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Roots of distrust

Caroline Sylger-Jones looks forward to seeing the strict standards for organic food extended to personal care products.

Just like eating organic food, using toxin-free toiletries is a good way to keep our bodies - and the environment - healthy, and more of us are choosing products that are labelled "natural", or better still "organic", believing that they will be good for us. But can we trust these claims? Over the past five years there has been a boom in "organic" and "natural" brands that are supposedly free of nasty chemicals. Yet in reality, a product can use those labels if just one per cent of its ingredients fall into either category - the other 99 per cent can be man-made. This situation makes those who produce truly organic brands justifiably angry.

"Companies use the 'organic' label falsely to cash in on its marketing cachet," says Michael Bronner, the vice-president of the US organic brand Dr Bronner's Magic Soaps. "As a consumer, this makes me feel cynical and deceived; as a business owner who makes certified organic products, it makes me feel cheated out of eco-conscious customers who want organic products but actually buy cheap ones that are labelled falsely."

Bronner's sentiments are shared by other organic producers the world over. "It drove me crazy when I found out," says Reem Al Khalifa, founder of Green Bar, whose products are all made and bottled in the Middle East. "I started my company because all I seemed to come across as a consumer were organic products that were actually too refined and synthetic - or way too unrefined and medicinal." Why should we avoid the synthetic preservatives, detergents, colours, fragrances and petroleum-derived ingredients used in mainstream toiletries anyway? There is a dearth of safety data for these chemicals, but some studies have suggested that products that use them can be allergenic, dehydrating and irritating to the skin, that they clog the pores, preventing the skin from breathing properly and, more seriously, that they can have an adverse effect on cell renewal and genetic make-up, making them potentially carcinogenic, damaging to fertility and detrimental to the immune system.

The skin is an organ that absorbs up to 60 per cent of the stuff we put on it. While one product may contain very small amounts of some of these ingredients, it is the cumulative effect of applying various products regularly that some believe causes concern for our health and well-being. And then there is the risk of damage to the environment during production. Choosing is not easy, because while there are strict standards for labelling organic food products, the organic personal-care industry remains largely unregulated. There are certifying organisations across the globe that guarantee a certain percentage of organic ingredients in a product, but these are often highly confusing and misleading.

Ecocert in Europe, for example, allows various petrochemicals as the main cleansing ingredients in a product as well as synthetic preservatives, yet certifies outright "organic" product claims on those with as little as 10 per cent organic content. Oasis, a US Standard, has no requirement that main cleansing ingredients such as sulfated surfactants should be made from organic material. Even the Soil Association in the UK, which impressively requires 95 per cent organic content for an outright "organic" product claim and 70 per cent for "made with organic" claims, still allows certain synthetic preservatives such as phenoxyethanol in organic products.

The strictest standard is the US Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board "USDA" organic seal, which requires the same percentages as the Soil Association but demands that no synthetic preservative or petrochemical be used. Many USDA-certified products are sold outside the US, and many non-US products are USDA-certified for sale in the US. When it comes to making the whole industry less of a lucky dip for consumers everywhere, the system is leading the way.

It is illegal to use the word "organic" on any product made in the US without its having been certified. The law has never been enforced against a non-food product, but last November the USDA's organic board passed a recommendation that it should be. When this eventually happens, no cosmetics company will be able to market a product in the US as organic without USDA certification. "To continue to allow non-certified products to use the word organic is damaging to consumer confidence," explains Alexis Baden-Mayer, the political director of the Organic Consumers Association, which has been pressing for a boycott of "organic cheater" brands as part of its Coming Clean campaign.

The Coming Clean campaign is supported by companies such as Dr Bronner's, all of whose products are USDA-certified, and it has taken legal action against several supposedly organic brands that it alleges use non-organic ingredients. Many of these are sold all over the world, and include Nature's Gate Organics, Kiss My Face Organics, Desert Essence Organics, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Jason Pure, Natural & Organic and Avalon Organics.

This dedication is impressive, but until standards are aligned across the world, how can consumers ensure that they are using bona fide organic products? Companies such as Green Bar feature a "use by" date, and sometimes a production date. Products are usually packaged in ultraviolet-resistant bottles so that sunlight won't affect them, while other companies - ila for example - list organically certified ingredients, and their percentages, on the label.

Reading the label is in fact the easiest way to check a product for yourself. Look out especially for the word "parfum", which can hide up to 100 allergenic chemicals. Phthalates is a substance used to make vinyl flexible but which also gives lotions the right consistency, while parabens are synthetic chemical preservatives. Lauryl sulphates and laureth sulphates are believed to be potentially harmful, especially sodium lauryl sulphate, a detergent used to create foam in shampoos and shower gels that is also used to degrease car engines.

DEA, MEA or TEA, formaldehyde, lanolin, methylisothiazolinone and mineral oils are also on the list of ingredients you might want to avoid if you are concerned about chemical content. To see for yourself the huge gap between some companies' "organic" claims and the reality, take a peek at Skin Deep (, the Environmental Working Group cosmetic safety database in the US. Misleading and potentially damaging to us as consumers, this situation is also unfair, argue suppliers who put time and money into making their products genuinely organic.

"Creating a new organic product means fulfilling a much longer list of criteria than creating a non-organic one," says Denise Leicester, founder of ila. "Integrity and traceability are the key responsibilities for those who use organic plants in their products, for example. For us, this means a lot more work and research, meeting growers in the Amazon, India or Chile and making discerning and environmentally friendly choices - all of which makes the process longer and more expensive."

Not everything can be 100 per cent organic. Ila's Himalayan salt is over 250 million years old, but because it is not derived from a plant it cannot be certified organic - nor can mineral clay. This is where the word "natural" can be used - with care. The Thai health resort Chiva-Som has just launched its signature range of "100 per cent natural" products, for example. Anne-Claude Toral, the retail manager, says it has been a "costly process and a huge challenge".

The products are not organic, she says, but they use wasabi, vitamin E and root ferment extract instead of chemical preservatives, contain no artificial fragrances or colours, and have sell-by dates. I look forward to honesty and transparency across the industry - with the help of the USDA certification, it is to be hoped that this will happen sooner rather than later.

Published: January 11, 2010 04:00 AM

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