Label Lowdown

What you see isn't always what you get.
By Vicky Uhland

When that little green-and-white organic label began appearing on food, everything seemed so simple. After all, if we could have organic milk, wouldn’t it just be a matter of time before we could luxuriate in an organic milk bath? And if eating an organic strawberry pie messed up our makeup, surely we’d be able to repair the damage with an organic strawberry lip gloss?

But five years after the Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved organic food labels, there is still no nationwide standard specifically for organic, or even natural, personal care products. Companies that want to make a conditioner or foot scrub that bears the USDA organic seal must either adhere to the government’s organic food rules standards so stringent that only a few skin and body products carry the green-and-white label or opt for certification by a European agency. But the rules for using the words “natural” or “organic” on personal care products are more lax. Some European agencies certify natural ingredients, but in the States, virtually anything goes.

As a result, we have “natural” lotions spiked with artificial colors and fragrances as well as chemically laden shampoos that promise a “totally organic experience.” Companies can plaster “natural” and “organic” all over personal care labels or include them in product names. And no shampoo sheriff or pedicure posse ensures that what you put on your body is as pure as what you put in it.

But a number of agencies, along with manufacturers and consumers, are working to change that. Here’s a look at the latest developments in natural and organic labels for personal care products.

European standards
Europe has been the leader in natural and organic personal care standards for decades, following the launch of the European Union Cosmetics Directive in 1976. The Directive, which is voluntary, bans testing on animals and lists more than 1,000 personal care ingredients considered unsafe.

“In Europe, standards are huge. Almost any product you pick up has a label,” says Jennifer Barckley, spokeswoman for the Swiss bodycare and skincare company Weleda. “Europeans are much more in tune to natural products and the environment, and labels help to differentiate quality.”

Weleda is certified by BDIH, one of the three largest private certifying agencies in Europe. The German-based agency offers a “Certified Natural Cosmetics” seal to companies that can show, via third-party testing, that they use plant ingredients whenever possible, don’t test on animals, use recyclable packaging, and avoid synthetic colors and fragrances, as well as silicone, paraffin, and other petroleum products.

Even though Weleda products are about 50 percent organic, Barckley says the company opted for natural certification rather than organic because it can sometimes be difficult to get reliable shipments of organic ingredients. “If there’s a major problem like a climate change or a natural disaster and our organic calendula crop dies, we wouldn’t have baby products for a year,” Barckley says.

France’s Ecocert is the largest European personal-care certification agency. The venerable French brand L’Occitane and Stella McCartney’s new Care line are among the many European products that carry Ecocert labels. The agency’s ECO label ensures that a minimum of 95 percent of a product’s ingredients are “natural or from natural origin,” and that 50 percent of the vegetable ingredients are certified organic. The more stringent BIO label requires that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are natural and that a minimum of 95 percent of the vegetable ingredients are certified organic. Ecocert also bans genetically modified organisms, mineral oil, silicon, parabens, animal testing, and chemical preservatives.

The British-based Soil Association has the most ambitious requirements of the European certifying agencies. A product with the Soil Association seal must contain a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients. The group allows nonorganic ingredients only if no organic versions are available and if they have no detrimental effect on human health and minimal environmental impact and are not genetically modified.

American labels from the inside out
US organic personal-care standards are less sophisticated than those in Europe, although, thanks to two new initiatives, they may soon be the world’s most comprehensive and strict. But for now, only two American standards exist: California’s and the USDA’s. Under the California Organic Products Act of 2003, personal care items sold in that state and labeled organic must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The USDA’s requirements are even more stringent. In 2005, the USDA ruled that the organic food standards can also apply to health and beauty products. If a lotion or soap or shampoo is at least 95 percent organic, excluding water or salt, it can carry the green-and-white USDA seal.

Although it’s relatively easy to make, say, organic pomegranate juice, transferring those pomegranates into an organic face scrub raises challenges. Three things make it difficult for personal care products to become 95 percent organic: performance, processing, and preservatives.

