There is no denying that ‘green beauty’, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ based beauty products are on the rise in popularity across the consumer market and have been for quite some time now. Once a rarity, now our shop displays are littered with products that claim to be on one end of the natural to organic beauty spectrum. From past events with some beauty brands, we’ve seen that sometimes, these claims are not always true (think back to the Organic Instinct scandal). Could companies be catching onto this consumer trend by labelling their products as ‘natural’ or organic to appeal to the wider audience, when in fact it could be a false statement?
Considering issues with regulatory bodies and the government of beauty products and what their claims are, I wanted to help clear the air on what makes an organic beauty product. I also want to talk about in what instances you can actually trust this claim from a beauty brand, and to be aware of some of the marketing used for the ‘green beauty’ industry.
What does the word ‘organic’ mean?
Generally, organic material refers to anything derived from living matter. In a scientific sense, ‘organic’ refers to the molecular chemistry of carbon in all living matter, animal and vegetable. It’s important here to note that organic and natural cannot be used interchangeably for cosmetics. For cosmetics, an organic ingredient is one that has not only been derived from living matter, but one that has not been harvested, processed or refined by the use of any synthetic material, although a list of approved pesticides are routinely used. Natural ingredients are not currently regulated or certified by a third party organisation in Australia. This means that the term ‘natural’ has been applied to ingredients that while derived from natural sources, may have lost this authenticity in the eyes of many after many treatments and refinements by synthetic components. Another instance of this is when a company claims ‘nature identical’ ingredients in a formula which basically means it’s been synthetically produced to mimic the naturally derived ingredient and this could be due to reasons of poor production yield for example. Another instance is when an ingredient has been labelled ‘natural’ even though it’s been derived from a GMO material (my personal opinion on GMO’s is another story for another time!).
But generally, an organic ingredient has been derived from a natural source, and has not interacted with any synthetic material at any step of the harvest or production process. As an overarching framework, organic beauty products are ones that adhere to the following:
- No GMOs
- No synthetic materials
- No silicones
- No paraffin, petroleum or petroleum-derived ingredients
- Only preservatives from natural sources can be used
- No irradiation treatments
- Ingredients can’t be processed using sulphonation, ethoxylation or propoxylation methods, or any other methods where non-organic compounds are used
Can we really trust a company when they label their product as organic?
Organic certification can be a very lengthy and expensive process, not to mention it can be quite confusing since requirements for certification vary depending on the certifying body and the country you’re in. A company can only market their products as certified organic if they have been approved by an external certifying organisation. Each body will investigate the harvest and production chain of the ingredients within a product to determine whether a product can be ‘certified organic’. The only way you can be sure a product is organic is by the way of certification.
Because of the burdens of the certification process, many brands simply do not pursue it even if they qualify for approval, particularly smaller local brands which just don’t have the funds to complete the process. While they might meet the requirements, without that certification we simply cannot know or trust that a product is truly organic. In these instances, an ingredients list will provide some info on this. A lot of companies will indicate which ingredients are certified organic by various organisations (each will have a list of ingredients which they have certified), and are able to do so even if the actual product itself is not. Companies such as these can say they are organic, but cannot make the claim that they are ‘certified’ organic without the approval from an external organisation. At the same time, a rejected product may fall short of approval for just one ingredient, so while the majority might be organic ingredients, certification cannot be granted.
Having a ‘certified organic’ status guarantees the consumer that the product is based on ingredients that have been produced organically (there is a bit of leeway in terms of how much of a product has to be organic but we will explore that later). Since the requirements depend on which external body is used, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the logos to look out for, and what those requirements are to see if it aligns with your wishes.
You can trust a product as an organic beauty item if it bears a bud logo from the certifying body, and provides a certification number below this logo. Only then, can you really be sure that the product has been produced in an organic way, and with organic ingredients.
What are the certification bodies in Australia and what are their requirements?
There are six main certification bodies for organic products in Australia, all of which are overlooked by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). The body that seems to be used more commonly for cosmetics than others is the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) body. Because various bodies exist, with varying degrees of stringency for certifying organic beauty products, there is currently no harmonised framework to use as a standard for certifying organic products which can be frustrating for both the brands and us consumers.
Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
The ACO body adopts some of the most rigorous protocols for certification, and is perhaps one of the most respected both within Australia and internationally. ACO is approved and accredited to act as a Certifier in Australia by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). The ACO is the first Asia-Pacific based certifier accredited under the COSMetics Organic and Natural Standard (COSMOS), and follows the European standard of COSMOS since 2013. Basic rules state that for products certified:
- 100% certified organic content – the label can state “100% organic” and include bud logo
- 95%-100% certified organic content – the label can state “certified organic” and include bud logo
- 70%-95% certified organic content – the label can state “made with certified organic ingredients”, but bud logo cannot be used.
