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 whatsoever.
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 peeling.
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:
95% organic ingredients or above, can be marketed as “organic”
70% - 95% organic ingredients, can be labelled “made with organic ingredients”
less than 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 ingredients.
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 themselves.
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 http://www.organicconsumers.org/bodycare/
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 http://www.soilassociation.org/healthandbeauty