Visitors to this Reading Room will
be familiar with the minefield involved in finding truly
all-natural health and beauty products. Practically
the world over, poor regulation means that marketing-hype and
label literature can be misleading. So could organic
certification for health and beauty products offer consumers some
much needed guidance? Organic week here in the UK (3 - 11
September) sponsored by the UK’s largest organic certifying body,
the Soil Association, seems a fitting time to discuss the issues.
Due to a loophole in the law, health and beauty
products can, in most places in the world, be called “organic”
without any organic certification to prove it. This means
that products described as “organic” can still contain potentially
hazardous chemicals and only one ingredient from organic
agriculture. Likewise, “natural” products only need contain
1% natural ingredients to earn their description. Product
labeling can be very confusing, particularly when ingredients such
as sodium lauryl sulphate are described as “derived from coconut”.
While this may be partially true, sodium lauryl sulphate is so far
removed from a coconut, its properties bear no resemblance
A foam booster, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), is found
in most shampoos and toothpastes, is often used as the benchmark
skin irritant in laboratory tests. As far back as 1983, the
Journal of American College of Toxicology discussed its irritant
potential and warned of the dangers of prolonged contact with the
skin and cumulative risk of exposure in daily use. - It can
inhibit the activity of skin cell enzymes and break the membranes
found in the lower layers of the skin, resulting in dryness and
Another troubling ingredient that can creep into
natural products is artificial fragrance. If you see
'fragrance' or 'parfum' on a label, not qualified as an essential
oil, this could be synthetic and include up to a 1000 other
ingredients. These fragrance ingredients have been found to
cause as much as one third of all cosmetic allergies; another
study says that at least a fifth of children with eczema are
allergic to artificial fragrances.
Last year, the University of Reading in England
published a study that linked ‘paraben’ preservatives in underarm
deodorants with breast cancer. Parabens are also linked with
skin sensitivity in eczema-prone individuals. Yet they are
widely used in all sorts of “aromatherapy” and natural products.
Likewise, another widely-used preservative, methyldibromo
glutaronitrile (MDGN), is considered so irritant by the EU
Scientific Committee that they recently concluded “no safe level
for MDGN in cosmetic products has been established”.
Unfortunately there are many more skincare ingredients
that are suspected of being harmful - not just as skin allergens,
but also as potential carcinogens. The difficulty comes in
knowing what to avoid, particularly when suspect ingredients are
mixed up with genuinely natural ones. Which is where organic
certification comes in.
In 2002 the UK’s major organic body, the Soil
Association, launched Standards for organic health and beauty
products, based on its own food standards and existing
Scandinavian organic cosmetics standards. According to the
Standards, products with:
ingredients or above, can be marketed as “organic”
70% - 95%
organic ingredients, can be labelled “made with organic
70% organic ingredients are not eligible for certification
The remaining non-organic ingredients are also subject
to strict restrictions. The more well-known “no-no’s” such
as petrochemical derivatives (liquid paraffin, propylene glycol,
mineral oil etc.), artificial fragrance and colours, amines (MEA,
DEA, TEA), SLeS, parabens and other harsh preservatives such as
MDGN are not permitted. The Soil Association also doesn’t
allow some of the more “grey area” ingredients such as coco/cocamidopropyl
betaine and ammonium lauryl sulphate (or any other ethoxylated
sulphates). Solvent-extracted substances (including
essential oils or plant oils extracted by solvents) are also not
allowed, neither are hydrogenated oils or genetically modified
So by creating a guaranteed ‘free-from’ list,
certification does allow the consumer to make a more informed
choice. That ‘free-from’ list is growing, following the
precautionary principle of “if in doubt, do without”.
- Any none organic ingredient must be acceptable on environmental
and toxicity grounds. The standards are relatively recent, so are
under continual review and improvement. - Coco/cocamidopropyl
betaine for example was a recent addition to the banned list.
Traceability is another advantage offered by certified
organic products. In theory, a pot of moisture cream can be
traced from the various fields its ingredients were grown in to
the jar. This is particularly useful with essential oils,
where adulteration and dilution is not unheard of. Organic
ingredients are also arguably the purest. - If we’re concerned
about chemical absorption through the skin, then using herbal
extracts and plant oils that are contaminated with pesticide and
herbicide residue doesn’t make much sense.
Certification also promotes eco-friendly organic
agriculture. This happens in two ways. Firstly,
certified companies increase demand for crops that are currently
grown organically, and standards stipulate that if an ingredient
exists in organic quality it must be used, rather than a cheaper
non-organic source. Also, applicants have to submit
declarations from 3 suppliers that a particular ingredient is not
available in organic quality, thereby raising awareness that there
is market potential for an organic quality of a particular crop.
One problem of organic certification is the scarcity of
certified companies. While the list is growing, there are
very few health and beauty manufacturers that have voluntarily
sought any official organic status. For example in the UK,
there are only around 15 health and beauty licensees that have
some organically certified products.
Partly this is because not many health & beauty
companies’ formulations are pure enough to qualify for organic
certification. But organic certification also has cost
implications for companies; not only an annual fee, but also the
requirement to use organic quality ingredients if they exist.
This often means doubling ingredient price which for precious
essential oils such as rose and neroli, can get expensive.
In addition, certification demands annual inspections of
production and labeling, and a considerable amount of paperwork to
support the use of each product’s ingredient. This can be
extra cumbersome with health and beauty products because of the
numerous ingredients and complex formulae involved. Too much
say some companies, particularly large ones. This has
resulted in, somewhat pleasingly, most organically certified
companies being small cottage industries.
Another problem is the differences in or absence of
organic standards. In Europe, several organic bodies have
created their own organic cosmetics certification standards which
differ in terms of both permitted ingredients and organic content.
All have different symbols or stamps for consumers to become
acquainted with. And it is often difficult to differentiate
between an official symbol and one that companies have created
The Soil Association and the major French, German and Italian
organic certifiers have been working towards harmonising organic
cosmetic standards in Europe since 2003. But the SA doesn’t
want to lower its standards to those of the French and Germans
which means that draft standards are unlikely to be published for
at least another year or two.
In America, organic personal care certification has
recently been in turmoil. Not only has there been considerable
controversy over the definition of organic cosmetics, but earlier
this year, the USDA, which is in charge of organic certification
in America, decided not to associate its organic seal with
personal care at all. This could have left US health and beauty
companies with no means of certifying products and consumers with
an impossible task of deciphering what is really organic.
Fortunately within the last few days, the Organic Consumers
Association and Dr Bronners, an organic company, won an important
legal battle which will continue to allow the USDA seal to be
applied to certified organic non-food products - see
The US Organic Trade Association is also in the process of
developing organic standards for health and beauty care products.
So far these are very much along the same lines as the current
Soil Association Standards which might pave the way for an
internationally recognised standard.
Harmonisation is sorely needed so that certified
organic products gain recognition among consumers and
manufacturers. It is then also more likely, in the EU at
least, that cosmetics will have to be certified to be legally
described as organic. Until that happens, it means consumers
either chance upon a good certified organic product, or have to
become even more label savvy.
This article was written by Abi Weeds, a founding
partner of Essential Care, a UK family-run company that creates
natural and certified organic body care.
You can find out more about Soil Association
certification & certified companies at
This article nor
any portions of it may be reproduced or used without written
consent from the author.