What do “natural,” “organic,” and “green” mean when it comes to cosmetics?
Legally? Nothing. Due to major loopholes in federal law, cosmetics can be labeled “natural,” “organic,” “green,” “non-toxic,” and nearly any other word that comes to mind without containing ingredients that accurately meet those descriptions. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to sort through companies’ claims regarding the “greenness” of their products.
For years, the “natural” sector has been the fast growing part of the $200 billion cosmetics industry. It remained strong even during the recession in 2008. You’ve probably noticed the increase in natural brands, and natural claims. Clearly, consumers are looking for natural products.
But what does “natural” actually mean? Well, it can mean something…or nothing at all. For the companies who are backing their natural claims, it may mean that a certain percentage of their ingredients are mineral or plant-based (they came from a plant and are not synthetic), and that they are using post-consumer recycled packaging to reduce their environmental footprint. There are several different certifying bodies that companies can submit their products to in order to show their commitment to natural (Natural Products Association, NaTrue, BDIH and EcoCert among them). These standards have a lot of overlap, but some are more strict regarding the percentage of natural ingredients, or their restricted substances lists. Most of them take the safety of ingredients into account to some extent, but the source of an ingredient—e.g. if it came from a plant—doesn’t de facto mean that we know if it is safe for use on our bodies day after day.
For some companies, “natural” is merely a marketing claim, and they aren’t concerned with backing up their claims in a meaningful way. These guys are “greenwashing.” Learn more about UL Environment’s “seven sins of greenwashing” here.
If you’re familiar with the term “organic” from the food industry, you know it means that the crop in question was grown without the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, and in a way that conserved natural resources and promoted biodiversity. In the food industry, “organic” actually means something. In cosmetics, not so much.
Since cosmetics are virtually unregulated, companies are allowed to toss around the term “organic” when the products or ingredients are, in fact, not. The only way to know that “organic” actually means “organic” is to look at the product’s ingredient list, and to verify which ingredients have been certified organic by a credible organization, like the USDA or Oregon Tilth.
If the entire product has a USDA Organic seal on it, you know that the products has achieved the “gold standard” for organic certification in the cosmetics industry.
Cosmetics that contain water (e.g. shampoo, hand soap, lotion) need to also contain a preservative. This is because without preservation, products will grow yeast, bacteria or mold, which is not only gross, it’s unsafe. One of the few mandates of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is that a product be free of “filth,” which means that legally, if a product contains water, it must contain a preservative.
When a company makes the claim that they’re free of preservatives, one of a couple of things is happening.
1) The product does not contain any water, so they do not need to use preservatives (usually body and face oils, butter-based lip balms).
2) They are asking you to put the product in the fridge/giving it a shelf life of only days (this is very rare).
3) They are using only antioxidants (like tocopherol) and natural preservative boosters (like neem or rosemary oil) and hoping that it’s enough to prevent growth.
4) They are hiding preservatives. When manufacturers buy bulk ingredients from ingredient suppliers (e.g. aloe vera gel), they are often getting an already-preserved raw ingredient (e.g. aloe vera gel + phenoxyethanol, or grapefruit seed extract + methlyparaben). But the end product does not have to list the preservative that is tagging along because it’s considered a “contaminant.” So, a “preservative-free” (or paraben-free) product might not be so free after all. And, sometimes, preservatives might be hiding under the term “fragrance,” too. Companies do not have to disclose what is in this catch-all, secret ingredient.
Other Misleading Terms
A dermatologist for hire may approve the product, but it doesn’t mean that he or she has put the product through any rigorous or standardized testing, and it definitely doesn’t mean that the product has been evaluated for it’s potential to impact long-term health.
A petrochemical is one that is derived from oil. Some companies claim to be petrochemical free, but a look at their ingredient lists leave a person wondering how they are backing that up. Some of the ingredients, while they might be very similar to those found in nature, are almost definitely from a synthetic source. And, the majority of plant-derived ingredients have at one point been processed using other chemical ingredients that are derived from oil (though those processing ingredients are not left in the final products). This means that there may not be petrochemicals as a whole in the products, but it’s still slightly misleading to state that they are free of petrochemicals across the board.