What is natural and organic beauty

organic beauty

What are ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ beauty products?

Manufacturers often market so-called ‘organic’ beauty products with synthetic formulations because what we think of as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ isn’t what appears in the dictionary…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘natural’ as “existing in or derived from nature; not made, caused by, or processed by humankind,” and ‘organic’ as “Not involved with chemical fertilisers or other artificial chemicals.” Of course it also provides the chemistry definition of organic, “relating to or denoting compounds containing carbon.” The latter definition is not what consumers expect of an ‘organic’ beauty product, but lacking an official definition and without any regulation on the use of these terms in the EU, manufacturers frequently market largely synthetic cosmetic formulations as ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ John E, Bailey, once a director of the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Color and Cosmetics, said in the early 1990s:

“There are no standards for what natural means. They could wave a tube [of plant extract] over the bottle and declare it natural. Who’s to say what they’re actually using?…Image is what the cosmetic industry sells through its products, and it’s up to the consumer to believe it or not.”

Nearly two decades later and despite organic regulations covering food products, we still do not have regulatory measures for cosmetic products marketed as ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ Consumers are increasingly becoming conscious of what they put into their bodies and apply to their skin but global greenwashing could lead to consumer disaffection.

It’s not just mainstream brands that are guilty of duping consumers. Some popular brands allegedly founded on the principles of genuinely ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ beauty are misleading us too. Research conducted in 2008 by US Organic Consumers Association (OCA) in conjunction with Dr Bronner’s found traces of the carcinogenic contaminant 1,4-dioxane in 50 products produced by popular ‘natural’ and even ‘certified organic’ brands including JASON, Origins, Ikove, Avalon Organics and Giovanni Organic Cosmetics.

After filing Cease and Desist Letters to compel organic cheaters to drop their deceptive claims and a court battle (which saw the California Attorney General file a lawsuit against the brands selling products found to contain the highest levels of 1,4-dioxane), a number of the guilty companies have thankfully reformulated their products.

Disingenuous certifiers included Ecocert and OASIS, who tried to claim that deceptive certification could be protected by free speech – a claim rejected by the court. Dr Bronner’s contested that products labelled as ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic’ should not be produced using conventional synthetic ingredients and carcinogenic petrochemical compounds. Products certified organic by the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA) were found to be free from 1,4-dioxane because these official standards, which do provide legal definitions of ‘natural’ and ‘organic,’ do not authorise the use of petrochemical compounds.

Some certified organic products are almost entirely comprised of synthetic ingredients, with floral waters counted as organic components in the percentages of organic content. It’s a bit like getting a litre jug of water, sticking an organic herbal tea bag in it, along with some synthetic chemicals and saying that the resulting product is organic!

Many ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ brands use oleochemicals in their products, which are principally derived from vegetable oils (palm or coconut), but are structurally similar to petrochemicals. Oleochemicals are derived from renewable resources and touted as an eco-friendly alternative to petrochemicals. However, the vegetable oils used are often hydrogenated during the manufacturing process to produce fats, fatty acids and emulsifying waxes which are cheap, have a long shelf-life and give cosmetic formulations a pleasing feel, but they may be contaminated with metal catalyst residues and petrochemicals. We know the health risks associated with the consumption of hydrogenated fats so why would be want to put them on our skin?

Oleochemical production also has a detrimental impact on the environment. The international trade in palm oil is a key factor in rainforest destruction and human rights abuses in Malaysia and Indonesia. The burning and draining of peatlands (which are concentrated stores of carbon) in Indonesia also produces around 2 billion tons per year of CO2 emissions, making Indonesia the third largest emitter of manmade greenhouse gases, preceded only by the U.S. and China.

Cold-pressed plant oils are a much more eco-friendly alternative and far less energy intensive, but less cheaply produced – hence the reason manufactures opt for oleochemicals.

The term ‘natural’ is also a great source for confusion because whilst we cannot expect a flower to be plucked from the ground and placed straight into a cosmetic formulation, ‘natural’ implies that the ingredients have undergone minimal processing and do not contain any synthetic residues. In reality ‘natural’ ingredients may contain residues of pesticides or artificial fertilisers and some ‘natural’ ingredients are treated or extracted with toxic synthetic chemicals such as the suspected carcinogen butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Clearly we cannot rely on manufacturers claims alone.

