Do the "natural" and "organic" labels on beauty products mean anything?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Feb. 24 2009 10:38 AM

Green Lipstick?

Making sense of natural bath-and-beauty products.

When I go to the drugstore these days, it seems like every other bottle of shampoo and tube of lipstick is being marketed as "natural" and "organic." Do any of those labels actually mean anything?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The Green Lantern feels your pain—she often finds herself standing glassy-eyed in the soap aisle, seduced and confused by the pretty pictures of exotic fruits. We can all be forgiven for being hypnotized by the hype: After all, beauty firms spend, on average, a whopping 20 percent to 25 percent of their revenue on advertising and promotion, compared with just 2 percent or 3 percent on research and development. The industry knows that green is hot these days, and it hasn't been shy about exploiting it—between 2006 and 2007, the number of product launches that came with "natural" claims increased by 79 percent, while the number professing to be "organic" jumped 173 percent. As one savvy hair-care exec put it, the words "natural and environmental" used to mean "dried twigs and bark and herbs"; now they mean "juicy, alive and luscious."

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So how do you make sense of all the buzzwords? First of all, don't expect phrases like botanical or natural or plant-derived—or the Lantern's head-scratching favorite, nature-inspired—to mean anything. Though the FDA has the authority to reprimand personal-care product-makers whose labels make false and misleading claims, it's never imposed standard definitions for these green-sounding terms. So a body cleanser with only trace elements of cucumber extract can legally call itself a "natural" product, as can a fully synthetic product engineered to smell like an apple orchard. 

The word organic, on the other hand, can sometimes have real meaning—though the precise nature of that meaning depends on who's using the term. The USDA began certifying organic bath-and-beauty products in 2005. (You can recognize these products by the circular "USDA Organic" logo on the packaging.) The government uses the same standards it applies to produce (PDF)—i.e., produced without conventional pesticides and by companies that put an emphasis on soil-and-water conservation—and offers three levels of certification: "100 percent organic" (meaning that a product contains only organically produced ingredients), "organic" (at least 95 percent organic ingredients), and "made with organic ingredients" (at least 70 percent organic ingredients).

There are at least four other new programs that purport to quantify the "naturalness" of American personal-care products. Two are already in use: the Natural Products Association standard (a green leaf logo) and Whole Foods' in-house Premium Body Care label (a blue-and-green sprout sticker). Two more labels specifically dedicated to organic personal-care products, the NSF 305 logo and the OASIS seal, will start appearing on products later this year.

Don't assume that OASIS' "organic" means the same thing as the USDA's—the definitions of each term vary from program to program. There's also no way to stop a rogue greenwasher from forgoing the stickers and logos altogether and calling its 90-percent-synthetic body spray "organic" just the same. (The USDA does regulate the term organic when it comes to food labeling, but it monitors only the specific phrase USDA Organic when it comes to personal-care products.) Inversely, you shouldn't assume that the lack of one of these five labels means a product has no green cred whatsoever. Since these certification programs are so new, and since there's still a lot of confusion over what their standards actually mean, many companies haven't yet decided how to get certified. We can only hope that the United States eventually takes a cue from Europe, where a number of certification bodies have recently joined up in an effort to harmonize organic labeling on cosmetics.

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