Performance becomes an issue for shampoos and lotions. Chemical ingredients make shampoo and foaming soaps lather and rinse away dirt. “If you put shampoo in your hair that is certified 95 percent organic, it would cling to your hair and be gunky,” says Raymond Mauro, global product development manager for Estee Lauder’s Origins Natural Resources. “And an organic body lotion would take a very, very long time to get out of that tacky, sticky phase, and take a long time to absorb into the skin.” Origins debuted a USDA-certified organic skincare and bodycare line in October 2007, but was able to make its foaming face wash only 73 percent organic and its body lotion 87 percent organic. The face wash would conform to most European standards and the California standard, but not the USDA’s.

Processing involves technical procedures like turning oil into soap, wax, or alcohol. Ingredients, like hydrogen, that allow those processes to happen are often banned under USDA organic food standards.

Preservatives are another tricky area. Common preservatives often contain synthetics or petroleum, which are banned under many organic standards. Mauro says Origins has developed a secret preservative blend that includes antibacterial organic herbs like clove, patchouli, red thyme, and lavender. But it took a team of Estee Lauder chemists more than a year to concoct the mixture. Many small companies simply don’t have the resources to develop their own organic preservative blends.

The new seal deal
In an effort to allow more personal care products to make valid organic claims, NSF International has partnered with the Organic Trade Association and the American National Standards Organization to develop “made with” organic standards for skincare and bodycare. NSF, a nonprofit that creates standards for everything from supplements to wastewater, is working with a group of 200 suppliers, manufacturers, academics, and regulators to set the criteria for a seal that would read “Made with X percent organic ingredients.” Manufacturers who conform to the more than 50 pages of NSF-approved rules and are certified by an independent agency would be able to put the seal on everything from face cream to massage oil.

The NSF organic personal-care standards are scheduled to be finalized this month. The standards, available at www.nsf.org, include a list of ingredients and processes that aren’t considered organic. They also spell out how the word organic can be used on labels—no more giant “ORGANIC” sprawled across bottles that only contain a soupçon of organic ingredients. “We think these standards will be more strict than the European ones,” says Jaclyn Bowen, NSF international standards specialist. Eventually, the USDA could adopt the NSF standards as federal law, Bowen says.

Another movement underway works to accurately label natural personal-care products. Burt’s Bees conducted a survey that found that a whopping 97 percent of consumers think natural personal-care products should be regulated. Figuring that the government wasn’t going to do anything anytime soon, Burt’s Bees decided to develop its own natural standards, in partnership with the Natural Products Association. The Burt’s Bees standards, which have also been adopted by Aubrey Organics, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Pangea Organics, California Baby, and Farmaesthetics, require that skincare and bodycare products labeled “natural” have at least 95 percent natural ingredients. Natural is defined as minimally processed ingredients that come from a renewable source found in nature and have no suspected human health risks.

Burt’s Bees chief marketing and strategy officer, Mike Indursky, says the natural seal should be available this spring. More than a dozen companies have asked to carry the seal on their products; each of those will regulate themselves without governmental help¾an honor system of sorts. According to Indursky, “The whole idea is to make it easier for consumers to figure out what the labels really mean.”

Vicky Uhland is a frequent contributor to Alternative Medicine magazine.

Current Organic Beauty Certifications

California Organic Products Act of 2003
Personal care items sold in that state and labeled organic must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

USDA
If a lotion or soap or shampoo is at least 95 percent organic, excluding water or salt, it can carry the green-and-white USDA Organic seal.

NSF
A new label to look for: If finalized in early 2008, the organic personal care seal would read "made with X percent organic ingredients." The standards, available at www.nsf.org, also include a list of ingredients and processes that aren't considered organic.

BDIH
The German-based BDIH offers a “Certified Natural Cosmetics” seal to companies that can show, via third-party testing, that they use plant ingredients whenever possible; don’t test on animals; use recyclable packaging; and avoid synthetic colors and fragrances, silicone, paraffin, and other petroleum products.

Ecocert
Ecocert’s ECO label ensures that a minimum of 95 percent of a product’s ingredients are “natural or from natural origin” and that 50 percent of the vegetable ingredients are certified organic.

Ecocert’s BIO label requires that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are natural and that a minimum of 95 percent of the vegetable ingredients are certified organic.

Ecocert also bans genetically modified organisms, mineral oil, silicon, parabens, and animal testing.

Soil Association
A product with the British-based Soil Association Organic Standard symbol must contain a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients to be labeled organic. Other products may display the symbol if at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic and the remaining ingredients are approved according to levels of human and marine life toxicity and biodegradability.