- <70 % certified organic content – product cannot make any certification claims, can only list ingredients as ‘organic’ and cannot include bud logo
In all instances, the particular ingredients which are certified organic will be clearly shown in the ingredients list, usually designated with an asterisk and this goes for any of the certifications no matter which one is used.
Since the biggest body in Australia for certifying organic beauty products follows the COSMOS standards, it’s important to become familiar with them too.
COSMOS was developed in 2010 by five certifying bodies across Europe (Germany, France (2), Italy, UK), and was specifically set up for certification of organic beauty products. The standards that COSMOS adopt are subjected to periodic review and amendment according to the developments within the organic and natural cosmetics sphere. The last version of the standard I can find can be downloaded here. Basically, COSMOS will not allow a product to be certified organic unless at least 95% of the product is based on organic ingredients (measured as a percent of the total product). For products that are less than 95% organic, references are allowed to be made to the certified organic ingredients on the label, but the product itself is not allowed to be labelled as certified organic. So pretty much the same rules as above. Animal products such as beeswax and honey can be used, but not parts of animals or products that cause harm to the animal.
As well as these basic rules, COSMOS also have many requirements in place for the organic processes, manufacturing and for the packaging of the products as well. Importantly, for packaging the company must minimise the amount of material used and maximise the amount of material that can be reused or recycled in their packaging, and PVC, plastics, and materials that contain GMOs cannot be used. Obviously there are much more rules in place, but this is just a basic overview.
Organic Food Chain (OFC)
OFC is another major certification body in Australia. They were originally founded by farmers and agriculturalists who aimed to reduce usage of chemicals whilst maximizing quantity and quality of yields. They follow the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, which you can read in detail here. They also strictly specify that ingredients will not be certified organic if they interfere with the natural metabolism of livestock and plants, or are manufactured using nanotechnology. Certifications are subject to an independent annual audit and chemical residue analysis testing.
They follow much the same framework for product claims above, namely, that only products with at least 95% of certified organic ingredients can be certified organic and must include the cert number on the packaging, and that products between 70-95% certified organic ingredients are to be labelled as being made with certified organic ingredients, specifying the proportion.
NASAA Certified Organic (NCO)
These guys are a fully-owned subsidiary of The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) and certify according to the standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They do have different levels of certification where a product can only be certified if it contains at least 95% certified organic ingredients (excluding water), or is to be labelled as ‘Approved Cosmetics’ if the formula contains at least 70% of certified organic ingredients.
What I love most about these guys is their focus on educating and promoting sustainable practices to deliver organic ingredients. For me personally, I find sustainability to more important that any organic or natural status of a product. Sustainability is of the utmost importance to me, whether from a natural, organic or synthetic product.
Other bodies which are certification organisations in Australia do exist, but these are much less used for the organic beauty industry but do aim on certifying organic food produce and to the broader agricultural industry eg horticulture. These include the Bio-Dynamic Research Institute, which is involved in research and practical development of the Australian DEMETER Bio-Dynamic Method of Agriculture. It demands highest quality application of the biodynamic method, and encourages community based, sustainable, ecological activities. Others are AUS-QUAL, and Safe Food Production Queensland. It’s important to become familiar with the requirements for each in case you encounter their certification logos on an organic beauty or personal care product.
Apart from bodies within Australia, you may come across a product that has been certified organic by an international organisation. Again, it’s important to become familiar with these and their certification standards, but because there is an endless number of these, I’m not going to go into detail about these but I will provide a list to the most common you may see on your products:
- NaTrue – Belgium
- Soil Association Organic Standard– United Kingdom
- Bioagricert – Italy
- BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics – Germany
- Cosmebio – France
- EcoCert – France
- USDA’s National Organic Program – USA
Concerns Over Organic Products
Despite the growing popularity of the green beauty industry in recent years, many are also conisdering the ways in which the organic industry may be impacting not only the environment but the consumers as well.
You probably won’t find an effective organic sunscreen
Generally, organic certification applies to ingredients which produced by agricultural process, meaning if it can’t be grown, it can’t be organic. However, there has been some leniency for this in some certification bodies. The ACO for example, allow for some non-agricultural ingredients to be included in certified organic formulas eg zinc oxide. But this does pose a problem for those who are enthusiastic about sun protection. Consumers might be frustrated with the lack of certified organic sunscreens on the market, but the truth is, they don’t really exist. To adequately protect the skin from harmful UV rays (and to allow your product to be marketed as a sunscreen), the product must undergo rigorous testing under the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia to test it’s SPF. There is a small list of well-established and approved ingredients by the TGA. To be approved for organic certification, this ingredient must be present in 5% or less of the total formula, which you’d be hard-pressed to find since effective sunscreens will contain between 15-25% zinc oxide. Because of these reasons, you won’t find a sunscreen that meets the 95% certified organic threshold for certification, but most bodies (ACO included) will allow a product to be labelled as ‘Made with certified organic ingredients’ as long as the approved non-agricultural ingredients are in a proportion of 30% or less than the total product. But, even with this relaxed requirement, the products that fall in this category are still quite limited. So, with this in mind it is up to the individual to assess whether the importance of sun protection is worth sacrificing their need for organic products. Another thing to keep in mind again, is that not every organisation internationally follow this rule, so there may be potential to find suitable products internationally.
