Organic Cosmetics: Is Natural Better?
Our Experts Recommend
What Does "Natural" Mean?
Generally speaking, "natural" ingredients are derived, in whole or in part, from natural sources with no synthetic compounds. Taking it a step further, "organic" ingredients are supposed to contain only plant-sourced ingredients that are cultivated without the use of synthetic chemicals, irradiation, or pesticides. However, given the lack of regulations, it is always a question as to whether or not these products actually are made according to the claims about their formulations. Even more to the point—does any of this actually make them any better for your skin?
The short answer is: There is nothing about natural or organic that reflects the quality of a product when it comes to protecting or making your skin look or act younger, healing your acne or dry skin, controlling your oily skin or rosacea, or addressing other skin-care concerns. So, products labeled organic are not a panacea for your skin—in fact, some organic products may actually hurt your skin.
Busting the Myth that Organic is Better
The terms organic and all-natural are largely responsible for fueling the misconception that all synthetic ingredients are automatically bad and that all organic or natural ingredients are automatically good. Making you afraid of something, whether it is a single ingredient or an entire category of ingredients, is a large part of how natural and organic products are marketed.
- FACT: There is no substantiated, published research anywhere proving that organic ingredients are superior to non-organic or synthetic ingredients. There are good and bad ingredients in each category.
To save money, and to benefit your skin, it's critical for you to see through these kinds of marketing messages, so that you can use the best formulations for your skin type and skin-care concerns. This is especially important because another common problem with natural and organic products is that the formulas often are not as natural or organic as they claim to be.
- FACT: Many organic and natural products include synthetic ingredients, and many are exactly the kinds of ingredients they proclaim they don't include. Even we find that shocking!
Organic also does not mean cleaner or safer. For example, in Europe, the recent June 2011 E. coli outbreak that caused several deaths was from contaminated bean sprouts grown on an "organic" farm—just a case in point that organic does not tell you anything about the safety or cleanliness of a plant.
What "Organic" Really Means
What does the term "organic" mean in the world of cosmetics, especially for skin care? It might surprise you to learn that it really means nothing—nothing at all.
- FACT: As of mid-2012, there are still no FDA-approved standards for labeling cosmetic products as organic; nor is there an agreed-on definition from the cosmetics industry.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and most countries around the world, don't regulate organic claims for personal-care products, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and ECOCERT (an international organic certification organization) do have their own systems for approving some standards of organic plant claims. However, there are many random companies throughout the world that develop their own sets of guidelines for organic cosmetics and then charge a fee for their seal of approval. So, basically, if a cosmetics company is willing to pay for the certification, any brand can label their products "organic," without any consequences.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that even though lots of cosmetic products actually do contain organic ingredients, they also may contain synthetic ingredients, so the term "organic" doesn't apply to the entire formula. Similarly, depending on where you shop for organic products, what organic means differs from one store shelf to the next. At this time, U.S.-based supermarket chain Whole Foods is the only retailer that addresses this confusion for the consumer; it enforces its own regulation that personal-care products labeled "organic" must meet the same standards as organic foods.
An Organic Irritant is Still an Irritant
Perhaps more important than the confusing labeling standards is the fact that lots of plant extracts, which indeed are organic, have irritating properties that deplete collagen, cause free-radical damage, and clog pores. Thus, natural and organic products often are filled with irritating, skin-damaging plant extracts and minerals.
- FACT: Such natural ingredients as peppermint, menthol, eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, sandalwood, essential oils, and on and on are routinely included in natural and/or organic products. Research has clearly established these ingredients as irritants, and when the skin is irritated it causes collagen to break down and hurts the skin's ability to heal.
How to Check a Label
The labeling guidelines presented by the USDA (organic products are bound to these standards only if they carry the USDA Organic Seal) are as follows:
- "100% Organic"—The product must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients. Products may display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent's name and address.
- "Organic"—The product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). The remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List of non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Products may display the USDA Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent's name and address.
- "Made with organic ingredients"—The product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and the 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 are not permitted to display the USDA Organic Seal, but they must display the certifying agent's name and address.
These basic USDA guidelines are helpful if "organically grown" is important to you, but there are dozens of other unregulated "Certified Organic" agency seals, and all have varying standards and guidelines for what constitutes organic.
Can Pesticides Get in Your Skin?
Some companies selling organic products claim that other products that do not include organically grown plants contain pesticides and that those pesticides are absorbed into your skin. That is NOT true—it is a complete fabrication and distortion of the facts.
- FACT: After a plant is harvested and processed to be included in a cosmetic product, no pesticides remain—not even a trace. The sterilization and manufacturing processes clean all that stuff away, including any pesticides.
The Bottom Line:
Organic certification has nothing to do with skin care. It has to do only with the source of an ingredient, not the all-important information about the benefit of the ingredient for your skin. Think of it this way: A stamp of approval for a free-range, organically fed cow from the USDA does not tell you how a diet of steak might affect your arteries, heart, or brain. The same is true for skin care—no matter whose name or certification is on the product.
(Sources: www.ams.usda.gov/nop; Toxicology in vitro, December 2010, 2084-2089; The Rose Sheet, March 10, 2008, page 3; March 24, 2008, page 3; and March 31, 2008, pages 3-4; Preservatives for Cosmetics, Second Edition, Allured Publishing, David C. Steinberg, 2006.)