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Read the Label: What Do “Natural” and “Organic” Really Mean?

By Heleigh Bostwick

Natural and organic food and beverages have finally made their way into the collective consciousness of mainstream America, and those all-important words — “natural” and “organic” — are spilling into the cosmetics and personal care products arena as well.

Companies are jumping on the bandwagon to take advantage of a whole new demographic that exclusively shops the organic and natural foods market. Some, like Aubrey Organics, have been there all along and are finding sales of their products increasing at a rapid rate. “Sales of natural and organic personal care products have increased at nearly three times the rate of conventional personal care products,” says Curt Valva, general manager at Aubrey Organics.

An avid supporter of organic foods, Sara Bostwick fits right in with this new demographic group. “Since having my son four years ago, I have increasingly sought out organic and natural skin care products for all members of my family,” she says. “This allows me to feel comfortable with what I am putting into my son's system.”

Arthur Vallejo, technical director for D’Arcy Skincare, agrees that current trends in personal care products and cosmetics indicate a preference for natural ingredients. D’Arcy Skincare, manufacturer for many prominent beauty industry leaders as well as their own D’Arcy brand, prefers to market their products as “made from renewable resources” rather than using the term natural. “Consumers have indicated they want products made with renewable resources,” he says — in other words, preferring safflower, jojoba and sesame oil to petrolatum and mineral oil.

Natural vs. Organic
So what is the difference between natural and organic? Surprisingly, it has more to do with agricultural practices than with the actual product, according to Valva.

The International Association of Natural Products Producers (IANPP) defines natural ingredients as those derived from plants, inorganic minerals and animals that are not chemically altered or processed and are not artificial or synthesized. They may or may not be certified organic. The term organic applies to a plant or animal-based ingredients grown and certified under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). To certify ingredients as organic, a manufacturer has to sign off and certify state that the product complies with regulations and standards under the NOP.

In August 2005, the National Organic Program issued a memorandum stating that businesses that manufacture and distribute personal care products may now certify them under the NOP and label them as “…’100 percent organic,’ ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic’ so long as they meet NOP requirements. Additionally, products that may be labeled ‘100 percent organic’ or ‘organic’ may also carry the USDA organic seal.”

This is contrary to a statement issued in April of this year proclaiming that personal care products fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that as of October 21, 2005, using the words “certified organic” on the label would no longer be permitted. Interestingly enough, prior to issuing the April 2005 statement, the USDA did allow “certified organic” to be used on labels, as well as the USDA seal — essentially coming full circle.

In the meantime, companies such as Dr. Bronner’s and Aubrey Organics have been working with the Organic Trade Association to develop a set of standards for personal care products using natural ingredients manufactured in the United States. The standards, which are nearing completion, are based on European standards for personal care products, food and supplements (specifically those of BDIH, the Federation of German Industries and Trading Firms). Manufacturers of natural personal care products in the United States that meet these standards will be able to label their products with a “certified natural” seal similar to the "Certified Natural Cosmetics" seal used for European natural cosmetics and personal care products that meet BIDH standards.

How much is really natural?
Valva believes that a “certified natural” seal will inspire consumer confidence in natural personal care products and help consumers identify products made entirely of natural ingredients. As it stands now, products may be labeled “natural” whether natural ingredients make up 99% or 1% of the product.

And that’s why it is important for consumers to read the ingredients listed on the product’s label. Unfortunately for consumers, it is sometimes difficult to determine what those ingredients really are and what percentage of the product is actually made from botanicals and other natural ingredients. Each product has a different formula and varies in the proportion of ingredients, making it difficult to use a rule of thumb. The only rule is that ingredients are listed in order from highest to lowest quantities. “If a consumer really wants to know the percentage of an ingredient, call the manufacturer and ask,” Valva recommends.

Another reason for the confusion is that Latin names are used for botanical ingredients, which most consumers are not familiar with. For example Camellia sinensis instead of green tea. When synthetic ingredients and their corresponding chemical names are also used, it only adds to the confusion.

When it comes to personal care products, whether consumers prefer natural, organic or conventional often boils down to a personal choice. While certified organic ingredients such as essential oils and botanical extracts are certainly more pure, are pesticide-, herbicide- and insecticide-free and are presumably of a better quality, they are also more expensive.

For consumers like Bostwick, the only issue that matters is whether the products are free from pesticides, chemicals and synthetic ingredients. “I have become very conscious of reading labels,” she says. “I like being able to look at a product's ingredients and recognize everything that’s listed.”

© Heleigh Bostwick

Heleigh Bostwick is a freelance writer based in Vermont. She is the editor of All Info About Parenting Multiples and publisher of Marigold Lane, an online resource for simple living with a green twist.

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