A example of this is the 2015 fiasco concerning Jessica Alba’s natural/organic business, the Honest Co. A 5 million dollar lawsuit brought on by a consumer who claimed, among many other claims, that the sunscreen was completely ineffective and unsafe for protecting against UV rays. This followed the social media storm where many posted photos of their poor experiences using the sunscreen. The biggest lesson to learn here is that the only demonstrated examples of sun protection agents are those that are not currently certified under organic standards.
Spoilage is more likely
Certification bodies allow for a 5% freedom of inorganic ingredients and there’s a good reason why. If you have read my previous post on the use of parabens, you would have seen me cover the pros and cons of using natural vs synthetic preservatives. One of these being that natural preservatives do not act as effective inhibitors of microbial proliferation and that many ‘natural’ companies sacrifice their need for natural ingredients based on this. While some natural preservatives do exist, organic certification bodies acknowledge the dangers of using them and thus allow for synthetic preservatives to be used in a formula to ensure safety to the consumers. In 2013, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) conducted testing on a range of ‘natural’ cosmetic products and detected unacceptably high levels of microbial contamination in the products, which has serious consequences for consumer health given these products were to be used around sensitive areas. The use of ineffective natural preservatives were the suspected reason behind this spoilage, and all three products were recalled from the market.
Despite this, many organically-minded companies still refuse to include synthetic preservatives in their formula. These will absolutely have a shorter shelf life compared to regular cosmetics that include synthetic preservatives, and will have a higher risk of causing infection. If you are in support of this, you must, at the very least, strictly follow the use-by instructions or any advice for how long to use a product for after opening (which should be displayed on the packaging), unless you are willing to risk infection. Some products will require refrigeration because of this, so do take note. Others are packaged in small sizes to avoid premature spoilage as well.
Organic farming has it’s dangers
This a hotly debated topic and one I think won’t be resolved in the near future. Organic farms which avoid the use of synthetic-based pest control typically produce up to 40% less yield than conventional farming (for the same area), mainly due to the loss in product by weeds and pests. Generally, to compensate for poor yield and keep up with the supply chain, more land is needed to grow and harvest organic produce per unit. You might not think about this at first, but this actually contributes to greenhouse gas production (because of higher nitrogen emissions), habitat loss of local animals following land clearing, and in extreme cases adds to water shortages in some areas. While this is true for conventional farming, the pressure to keep with supply for the organic market means more land conversion for agricultural purposes – and this has many significant knock-on effects. While some pesticides are being banned for organic farming practices, others are being approved which actually show a higher risk to both humans, animals and the environment. Take the recent banning of glyphosate against the back of public pressure, and the re-authorisation of copper sulfate which has much higher risks and toxicity, and where the European Chemical Agency has stated it’s ‘very toxic’ status, as an example! Considering copper sulfate is the most common pesticide residue found on organic produce, this should be a concern for both the wider community, and particularly for those who threw shade on glyphosate.
A recent review in Science Advances assessed the costs and benefits for organic farming, and opined that while organic farming may result in potential “marginal” health benefits (as well as better water quality and an increase in biodiversity), yield stability, soil erosion, water use and labour conditions are uncertain and that more research and policy making needs to be conducted to determine best farming practices. However, they do admit that these costs and benefits will vary across different contexts. On another note, organic farming does mean you pay more for your food because of lower yields and the need to maintain seperate distribution channels to regular farming, but this a choice you make personally based on the benefits to your lifestyle. This comes back to my point before when I mentioned sustainable and good production practices are what are most important to me, organic produce or not! Despite this, it is commonly acknowledged that organic farming has an important role in achieving a fair and sustainable system and practices need to be improved wherever possible. In my opinion, the future of farming practices relies on the combination of conventional and organic farming methods in order to address many of the environmental and health problems people are focussing on. It shouldn’t be an organic vs non-organic debate.
I do think that organic beauty does have it’s place in the industry. However, I am mindful that a lot of companies like to label their products as organic when you can’t be sure they really are. My reason for this post was to help clear the air and make it easier to understand the certification and regulation of the organic beauty industry, and how to identify products that you can’t trust come from organic sources. Do have strict rules in place in selecting your organic products? Or if not, has this post helped to understand how the industry works for organic products? Let me know in the comments below!
SHOP THE POST!
Clark, M & Tilman, D. 2017. Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environ Res Lett. 12: 6
Suefert, V & Ramankutty, N. 2017. Many shades of gray—The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture. Science Adv. 3: e1602638
*Products were provided for editorial consideration. All opinions expressed are genuine and my own. The Beauty & the Geek AU is no expert so please do not substitute my opinions for professional advice.