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!


Michelle said...

Very very helpful! Thank you for taking the time to put this together, I will be passing this one on. It will also be a great thing to share at my healthy home party.

Shannon said...

Love love love it ... been looking for a great blog post on this and will link to it.

Anonymous said...

what about cosmetics that use fruit pigments instead of minerals.

Unknown said...

As always, very enlightening. Where do you get the time to make all those fantastic products AND do all this research & sleuthing?! THANK YOU!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

There are a handful of products that use fruit pigments...but if you look closely, they will still contain micas. I think I've only seen one product colored exclusively with fruits, and it is not certified organic. But that's what we're shooting for with our makeup line!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks, everyone for your kind words and support! :)

dog face girls said...

Much appreciated Stephanie!

Michelle C. said...

Your vigilance & commitment to purity is inspiring! Thank you!

Lady Kay's Kitchen said...

Thank you Stephanie for this eye-opening information. Can't wait for Bubble & Bee make up!

Anonymous said...

I was a customer before. Now I am a big, big fan! I will be linking this for all to read. Great job ;-)

USDA certified human said...

The technical definition of organic needs to be kept in mind. Dog crap is organic ;-) Perhaps advertising is playing on this assumption on the part of the consumer, but you can't assume it for all companies. For example, you cited subconcious marketing for Suki products shown above. I wouldn't agree that Suki products which you featured are falsely claiming organic. This is a C&P from the Suki website:

q: are your products certified organic?

a: all suki® products are 100% natural, mostly organic, & free of any synthetic ingredients, parabens, lake, fd & c or coal tar colors, preservatives, genetically modified organisms, & nano-particles.

we are certification-free. every month it seems, new associations are born that offer their organic certification logo for display on packaging for a fee. each logo differs in the percentage of organic content &, more importantly, the amount of allowable synthetics in their “acceptable” list. as companies that wish to call themselves “natural” hunt for a certification body that will help them market their products, logos appear more frequently, & as a result, more & more emphasis is being placed on certification.

the trouble with the multitudes of seals is that they lull consumers into a false sense of safety making them feel as if they don't have to read labels! consider the fact that skin care companies & big conglomerates created tailor-made certifications knowing that newly conscientious consumers have learned to look for seals... “hey it’s got that organic / natural seal – it must be safe!” but does anyone really know what that seal stands for?

recently an executive at suki® learned an interesting lesson about organic certification while researching her favorite brand of organic baby carrots. she found that although the label did not state it, the carrots she was eating had been sprayed with chlorine. upon confronting the carrot company about the chlorine, they replied, "this is the allowable tolerance for chlorine permitted by the USDA in order to be able to make label claims. same as in your drinking water."

it is our right & responsibility as consumers to read, question, & make informed choices about the products we put on & in our bodies. our direction to you – read labels.

Matt said...

Hey Stephanie,

Love your products. My girlfriend and I buy from your store a lot.

I have a question about the ingredients in "Nuun", an electrolyte drink. The brand positions itself as having no sugar or the other "stuff", but it uses the artificial sweetener "acesulfame potassium"

When I asked about their products being organic, they gave me a very vague, politician-like answer:

to answer your question: there isn't much in our product that can be organic. sodium bicarbonate, etc, just can't be organic by definition. it's like trying to make organic "salt" - you can't do it. you could scrape salt off of the sea to make it naturally found, but the definition of 'organic' can't be applied. we're unable to make nuun organic, not because we choose not to, we just physically can't.

Which begs the question, what makes something organic? Can salt not be organic?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for your comments, "USDA certified human," LOL.

Yes, there are many different definitions of the word organic! However, today we're talking about the legal definition. Legally, in order for the dog crap to be organic, the dog would have had to be fed organic dog food its entire life, kept away from certain substances, administered drugs or antibiotics only when other medical methods had failed, and only certain approved substances can be used in this instance, kept in a certified organic location...and even then, organic products are supposed to be free from sewage sludge....so not how they'd certify the dog doo doo. LOL.

Regarding any brands, I have tried to keep this article as non-pointed as possible, purposefully excluding the names and logos of companies. So, my screen shot may or may not have come from the mentioned company. But it's good to hear what they're saying about it! I do agree--there are way too many confusing "natural" certifications. USDA Organic is the only "real" one in my eyes. Reading ingredients and being informed is highly important, I totally agree!

