Coming to Terms

It’s time for the personal care industry to separate fact from sales-speak and define the term “organic” once and for all.



In his arrogance man built a city with a tower therein to reach heaven, and God, seeing such conceit, said, ‘Come, let us go down and confound their speech.’ And so God scattered them upon the face of the earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel. (Genesis 11:5-8)

Organic body moisturizer. Organic shampoo. Organic makeup. The term “organic” conjures all things wholesome, healthy and natural. In fact, if marketers had their way the very mention of the word would mentally transport consumers to an enchanted forest, where Snow White delicately strokes a singing bluebird while a circle of long-lashed forest creatures gaze at her in adoration, tra-la-la. But romantic associations aside, what does “organic” really mean? As with so many things in life, it all depends on context.

In an organic chemistry class, students learn about chemical compounds that have carbon in them. This is the definition of an organic chemical. Heptane, isooctane, ethyl benzene and cyclopentane—all are carbon-containing, organic compounds that, when combined in certain ratios, create a mix called gasoline.

Don’t know of many people who would knowingly lather up their locks with gasoline? Don’t scoff. One brand of commercially available shampoo found in grocery stores and pharmacies contains coal tar, a substance that occurs in nature, and also happens to contain gasoline’s ethyl benzene, a known carcinogen. The makers of that shampoo could claim the product contains “active organic ingredients” and they would be telling the truth. And all of a sudden, that mentally summoned bluebird has a huge tumor on its noggin.

The same confusion applies to the term “natural.” The standard definition of “natural” is “existing in, or caused by nature.” By this definition, everything from poison ivy to a rabid wolf is “natural.” Benzene also occurs in nature, so the makers of the coal tar shampoo could claim “natural organic ingredients” as well.

Word Games

If the terms “organic” and “natural” could legitimately describe a shampoo containing a cancer-causing chemical, what do the terms actually mean? Basically, anything and nothing. In the context of skincare products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not weighed in to provide a definition. The FDA regulates cosmetics under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), and nowhere in those pieces of legislation is the term “organic” defined.

One unnamed cosmetics company website defines organic cosmetics as those that “include only natural, vegetable-origin, raw materials, which were grown without chemical interference such as fertilization or pest control.” That sounds appealing, but again, context is important. This company has chosen one way to define “organic” and indeed their products may meet that definition. But it is not a universally accepted definition.

To their credit, some industry organizations are trying to establish uniform definitions for words like “organic” and “natural,” but the proliferation of standards has been likened to the Tower of Babel for ease and uniformity in language. In Europe, U.K. companies adopted the Soil Association standard, and Italian companies went with ICEA (Istituto per la Certificazione Etica e Ambientale) standards. Meanwhile, Cosmebio has been the standard bearer in France, and Germany has abided by the BDIH (way too long to spell out in German). Many of these standard-establishing organizations have their own symbols and logos.

In North America, we have The Natural Products Association (NPA), which provides guidelines for the use of the term “natural” for all cosmetic personal care products regulated and defined by the FDA. We also have NSF International (, a global public health and safety organization, that recently partnered with NATRUE, the International Nature and Organic Cosmetics Association. NATRUE has the first natural product standard accredited by the American National Standards Institude, a 100+ years old standards establishing body. But that partnership seems to be at cross purposes with the NPA, and the upshot is a lot of confusion yet to be cleared.

Then we have the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program (NOP), a voluntary program designed for agricultural food products, that now includes personal care products containing agricultural products.

There may be light at the end of this tunnel, however: Latest reports indicate that there has been a landmark agreement between the U.S. and the European Union that will allow for mutual marketing of organic certification, beginning June 1, 2012. Hopefully, this is an important first step toward establishing a single definition for “organic” that crosses cultural, geographic and language barriers.

A Higher Authority

In the U.S., if you have a cosmetics product that contains agricultural products, you can apply for the USDA organic seal of approval. If your product passes muster, you can display the USDA organic seal. But getting qualified as USDA-certified isn’t a simple matter. As stated by the USDA, “any cosmetic, body care product, or personal care product that does not meet the production, handling, processing, labeling and certification standards may not state, imply or convey in any way that the product is USDA-certified organic or meets the USDA organic standards.”

However, even if a cosmetic manufacturer doesn’t have the USDA seal, it can make any claims it wants as long as it doesn’t state or imply it has USDA approval. So, theoretically, a company that sprays its aloe fields with DDT every year can still describe its products as having “organic” contents, as long as it doesn’t imply that it also has USDA NOP approval.

A review of the USDA NOP standards sheds light on how many i’s need to be dotted and t’s crossed before terms like “organic” can begin to have real meaning. Here’s an abbreviated version of NOP regulations:
• To claim the term “100% organic,” products must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients. Those products may display the USDA Organic Seal.

• To claim the term “organic,” products must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List, or nonorganically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form, also on the National List. If this is the case, products may display the USDA Organic Seal.

• To claim that a product is “made with organic ingredients,” it must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and the product label can list up to three of the organic ingredients or “food” groups on the principal display panel. For example, body lotion made with at least 70% organic ingredients (excluding water and salt) and only organic herbs may be labeled either “body lotion made with organic lavender, rosemary, and chamomile,” or “body lotion made with organic herbs.” These products may not display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.

• If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, the product company cannot use the term “organic” anywhere on the principal display panel. However, it may identify the specific ingredients that are USDA-certified as being organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel.
OK, it’s complicated. But what regulatory standard isn’t? The reason these standards are popular is that they have the government’s imprimatur. And the last time I checked, we still look to our government to set trusted standards for our health, wellbeing and safety.


It’s a misconception that the terms “organic” or “natural” automatically translate to “healthy.” There’s no evidence to suggest that organic or natural ingredients are always or necessarily healthier than synthetic ones. In fact, the opposite can be true. This idea may go against the grain, but hear me out. Cocaine is natural and methamphetamine is synthetic—both are not good for you. Penicillin is a natural lifesaver—unless you can’t take it due to an allergy, in which case its synthetic cousin, sulfa, will save your hide.
Here’s another one: Rotenone, which is a pesticide, is found naturally in the roots of the jicama plant. It also causes Parkinson’s-like symptoms in humans. So rotenone is definitely natural but definitely not good. Just like the aforementioned rabid wolf, natural is not always healthy.

Where does that leave us? We need standards because the words “organic” and “natural” have been hijacked for use as marketing terms instead of points of fact, and because it’s too easy for companies to intentionally or unintentionally mislead us. And standards can be good. Most people understand that a red octagon means stop and this standard has been adopted by none other than the United Nations Convention on Road Signs and Signals. Hopefully, the cosmetics industry won’t need the UN to step in here as well.

DAYSPA advisory board member Michael L. Antoline is a legal affairs writer and attorney in Champaign, Illinois. Information in this column is general. Seek legal counsel for specific cases.

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