think that consumers are powerless against organic labeling fraud, but there is something you can do to prevent the national standards from being watered down permanently. Until August 31, 2009, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is accepting comments from the public regarding changes to the National Organic Program. You can send an email to either Kathleen Merrigan, USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, or Valerie Frances, Executive Director of the NOSB, voicing your concern for the uniformity and enforcement of NOP standards. You can also contact your Congressional representative.