Savvy consumers know that cosmetics do not have to be tested and proved safe before making it onto store shelves. Consumer protections for personal care products are outdated and broken, so shoppers must do their own legwork to ensure that the products they buy are safe – by reading labels and using resources such as EWG’s Skin Deep database.
But making sense of the labels on cosmetic products isn’t easy.
Manufacturers use the term “organic” in their product names to mislead consumers about the sources of the ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency that regulates cosmetics, acknowledges that it does not “define or regulate the term ‘organic’ as it applies to cosmetics, body care or personal care products.”
In fact, it’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture that regulates the term “organic,” whether in food or cosmetics. But there’s a Catch-22. Although cosmetic products containing agricultural ingredients are eligible for USDA’s organic certification, that agency says it’s not authorized to regulate the “production and labeling of cosmetics… that are not made up of agricultural ingredients, or do not make any claims to meeting USDA organic standards.”
This means that cosmetics that don’t contain agricultural ingredients can deceptively use the word “organic” in the product name without penalty from either USDA or FDA.
It’s important to understand the components of product labels. The “principal display panel” – the front label – is the portion with the product name, logo and, when applicable, the USDA Organic Seal. The ingredient information panel is on the back and lists ingredients. Though manufacturers do not always provide a full list of ingredients.
When it comes to “organic” claims, here are the facts:
If a company is selling a product that does contain agricultural ingredients and wants to label it organic, it must abide by these rules under USDA’s National Organic Program:
- Products labeled “100% organic” can contain only organically produced ingredients. They can display the USDA Organic Seal.
- Products labeled simply “organic” must contain a minimum of 95 percent organically produced ingredients. They are also permitted to display the USDA Organic Seal. Non-organic ingredients must be USDA-approved and appear on the National List of allowed and prohibited substances.
- Products labeled “made with organic xxxxx” (for example, “Made with organic rosemary”) must contain a minimum of 70 percent organically produced ingredients. They may not display the USDA Organic Seal but can list up to three of the certified organic ingredients on the front label.
- Products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot display the USDA Organic Seal or use the term “organic” on the front label. These products are permitted to list certified organic ingredients on the back panel only.
- The listed percentages of organic material cannot include water and salt.
- All products must provide the name and address of a USDA-accredited certifier, a private company hired to document that the product complies with the agency’s rules.
While other organic certification standards exist, USDA certified organic is considered the “gold standard.” Other standards, such as one issue by the private, non-profit corporation NSF International, are more lenient – they require only a minimum of 70 percent organic materials and allow the use of chemical processes considered synthetic under the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Due to confusion and lack of federal oversight, there are companies that use the term “organic” in their product names primarily as a marketing tool. Brands that contain agricultural ingredients but use “organic” in their product names without meeting USDA standards are committing what the Organic Consumer Association calls organic cosmetic fraud. The association is a non-profit organization “campaigning for health, justice and sustainability.” It advocates for more accurate labeling and works to expose companies that use illegitimate “organic” claims. Based on its analyses, the association has developed a list of companies that violate USDA’s organic standards and a list of recommended USDA-certified organic products.
As part of its efforts, the association launched the Coming Clean Campaign to promote Organic Cosmetics Integrity Policies in retail stores. These policies hold that:
- Brands marketed as organic must be certified by USDA;
- The definition of organic on personal care products should be the same as on food products.
In June 2011, the Whole Foods Market chain adopted an Organic Cosmetics Integrity Policy that prohibits its stores from selling products that make organic claims without the appropriate certification. Whole Foods says that violators that do not rephrase or reformulate inaccurate product names will be dropped them from its shelves.
Several certified organic brands such as All in One God Faith, Inc. (doing business as Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps), Organic Essence and Intelligent Nutrients, Inc. have also tried to take action against products that make misleading use of the term “organic.” They filed a complaint with USDA charging that 13 brands are “deceptive and misleading” and do not comply with USDA’s standards.
Specifically, the complaint alleges that:
- None of the identified products contain 95 percent organic ingredients.
- Primary moisturizing/cleansing ingredients in the named products were produced from non-organic sources that may have involved pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering, sewage sludge and/or irradiation.
- The main cleansing ingredients in named products are petrochemicals and the main moisturizing ingredients are fatty alcohols or synthetic silicone components.
USDA has yet to respond to the complaint.
Ultimately, consumers looking to purchase genuinely organic cosmetics, body care or personal care products should familiarize themselves with USDA standards and keep a close eye on product labels! And be sure to check out how the product rates on Skin Deep!