Understanding Label Lingo

Pick the purest beauty products with our guide to cosmetics standards.
By Laurie Budgar

Ever feel like you’re walking around a foreign country, instead of the personal care aisle, trying to understand all the logos you see? It’s not you. There’s a dizzying array of organic, natural, environmental, safety, and animal-welfare seals on everything from moisturizer to mascara. Each seal represents compliance with a standard from a different government agency, nonprofit group, manufacturers’ alliance, retailer, or scientific group. It’s a lot to try and process.

These standards may be confusing, but they’re necessary—no single agency can address every social and eco concern out there. Think about how we regulate cars: One government body ensures that autos meet safety standards, while another enforces pollution limits. When it comes to personal care, we have to think about where and how the ingredients are grown, how they are tested, and whether they are safe for people and the planet.

There are many products that call themselves “natural,” but you don’t know for sure if they really are, since there’s no legal definition of the term, says Cara Welch, PhD, scientific and regulatory affairs manager for the Natural Products Association, a nonprofit trade organization (learn about their seal at right). In fact, more than 13,000 products introduced in the marketplace in 2009 claimed to be “natural,” Welch says. “Some companies use what could be a very small or even insignificant amount of ‘natural’ material to claim an entire product is natural. I think this is misleading to consumers; most likely, they are under the impression the entire product is natural—this is an example of ‘greenwashing,’” Welch says.

There’s a lot to keep straight when you’re trying to buy the cleanest, safest products for your family, so here’s a guide to help you decipher the meanings of the various seals.

USDA Organic
The green-and-white, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal denotes personal care products made with ingredients that are 95 to 100 percent organic. It’s the same seal you see on organic food. The USDA Organic seal represents a very stringent set of regulations regarding how food must be grown (no toxic fertilizers or pesticides); processed (very few chemical modifications permitted); and handled (must not be intermingled with conventional products). Phthalates, parabens, petroleum (and petroleum-derived products), and synthetic preservatives are also not permitted. At least 25 companies produce personal care items in accordance with these strict rules, according to the Organic Consumers Association.

But unlike foods, personal care products don’t have to have the certification to use the word “organic” in their names or marketing, which is what makes the seal so important.

We can also turn to responsible vendors for help. Beginning next June, Whole Foods will introduce stricter regulations at its stores that require beauty products to be labeled organic only if they are organic per USDA. Products will have to reformulate or change their names, or risk being pulled from store shelves. “The organic labeling initiative is about promoting the integrity of organic products in our stores, so it means the same thing on bodycare as it means when you see it on food,” says Jody Villecco, quality standards coordinator at Whole Foods.

An important thing to remember: Just because a shampoo or moisturizer meets organic food regulations, doesn’t make it edible. The USDA allows for some chemical modifications in products, such as saponification, which is the process of combining a vegetable oil or a fat (coconut or palm oil) with an alkali (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) to create soap. Many beauty products also contain essential oils, which can be toxic if ingested.

Because there’s no USDA “made with organic” seal for personal care products the way there is for food, NSF International and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a pair of public health and safety agencies, developed a new standard to fill that gap: the NSF/ANSI 305 standard. It certifies and awards the NSF seal to products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, using USDA food standards as a guideline. Like the USDA, it prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), ionized radiation, and petroleum or petroleum-derived materials. But unlike the USDA, NSF/ANSI 305 allows “green chemical” processes that make a product or ingredient more effective and are environmentally and biologically benign—as long as the raw ingredients are organic. For example: Hydrogenation is a green-chemical process that turns an oil into a wax. The standard also permits the use ofcertain minerals and synthetic preservatives such as grapefruit seed extract and clay.

COSMOS-Organic and COSMOS-Natural
Several of the European organic certifications you may have seen on your favorite products—including the Soil Association (British), EcoCert (French), and BDIH (German)—are now unified under one seal, COSMOS. This seal has two standards: organic and natural. Both standards were just finalized, and COSMOS-standard AISBL Chairman Francis Blake says COSMOS-certified products might be on store shelves as soon as next year.