Stephanie Greenwood said...


Okay, so I can see what they're saying...yes, there is no such thing as organic baking soda or organic salt or these other electrolyte because, well, you don't grow them. They're usually mined. Non-agricultural products can't be organic. However, there are a number of these salts and minerals that are allowed in an organic product. But, it has to be on the approved substances list, and it has to be less than 5% of the product. Salt, baking soda, etc, are all approved for use in an organic product, but you can't buy organic salt or organic baking soda.

That said...getting down to the "other ingredients" in the product...check it out: citric acid, sorbitol, sodium carbonate, natural colors flavors, sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate, polyethylene glycol, magnesium sulfate, sodium benzoate, calcium carbonate, acesulfame potassium, riboflavin-5-phosphate.

Some of these aren't bad...but one caught my eye (in addition to the acesulfame potassium)...POLYETHYLENE GLYCOL! This is the PEG that I'm always talking about in cosmetics. It's an ethoxylated compound that can contain traces of 1,4-dioxane because it's created using ethylene oxide. It's also an active ingredient in many laxatives. Gross!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Stephanie! Awesome article!
I've been looking into less-chemical/organic beauty products and your posts have been a wonderful help! So excited for your makeup line... any word on when it might be ready? (Yes, I'm ridiculously impatient;)

Jocelyn @ Peace Love Nutrition said...

It's crazy what companies can get away with now a days! They only have to have 1 ingredient that's organic to label themselves such. I'm happy that the 'green' movement is popular these days but it's sad that many companies are trying to capitalize on this. People deserve to know what's in their beauty products.

I work for a beauty company: Raw Essentials- our products are all certified raw and our ingredients are all good for you! Check out the list here: http://www.rawessentials.com/ingredients/?___store=default

Thank you for sharing this and teaching your reader to read the ingredient list on products!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for your support, Jocelyn!

I would ask the company you work for about a couple of things. First of all, those ingredients on that page are not the only ones that are used in their products.

For instance, looking at the body wash...Urea is either synthetically produced or extracted from animal by-products (urine, blood, etc) has all kind of problems if you look it up in the Cosmetics Database here

Also, a number of the products contain Japanese Honeysuckle Extract, which is not as natural/raw as it seems. To read about how it's made, and what exactly is in it, read my article here.

Finally, let's look at the Night Cream...lots of synthetics...butylene glycol, cetearyl alcohol, stearic acid, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, phenoxyethanol. These are neither raw nor natural in my definition of the word. Not all of them are bad, but for a product line that touts itself as being "chemical-free" but still uses these synthetic chemicals...I think some re-branding or re-formulating would be in order.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. When I'm more awake I will read it more carefully.

Tina S

Heba @ My Life in a Pyramid said...

This is really great. Thanks for being a beacon of light and an ever-darkening world of misinformation in the personal care departments. I always read ingredient labels, but so far have had a difficult time coming across truly organic (certified) products. Bubble & Bee is a first for me and I just ordered 4 of your products - can't wait to try them. :) Cosmetics have been tricky to find ... :-/

Anonymous said...

The Nature's Baby Organics lotion that you listed the ingredients for at the top is much better than most on the market.

Few things are perfect and attainable for the masses...it's important to emphasize that you should always be moving in the correct direction of less toxic, not trying to be perfect!

If you set out on the journey of perfectionism, you will likely be highly stressed and overly disappointed with the result.

Just try to do your best and go less toxic with every step...you can't consider every "what if" in every situation or ingredient (because it is not always the reality - contaminants are not always the factual evidence, but possibilities).

Stephanie Greenwood said...

I don't know where I posted about Nature's Baby--but okay!

It is true--you can drive yourself crazy trying to find the perfect product, and stress is sometimes harder on our bodies than any cosmetic chemical! However, that was not the aim of my article. The aim of my article here is to expose brands that are marketing illegally. They may very well have some good products that are safe and beneficial. But they are marketed illegally, and, as a company who has gone to great lengths to be certified organic, I have to do what I can to keep the playing field leve. Until the USDA does their job in enforcement of these products, I will continue to call this issue to attention. :)

Emma said...


