Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to Tell if a Product is Really Organic

The world of "organic" personal care products can be confusing to navigate. There are SO many tricks and ways that companies bend and break the rules of organic labeling. So many times you can buy something that gave you the impression that it was organic, but then you turn it around to read the ingredients and find out it has things like phenoxyethanol, vegetable emulsifying wax, "fragrance," Grapefruit Seed Extract, and other harmful chemicals. Here are some of the common tricks that companies do.

Organic claims without certification. No matter if it's a food or a cosmetic, labeling and marketing an agricultural (ie, plant-based product) product as organic or 100% organic without certification is illegal. Check out this screen shot from an actual website. While the ingredients may check out, the company doesn't have certification, so there is no way to verify if the claim is true or not. This is an apparent illegal organic claim.

Subconscious Marketing. This one is a little more subtle. They're not calling the product organic, or have the word organic very large on the product. But they have a little slogan or other small marketing point that suggests that the product is organic. While the product has a few organic ingredients, it does not have any level of certification. This is not a breach of the law, but a reminder to always read the ingredients.

Illegal use of the seal on websites. Another trick that companies will do is to (illegally) use the USDA seal on their website, but not the product label. They're using some organic ingredients, so somehow they think that they can use the seal. But without certification as a company, this is totally illegal and misleading. For instance, check out this screen shot from an actual website.

You'll notice there on the top it says "our partners." This graphic would indicate that the USDA Organic program is one of the company's partners. But not so. This company has no certification and is apparently using the USDA Organic seal illegally.

Here's another site...Check out the organic claim that is made here:

In order for a product to legally say "made with organic" the product, of course, must be 70% or more organic content, it has to be made in a USDA certified organic processing facility under strict conditions, and only contain certain approved non-organic ingredients. Does this product make the grade? Check out the ingredients list:
Aqua (Water), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice(1), Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Laurylglucosides Hydroxypropylsulfonate, Glycerin, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Stearic Acid, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Borago Officinalis Seed Oil, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil(1), Linum Usitatissimum (Linseed) Seed Oil, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil(1), Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Oil(1), Allantoin, Bisabolol, Sodium Citrate, Sodium PCA, Panthenol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Benzyl Alcohol, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate.
(1)Certified Organic Ingredient
Cocamidopropyl Betaine is not on the approved list of synthetics...neither is a number of those chemicals listed. What does it matter if the product is 70% organic if it contains toxins like benzyl alcohol?!

Using organic in the company name
This is probably the most common trick. A company will use the word "organic" in their brand name, but they don't have certification or anything close to it.

Beware of "organic" makeups
Micas, iron oxides, titanium dioxides and other mineral pigments are not on the approved list of substances allowed in an organic product. At all. If you see a makeup that's marketed as Organic, it is not certified by the USDA or else has been apparently mistakenly certified, because they include these prohibited substances. (For the list of approved non-organic substances allowed in an organic product, visit this page.)

Look at this claim from a makeup's home page:

But look at some of the ingredients in the product:

Most of these ingredients are prohibited for use in a USDA certified product! Something doesn't add up here, even though the company still has their certification and the USDA claims that it is currently valid. Both the company and the certifying agency are based outside of the US and I believe that something has been lost in translation. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

How do they get away with this?

There is a common misconception that there are no laws governing the term "organic" in personal care/cosmetic items. There are laws--the same laws that are applied to food. To market a product as "organic" without organic certification is illegal. Period. However, the resources of the USDA organic program are highly limited in the enforcement department. There are literally only five people on the national staff to enforce the rules of the National Organic Program. The State of California's Agriculture Department is the only other enforcement body, and they can only enforce products being sold in California. So, with the limited resources that these agencies have, they have had to focus on regulation of foods because that is their first and foremost concern.

However, there is hope. The USDA has recently deemed this to be an "era of enforcement" for the organic program. The staff of five people is actually an increase from one or two in years past. Perhaps with pressure from consumers and non-profits such as the Organic Consumers Association, the issue of illegally-labeled body care products will be more strictly enforced. For a list of truly organic body care companies, and for ways that you can help call out organic fakers, visit the Organic Consumer's Association Coming Clean Campaign website here: http://www.organicconsumers.org/bodycare/index.cfm#BUY

Be an Organic Sleuth

With all of this rule breaking and bending, it IS possible for an organic body care product to be really and truly organic. Look for the USDA seal, first and foremost. Second, find out the company's third-party certifying agency. If it's not easily available on their website, ask them to provide that information. Third, if you still feel like it's fishy, you can check them out online through the USDA's website. The USDA has a national database of companies with organic certification. Here is the link--you can look up any company! Sometimes if a company just recently got their certification, they won't be on this list. But you should be able to verify with the third-party certifier. QAI, for instance, has their own online database of operations they certify. And as always, read the ingredients!

To read more about our organic certification, visit this page!