Cosmetics: When Organic isn’t Organic


Q: When is “Organic” not organic? A: When it’s on a product that isn’t “agricultural.”

What? Well, as you may recall, in the United States, the US Department of Agriculture is in charge of the word “organic.” That’s great for ensuring trustworthy standards on agricultural stuff — you know, popcorn, oatmeal, tea, vegetables, etc.

But that authority doesn’t extend to personal care products, like shampoo, lotion, soap, and perfume. Cosmetics makers are permitted to seek and use USDA organic certification for the “agricultural” products in their cosmetics. And some, like Dr. Bronners or Terressentials, are eager to do so. But companies are also allowed to ignore USDA standards, and use the word “Organic” without any legal consequence.

The upshot: if soap or shampoo doesn’t have the USDA Organic seal, the word “organic” is meaningless.

The USDA has been dragging its feet, even though its official standards board voted to recommend legally restricting the use of “Organic” on cosmetics. In light of customer frustration, Whole Foods and some other retailers have implemented higher standards. Whole Foods’ Joe Dickson summed it up in an interview:

What would our average shopper expect ‘organic’ to mean? ”In this case, it was very clear to us that you wouldn’t expect the definition of “organic” in body care to be very different from the definition used for food.

Personal care products sold in Whole Foods have to meet better standards in order to use the word “organic.” So – if you’re a Whole Foods shopper – you can put a little more stock in those labels. But, as Dr. Bronner’s has pointed out, a significant loophole exists. Whole Foods allows “organic” to appear on non-organic products, as long as it’s in the brand name itself. So “Avalon Organics” shampoos don’t actually have to be, well, organic. In fact, many products labeled “Organic” may contain chemicals potentially linked to cancer, asthma, and hormone disruption, including methylchloroisothiazolinone, limonene, and DMDM hydantoin.

The ultimate solution is for the government to step up and enforce recognizable standards, across the board. Barring that, there’s no way consumers like us can feel confident in using nontoxic, safe, and eco-friendly cosmetics. Until we get better standards and enforcement, look for the USDA logo.

Photo credit: John Millard, via Flickr

2 thoughts on “Cosmetics: When Organic isn’t Organic

  1. Diana Kaye, co-founder, Terressentials

    Wow, what a great article and much needed! Thanks for putting this story out there! After fighting this phony organic labeling battle for more than ten years, it’s so refreshing to see that someone out there sees the problem and cares enough to speak out! Now, if we could just find the way to get these huge government agencies — the USDA and the FTC — to enforce the law and end these shameful predatory,exploitative mislabeling games.

    It really does take a huge investment of resources and energy to maintain official USDA organic certification status while attempting to compete in the vast personal care marketplace that is so overrun with too many faux organic poseurs. We’d like to bid you to, please, accept our sincere thanks for recognizing the genuine organic-ness of our little company! Lastly, we’d like you to know that we greatly appreciate your investment in researching this outrageous “organic” labeling problem and the other too prolific greenwashing scams, and your excellent work in educating the public. Hopefully, all of our efforts will drive the force for a level marketplace playing field and honest labeling to happen soon!

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