The COSMOS-Organic standard requires 95 percent of a product’sagricultural ingredients and 20 percent of the total product to be organic.  (Unlike most organic standards, the COSMOS standard includes the water content when calculating the organic percentage. Since water can never be organic, many products will come in at lower percentages.) Like NSF/ANSI, it allows green chemistry so the manufacturing process remains environmentally benign. It also sets rules for environmental management and packaging. For example, no PVC or Styrofoam is allowed, and certified companies must recycle waste. COSMO standards prohibit animal testing, use of GMOs, irradiation to kill bacteria, and use of nanoparticles that are used to make certain chemicals absorb better.

The COSMOS-Natural standard is much more vague, failing to specify what percentage of ingredients must be natural.

This nonprofit association of European bodycare manufacturers developed a natural and organic standard with three levels of strictness. One star denotes the product is “natural” and contains a minimum level of natural ingredients (existing in nature and not chemically modified), though the specific amount varies by product type. For example, “water-free” cleansers must have 90 percent natural ingredients, while deodorants only need 15 percent.

Two stars are awarded to natural products that have at least 70 percent organic ingredients. To get three stars, a product must have 95 percent organic ingredients. Recently NaTrue and NSF/ANSI came to a mutual recognition agreement: If a product meets one standard, it qualifies for certification to the other. NaTrue is working on a similar agreement with the Natural Products Association.

Natural Products Association
Products that meet the NPA’s Natural Product Standard—currently more than 300 products qualify—also get an independent third-party assurance that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are found in nature, renewable, generally regarded as safe, and contain no prohibited ingredients such as petroleum, parabens, phthalates, or sodium lauryl sulfate.

Whole Foods
Before any of the other standards existed, Whole Foods had a system of Body Care Quality Standards for its Whole Body department—requiring no synthetic colors in any products, no animal testing, and no preservatives that have been linked to allergies and sensitivities.

In 2008, Whole Foods introduced its more-strictly regulated Premium Body Care standards. “We looked at all the bodycare ingredients on our shelves, and we just made the cut: What’s the safest, what’s the most natural, what has the least environmental impact, and what has the greatest efficacy?” Villecco says, adding, “natural products didn’t always have the greatest reputation for efficacy.” Premium Body Care products are free from formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, parabens, phthalates, and harsh surfactants (the ingredients that create lather and cut through grease and make a product work well). But they also must have minimal environmental impact, both during production and when they get washed down the drain after use.

Villecco says that eventually, Whole Foods plans to “move all of our bodycare products toward our Premium Body Care standards,” but doesn’t have a timeline yet for that transition. Whenever that happens, it will likely be a bellwether for the industry, just as Whole Foods’ organic requirements are expected to be.

Cradle to Cradle
Started by a green architect-designer and a Greenpeace chemist, Cradle to Cradle certifies that products—from cosmetics and bath products to clothing and construction materials—are safe for humans and the planet. “We know it’s almost impossible to have something that’s truly safe across the board,” says Jay Bolus of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, the sustainability-consulting company behind the label. “So much depends on what the product is intended to do and what happens at the end of the product’s useful life.”

The company considers these factors when certifying products to one of its four levels: basic, silver, gold, and platinum. The criteria used to classify products include the use of safe materials, recyclability, energy-use footprint, water stewardship, and social responsibility. It also requires manufacturers to improve in each of those areas over time or risk losing their certification.

Leaping Bunny
More than 300 cruelty-free products have qualified for the Leaping Bunny label, which assures that cosmetics, personal care, and household products have not used new animal testing at any point in the manufacturing process. “A great number of Leaping Bunny-approved companies produce only natural or organic products; however, we only certify the animal testing component of this,” says Spokeswoman Nicole Perry. For that reason, Leaping Bunny products may be vegan but aren’t certified as such.

-Laurie Budgar is a freelance writer and editor in Longmont, Colorado.