Organic Standards Confuse Consumers

Organic standards should be there to clarify for not confuse consumers, but the boom in unofficial and often weak standards has left shoppers in a quandary. Europe-wide efforts to harmonise organic standards in the last 6 years have culminated in the Cosmetics Organic Standard (COSMOS) created by 7 European certification organisations. The draft standard has already been criticised for its ‘organic’ category where only 20 per cent of the total product must be organic to achieve certification.

Numerous other standards have popped up worldwide, including OASIS, Natrue, NSF-International and Certech. Both the standards of OASIS, spearheaded by conventional industry members and Ecocert have been condemned by the U.S Organic Consumers Association (OCA) for allowing the use of some questionable chemical processes and synthetic preservatives.

An industry group (known as Natrue) representing a range of natural cosmetic companies including Weleda, Primavera and Lavera, formed in alliance with the German Cosmetic, Toiletry, Perfumery and Detergent Association, a conventional industry body, have developed their own permissive standards, which allow a product containing only 15 percent natural ingredients to be labelled as “Natural with Organic Content” and a product with only 19 percent organic content to be labelled as “Organic.”

The main organic certification body in the UK is the Soil Association. Other well known organisations offering certification of beauty products include Organic Farmers & Growers (in the UK), BDIH (in Germany), AIAB (in Italy), NASAA (in Australia), Australian Certified Organic (ACO) and the Organic Food Chain (OFC).

What can we do to improve organic beauty standards?

Currently the best organic standards worldwide are those of the USDA and there are a growing number of USDA certified organic products on the market. Opt where possible for products that are 100 percent organic, or at least 95 percent organic, certified by bodies such as the USDA, Soil Association and Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G). The standards of the Soil Associatin and OF&G are not perfect because they authorise the use of synthetic preservatives such as phenoxyethanol (produced by reacting the toxic chemicals phenol and ethylene oxide – a known human carcinogen) and cocamidopropyl betaine (which can cause sensitisation and allergic contact dermatitis, due to the petrochemical impurity dimethylaminopropylamine.) These standards are however stricter than those of bodies such as Ecocert, BDIH, Natural Products Association, Whole Foods Premium Standard, OASIS and Natrue.

Bear in mind that some natural ingredients can cause allergic reactions and other undesirable affects too. Recent research conducted by Lina Hagvall from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, found that essential oils can become allergenic on contact with oxygen in the air, which may cause contact allergies in sensitive individuals. A wise precaution is to always do a patch test when trying a new product, placing a small amount on the inside of the elbow, covering it with a plaster and checking after 24 hours to see if there is any irritation. If any product causes you any irritation then stop using it immediately.

If going all-organic is a step too far for you at this stage streamline your beauty products down to the bare essentials. Things like hand cream, eye cream, face cream and body cream often contain exactly the same ingredients, so you don’t need all of them! Rather than plastering your face in make-up opt perhaps just for a dusting of blusher, smudge of lip balm and slick of mascara. Opt for mineral make-up, which isn’t perfect ecologically or in terms of health, but contains far fewer toxic chemicals than conventional make-up. Cutting down is easier than you think and will save you money!

Ingredients are listed in products in descending order of volume, so if the top few ingredients are synthetic give it a miss and at least opt for a product where the primary ingredients are ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ even if some of the others are synthetic.

Don’t believe the marketing claims of cosmetics companies. Be willing to check out the ingredients for yourself. The Environmental working Group (EWG) in the US has a website at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com which lists thousands of chemicals used in cosmetic products along with any associated adverse health or environmental affects.

Make your own organic beauty products!

Finally, make your own beauty products so you know precisely what has gone into them. It’s very easy to do. On the most basic level, apricot kernel oil or almond oil make great facial cleansers, wiped off with an organic muslin cloth. Believe it or not, you can make a fabulous lip tint with beetroot juice, beeswax and almond oil (see The Ultimate Natural Beauty Book by Josephine Fairley). Coconut oil is a fabulous moisturiser and castile soap makes a great shampoo and shower gel.

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