“Organic” and “natural” are often used when describing food, beauty or home care products. We all know that it’s better to go for organic or natural products whenever we can but when we tried to articulate why, we realized the world of organic and natural is a bit of an enigma. We thought it was important that we get to the bottom of this!
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Impact on the environment: Modern farming methods typically use genetically modified seeds, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals to maximise yield / make their farms more productive. While it sounds reasonable to want to increase productivity, these methods negatively impact both the immediate environment in which the plants are grown and the broader environment. The classic example of this is the impact of pesticides on wild bee populations, which ironically has flow on effects to the agriculture industry and our food supply as bees are critical for pollinating many of the crops that feed humans. Unsurprisingly, our stance is that it’s better to go for consumable products that avoid modern farming practices that negatively impact our environment.
Impact on our health: Our skin is our biggest organ and since it’s porous anything applied to it is absorbed into our bloodstream and lymphatic system. While the FDA and some large cosmetic companies maintain that chemicals typically used in beauty products (e.g. parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, petrolatum, phthalates, synthetic polymers, synthetic fragrances) are safe in small quantities, no one really knows the long-term effects of their application. It’s also telling that the EU has banned well over a thousand different personal product ingredients that may cause cancer, birth defects, genetic mutation and/or reproductive harm. It goes without saying that we think it’s best to avoid them!
Over the last few years there’s been a real upward trend in the amount of organic and natural products available as we become more conscious about our health and the plight of the environment. But with this, of course, comes misleading marketing and false claims so it can be really tricky to know the difference between the real-deal and the not-so-real-deal. We try to shed a little more light on this below.
WHAT IS “ORGANIC”?
Across the USA, UK and Australia, certified “organic” has a very similar definition. If you’re buying certified organic you can rest assured that your products (food or the ingredients in your cosmetics for example) come for a farming system which ensures:
- No manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilizers
- No artificial or synthetic colours, preservatives or chemicals (including parabens and sulphates
No routine use of antibiotics
No GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or growth regulators
Very limited number of pesticides allowed
More sustainable land management
Organic farms are one of the most environmentally, socially and economically sustainable methods of production. For example, old school crop rotation, animal and plant manures and hand weeding are used to maintain and grow produce. A real win for the environment!
WHAT IS “NATURAL”?
While “organic”, for the most part, is a fairly regulated term (especially in the US), the same cannot be said for “natural”. Unless you spot a recognised certification label, this can mean just about anything.
Inconsistent? Yes! Especially since the beauty and cosmetics market (in the US alone) is worth somewhere in the region of $62 Billion – you would expect there to be at least some regulation but, according to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, this is actually one of the least regulated industries out there.
Some say the reason for lack of regulation is the difficulty in drawing the line between what is and what is not natural…for example, arsenic, mercury and poisonous mushrooms are “natural” but probably wouldn’t make the cut in a cosmetic context. We think that’s a little weak because most consumers assume trust in marketing and thus just don’t read ingredient lists.
There are some certification bodies (more on these below) that have been thoughtful about this and we’ve found the definition of “natural” is generally agreed between them as at least the following:
- Ingredients must come from plants, flowers and mineral origins found in nature
- No genetically modified (GMOs) ingredients
- No parabens, suflates or other harmful substances
- Limited or no petrochemical ingredients
- Never tested on animals
- Manufacturing process retains the integrity of the natural ingredients
OUR APPROACH TO NAVIGATING ORGANIC & NATURAL
As we laid out in our overall approach to searching for sustainable consumables, we believe it’s important to look for organic / natural products wherever possible. As our favourite Venn diagram illustrates, organic / natural forms one of our critical “sustainability circles”
In pursuit of a conscious but practical solution to the problem of finding organic / natural products in a world of false claims and confusing messages, we have developed our approach to be as simple as possible:
We’ll drill into this approach a little further:
CHECK THE INGREDIENTS LIST
We think this is the most pragmatic way to deal with this issue as not all companies “greenwash” (i.e. make false or misleading claims about their products being natural or organic). Some companies, especially small start-ups, might genuinely use organic and natural ingredients but not have the capital to gain certification (or source organic ingredients) which can be a very expensive. In fact, we support many brands which fall into this category!
As a rule of thumb, if you can’t quickly understand what the product is made of then it’s probably a bad sign. Ingredients that contain the likes of “poly”, “-eth-” or “oxy” are synthetic and a no-go, phthalates (artificial fragrances), parabens and sulphates are also best avoided. Having said that, there are ingredients that sound nasty but in fact are perfectly safe, like sodium chloride (salt), mentha piperita (peppermint essential oil) or vitellaria paradoxa (shea butter). Have a look at the list we put together for the most common and effective natural skincare ingredients used today. Alternatively, use technology to help you identify the good from the bad by scanning the barcode using these apps, chemical maze or THINK DIRTY.