You said: "To market a product as "organic" without organic certification is illegal." But can I say that my product is made with organic ingredients? I don't see anything bad on that. I make my own skincare and bodycare, and as I make all that for me and my sister, I'm very strict on what I choose and what I put on, on looking all the information I can on each ingredient I'm using. Now I want to start to sell such products, I want to create a business, and I wont change my quality standards, of course, I will be very careful on what I do. I'm not sure if I need to pay to get the USDA certification, because if I have to do it, I really can't. But I would like to say that I use organic ingredients, not only because I do it, but also because is obvious that people prefer "organic" instead of "natural", and like every business, should be about money... I will be losing money if I label my products just as "natural". Do you think is also a bad thing using the word "organic" on my brand name without having certification? The organic certified products aren't all about using organic ingredients? I don't think there's such thing like an "organic" manufacturing (if exists, please tell me), is all about the ingredients, so why I can't say that my products are manufactured with organic ingredients when up to 85% of the ingredients I use are organic? And why I can't add the word organic to my brand name?
What are your solutions to this problem?

On a different note, I really love your blogs, both are incredibly helpful. Thanks for your work.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

If you label or market your products in any way with the phrase "made with organic ingredients" legally, you should have USDA organic certification. "Made with organic" is a phrase that they regulate. There definitely is organic manufacturing. You would need to become a certified organic processing facility, or have your product made in an organic facility to be completely legal. The product would have to exclude unapproved substances and particular processing methods based on the standard.

Emma said...

Wow, I didn't know the USDA owned the word "organic", this is unbelievable. I don't really trust in them anyway, so I think I'm going to choose Ecocert or Cosmos.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

@Emma--USDA Organic Certification really doesn't have anything to do with trust in the USDA as an overall entity. It still is the strictest level of organic certification you can get. EcoCert still allows preservatives like Phenoxyethanol, and chemical processing such as hydrogenation, sulfonation, esterification, and alkylation.

Cosmos is a pretty good standard, but also allows hydrogenation, estherification, alkylation, oxydation/reduction, and the use of some petrochemical solvents until next year. They also allow benzyl alcohol and salicylic acid. None of these chemicals or processes are allowed in USDA organic certification.

Cmarie2822 said...

Thanks for this post! that ingredient list is from a shampoo I just bought & I was doing research on these ingredients when I came to your site! I will be returning it now. (for anyone who's curious, it's Avalon Organics Volumizing Rosemary Shampoo).


Thank you so much for this post. Great info!!! :) I was receatly a show that wasalso talking about some products claiming to be organic but were not really 100% natural or organic. I am a new follower on your blog. Check out my new blog if you wish. I do product reviews, giveaways... Hope to see you there. I am new to blogging. :)
www.petitjoujou.ca ( my online baby and children's boutique)

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for such great info! , My question to you is, someone told me that Eminence Organic is 100% organic, but it contains Salicylic Acid, says less then 5% but is that natural?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Eminence has some certified organic options, but not everything is 100% organic. A product listing salicylic acid can't be certified organic, as it is not allowed in an organic product.

Mike said...

Not accurate:
"There are laws--the same laws that are applied to food. To market a product as "organic" without organic certification is illegal. Period."

There is an exception for companies that have less than $5,000 annual sales do NOT require certification, and labeling as organic, 100% organic, or made with organic - is LEGAL.

Keep up the well intentioned work! We need regulation to prevent company names and taglines that include 'organic' but are not organic!

Do your research. Don't share thoughts as facts. Spread truth.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Yes, there is a $5000 exemption in the NOP. However, I think you're missing the point of the statement and the entire article. My point is that some people think that the law doesn't apply if you're making cosmetic items, or that there's a separate set of rules when it comes to organic non-food items. My point is that the same law that governs food also governs the cosmetics sector. $5000 exemption included. To meet the $5000 exemption, a company has to meet all of the requirements and standards of an organic grower or processor. I would challenge you to find a cosmetics company that's actually selling under $5000 and meeting the guidelines for organic production. It's not really an relevant point to the conversation. But yes, thanks for pointing out the detail.

Sandra said...

really amazing post and thank's for share like this informations with us

Anonymous said...

Reporting a broken link: For the list of approved non-organic substances allowed in an organic product, visit this page. - link broken here -

Tara said...

OMG once again this scare tactic. You are so freakin ignorant it makes my brain hurt. You are no better than the uneducated mommy bloggers running Skin Deep.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Well that's rude. But, I'm always open to critique--tell me what I've gotten wrong.