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Organic vs Natural cosmetic standards

Reviewed by Copley July 15, 2009 4 Comments
You might already suspect that the terms "organic" and "natural" tend to get diluted in a sea of cosmetics steered by the bottom line. But do you understand the difference between the two, as defined by regulatory agencies around the world? Discerning consumers, like Truth in Aging readers, want to know the extent to which a product is natural or organic. To clear up some common confusions about organic vs. natural standards, what follows is a detailed explanation of the primary certification programs within the cosmetics industry.

The most highly esteemed regulatory body in the sphere of cosmetics standards is the USDA National Organic Program, which has roots in the U.S. but also has an international influence, most notably in Asia. As with agricultural food items, the NOP develops, implements, and administers production and labeling standards for cosmetics containing agricultural ingredients. To secure certification, a product's major cleansing and moisturizing ingredients must be derived from organic sources, rather than artificial or petrochemical materials. Additionally, its manufacturing process must abstain from hydrogenation, sulfation, and synthetic preservation systems. Compliance with these regulations is rigorously enforced.

Once certified, the product is eligible for one of three organic labeling categories, based on organic content and other factors. "100 percent organic" means that the product must contain only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt) and may display the USDA Organic Seal. For outright "organic" claims, the product must consist of 95% minimum organically produced content, and the remainder must be substances approved on the National List.  For a "made with organic ingredients" statement on the label, the product must be at least 70% organic and may not display the USDA Organic Seal. A few brands that meet the USDA's  stringent standards include Badger, Dr. Bronner's, Terressentials, and Origins Organics.

The NSF organic certification, formally adopted in the US market in the spring of 2009, offers a slightly lower level of certification to organic cosmetics producers. Presenting a "made with" alternative to the USDA organic standards, the NSF's rules dictate that a product must contain specified organic content, with a minimum of 70%. The NSF enables manufacturers to incorporate several processes and ingredients banned in the USDA's equivalent, including some synthetic preservatives and biodegradable surfactants. Petroleum-based ingredients, such as the surfactant cocomidopropyl betaine, are banned. This international standard, which has more authoritative weight and branding power than European certification bodies, is being adopted by major U.S. manufacturers.

In Europe, the regulatory bodies include the Soil Association (in the U.K.) and the BDIH (primarily in Germany and continental Europe). SA requires 95% organic content for an outright "organic" product claim and 70% content for a "made with" claim, but its standards are lower than the USDA and the NSF because synthetic preservatives like phenoxyethanol and petrochemical materials like coc0-betaine are permitted. Unlike SA, the BDIH has no organic content requirements and is solely considered a "natural" standard. While SA prohibits sulfation and hydrogenation of ingredients, the BDIH permits these processes. Nonetheless, the BDIH improves on SA by barring all petrochemicals in cleansing ingredients and most synthetic preservatives. Some examples of BDIH-approved brands are Aubrey Organics, Dr. Hauschka, and Weleda.

On the more flexible end of the spectrum lie the certification standards for "natural" cosmetics. Like the BDIH, the Natural Products Association in the U.S. (whose seal appears on Burt's Bees and J.R. Watkins Apothecary products) neither deals in organic prerequisites nor certifies bogus organic claims. The Whole Foods Premium Standard, which is more concerned with consumer safety than absolute purity, allows some petrochemicals in cleansing ingredients, as well as dubious preservatives like phenoxyethanol and ethylhexylglycerin. Regardless, it prohibits the most problematic ingredients in terms of health hazards. Over 2,500 products have met this premium bodycare standard, from Alaffia to the Whole Foods Market home brand.

The least rigid of all, and consequently the least helpful for consumers, are the regulatory bodies that mislead with purported "organic" certifications. OASIS, the most permissive American standard in terms of synthetic preservative allowances, is one such offender. Instead of restricting standards to "made with organic" claims, like the NSF, this looser version certifies outright "organic" claims at only 85% organic content, with very few restrictions otherwise. The European counterpart to OASIS is NATRUE, which likewise certifies products that violate the fundamental organic criteria (no contamination by sulfated, hydrogenated, or synthetically preserved ingredients).

And last but certainly not least, the winner of the most laissez-faire and misleading standard of all is Ecocert, native to France. Permitting synthetic preservatives and petrochemical agents entirely forbidden elsewhere (ie. carboxylates, sarcosinates, amphoacetates, and amidopropyl betaine), Ecocert certifies "organic" claims on products with as low as 10% organic content. Now that you know the ins and outs of organic vs. natural standards in your cosmetics, you'll know better than to be fooled by a disingenuous seal of certification.
  • May 22, 2015

    by Ines

    One question, In the Ecocert website I found that they certify organic products when: "A minimum of 95% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming."
    Can you explain what supports your claim that they certify organic when the organic content is as low as 10%? Thank you!

  • May 22, 2015

    by Ines

    How about ICEA in Italy? Has anybody heard about thier certification program? Any comments?

  • July 14, 2012

    by Vicky Lyons

    The best way to see how natural or organic a product is is to read the ingredients and research the list for yourself. the nasties are only used at 1 or 2 % so 95% organic means nothing, it's just marketing spiel - it makes me really mad! We sell 'natural' beauty products, we don't put water in our products and therefore don't need any chemicals. See our full explanation: http://lyonsleaf.co.uk/organic-vs-natural

  • June 22, 2011

    by spokeintongues

    I'm not a fan of Eco-Cert but your statement "low as 10% organic content" is a bit misleading.

    The 10% refers to the total content including water. Higher percentages as used by organisations such as Soil Association exclude water from their calculations.

    The end result is virtually the same percentage.

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