LOOK FOR RECOGNISED LABELS
Another easy(ish) way to ensure you’re getting the highest quality products with the least amount of impact to the environment is to get familiar with the most common recognized certifications around. We’ve been looking into these various labels for the UK, USA and Australia and we hope this summary helps you make easy but informed choices:
- Best in class: products that have a USDA Organic Sealand/or a 100% organic This guarantees that 100% of the ingredients (which must also be identified on the product) are certified organic and that the processing aids are also organic
- Second best: products that have a USDA Organic Sealand/or an organic claim. In this case, 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic and the other 5% can be non-organic (excluding salt and water) and be on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- Third placeis where there is a “Made with Organic ingredients” which promises at least 70% (excluding salt and water) of the ingredients are certified organic, the remaining 30% must again only contain ingredients per the National List. These products are not allowed to display the USDA Organic Seal or claim to be “organic” or “made with organic ingredients”
- Last place, but still in the running, are those products which contain less than70% certified organic ingredients. Here only those specific ingredients can be labelled as certified organic. Again, no display of the USDA Seal or other organic claim is allowed
While this seems straight-forward, the standards were traditionally created with food in mind which meant that it was not appropriate to apply all of them to cosmetics which undergo a different manufacturing process. As a result, the NSF created the “Contains Organic Ingredients” standard which is currently the only American National Standard for organic personal care products. To be certified under this banner the product must contain at least 70% organic content by weight.
The difference between NSF and USDA’s standards are that specific material and production specifications required for certain personal care products that would otherwise not be allowed under the USDA’s regulations are now accepted.
If you live in the USA, the most well-known certification for natural cosmetic personal care products is probably the NPA’s Natural Standard, which ensures that:
- All, or almost all ingredients in the product come from / are made from a renewable resource found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral) with no petroleum compound
- Manufacturing process has retained the integrity of the natural ingredients
- No animal testing in the product’s development
- Ingredients are biodegradable
- The packaging is environmentally sensitive
The position in the UK is a little more straight-forward. The European Commission’s Agriculture Ministries produced a set of principles which regulate the entire organic market from production to labeling. In a nutshell, products can only be labeled as “organic” if at least 95% of the ingredients are certified as organic. To gain certification, each party in the supply chain, from growers to importers, must be registered with an approved certification body
The most well-known and highly regarded independent certifier in the UK is the Soil Association. The Soil Association together with four other EU partners (BDIH, Cosmebio, Ecocert and ICEA) developed a unified cosmetic standard known as the Cosmetics Organic and Natural Standard (COSMOS). This was developed because organic standards at the time were designed specifically with agriculture (i.e. food) in mind. And, cosmetic and skincare products do not always come from an agricultural source. COSMOS has strict rules and requirements which apply to environmental impact, ingredients, processing and packaging (and of course, includes those criteria we mentioned above under Organic).
As with organic certification in the UK, the gold standard certifier for natural is also the Soil Association which ensures that the product’s ingredients have:
- No genetically modified (GMOs) ingredients
- Never been tested on animals
- Limited use of petrochemical ingredients
- Only colours and fragrances from plants, flowers and mineral origins
- A manufacturing process that must minimise the environmental impact and creation of waste
In Australia, the term “organic” is not regulated for domestic and imported goods. As a result, its simply used as a marketing tool. So, it’s important to look out for certified organic labels from recognised certifiers. When it comes to beauty products the most popular and widely recognised certifiers who only certify products as organic that contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients include:
While each certifier in Australia has their own slant on the rules you can rest assured that they each have to achieve the minimum National Standard – which applies to both food and cosmetics. Similar to the USA, there are also four tiers of certified organic:
- Best in class is if the label on a product claims to be 100% organic, then the product must contain 100% organic ingredients
- Second best is where the product is labelled as organic. Here, 95% of the ingredients must be organic and the remaining 5% either comes from (i) an agricultural origin that cannot be sourced in sufficient quantities in accordance with the requirements of the Standard and/or (ii) are listed in the National Standard’s Appendix (certain food additives or processing aids)
- Third place is where the product is labelled with a statement that says “made with organic”. In this case, at least 70% of the ingredients are organic and the remaining 30% must come from (i) an agricultural origin that cannot be sourced in sufficient quantities in accordance with the requirements of the Standard and/or (ii) are listed in the National Standard’s Appendix
- Last place is a reference on the product’s ingredients list that “organic production methods” have been used. Where you see this, less than 70% of the ingredients are organic and the ingredients will appear in their descending order of weight – this way you can tell if there’s more of the good stuff or the bad
Similarly, if you live in Australia, the most well-regarded certifier is the Australian Certified Organic (CCO) who, like the Soil Association, is an accredited certifier under COSMOS for organic and natural cosmetics and raw cosmetic materials. If you see this logo you can be sure that the product has the same standards as the Soil Association COSMOS Natural standards in the UK
While each country has their own recognised certifiers and rules around labelling, there are also a number of international organisations that certify products as organic. Here’s a list of a few of the more reputable organisations to look out for and some of their requirements:
Natrue – at least 75% of all a brand’s products must be Natrue compliant and for organic certification at least 95% of the ingredients must come from controlled organic production and/or wild collection
Organic and natural ingredients can be expensive, unpredictable in formulation and without chemical preservatives they don’t last as long as products with synthetic ingredients. With this in mind it pays for manufacturers (in the short term) to use the latter wherever possible as this directly affects profit margins. And where profit margins are at stake, we know that companies will go to some questionable lengths to gain consumer trust.
Our preference is to go for organic where you can, although truly natural products are also a step in the right direction. By choosing products that tick the organic and / or natural box you’re (a) making a conscious and healthy choice to avoid toxic chemicals (b) giving the environment a helping hand (c) saying no to animal cruelty and (d) supporting progressive companies who are trying to do the right thing
So, look out for the certified organic and natural labels or read the ingredients list to ensure you’re getting what you pay for.
We hope this has shed some light on another grey area in the world of cosmetics and beauty.
If you have any questions/comments/anecdotes or other “organic vs natural” suggestions for the Sustainable Jungle Community, leave a comment, get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!