By Laura Edwards-Orr
Organic avocado face-masks and organic green tea shampoo sound lovely, but are organic personal care products legit? There has been a lot of attention and consumer education around the benefits of growing and consuming organic food. But are there benefits to buying organic body products in comparison to our trusty old standbys? Since the National Organic Standards were passed in 2002 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it seems as though almost everything you can buy in the grocery store has an organic option. If you believe that organic agriculture is better for the planet and your own health, it would stand to reason that the same carries over to soaps and shampoos.
While medicinal products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FDA does not define or regulate the term "organic" as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products. USDA regulates the term "organic" in personal care products only if they are made up of certified organic agricultural ingredients. In this case, cosmetics, personal care products, and body care products are eligible for the same four organic labeling categories as all other agricultural products:
- "100% organic." Product must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients. Can display the USDA Organic seal.
- "Organic." Product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved by the USDA to be used in organic products or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form, also approved by the USDA to be used in organic products. Can display the USDA Organic seal.
- "Made with organic ingredients." Product contains at least 70% organic ingredients. Cannot display the USDA Organic seal.
- "Less than 70% organic ingredients." Product cannot use the term "organic" anywhere on the principal display panel. However, they may identify the speciﬁc ingredients that are USDA-certified as being organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel. Cannot display the USDA Organic seal.
So it would seem that, just as in the produce aisle, the easiest way to navigate your personal care shopping list is to look for the USDA Organic label. In doing so, you can be assured that the product you are buying contains ingredients that were grown without the use of toxic and persistent chemicals, genetically modified organisms, growth hormones, or antibiotics -- in the case of animal products. Supporting organics means a vote for environmentally sound farming practices, not to mention limiting your own exposure through the environment or your daily ablutions.
Dr. Bronner's, famous for their 18-use-in-one soaps, became the largest personal care company to be certified under the USDA's National Organic Program in 2003 -- just one year after the national standards were approved. Since then, countless companies, such as Badger, Burt's Bees, Origins, and Simply Organic, have launched thousands of organic products. Those committed to the cause do warn that some products have inflated their organic standings by counting floral waters as an organic ingredient. Since many body care products are heavy on the water, this can drastically up the percentage of organic ingredients in any one item.
To help understand exactly what is in every bottle, the Environmental Working Group created the Skin Deep cosmetic database where you can search by brand or product name to get more information. Each product is rated on a scale of 1-10 based on the safety of the ingredients and the number of scientific studies available. Products ranking 0-2 have ample data and low risk factors. Products ranking 7-10 have limited to no data and high risk factors.
Sorting out the completely natural products from the less desirable ones might take a bit of work, but it's not impossible. Start by looking for the organic seal. If your pick is 100% organic, you are good to go. If it falls into one of the other categories, take a look at the ingredient list -- the certified products should be marked. And for the rest -- do you recognize them? Can you pronounce them? When it comes to personal care and cosmetics, start with the label and go with your gut. When push comes to shove, you'll realize that you know more than you think. Once you've made your choice, you can lather, rinse, repeat, and enjoy, knowing you are making the best possible choice for your own well-being and the planet.
For more information:
Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database
USDA National Organic Program Fact Sheet: Cosmetics, Body Care Products, and Personal Care Products
Laura Edwards-Orr started her career as a local foods advocate at the nonprofit and benefit concert Farm Aid. She is currently the marketing and communications manager for Canton, Massachusetts-based nonprofit Red Tomato. Ms. Edwards-Orr also works as a freelance writer, researcher, and data nerd for organizations and businesses working to create family-farm-based food systems and value chains. She lives in Providence, RI with her husband, twin babies, horse, dog, and two cats.