Over many years, the Ecologist has revealed the chemicals that go into major -brand beauty and health products. For example, Clairol's Herbal Essences, one of Britain's best-selling shampoos, which we profiled in 2003, boasted that it contained, ‘natural, organic herbs and botanicals that come to us in pure mountain spring water.' Other ingredients it was less forthcoming about - including parabens, petrochemicals (one the major ingredient in brake fluid), and a range of chemicals linked to damaging health effects.
That the shampoo was such a best seller illustrated the extent to which consumers were unaware what they were buying - taking claims of it being ‘natural' at face value. This is one example of how the word ‘natural' has been extensively abused by the beauty and cosmetics industry. Consumers have been bearing the cost. Many women use up to 20 different products every day, with a cocktail of chemicals being absorbed in the skin.
Which is why the new Cosmos standard, announced by the UK's Soil Association earlier this month, should hopefully herald in an era of greater truthfulness in marketing claims, as well as a general shift towards greener, cleaner ingredients in products.
Cosmos is the result of a six-year consultation between 5 major national certification bodies to create a Europe-wide standard for organic and natural beauty and health products. Together with the Soil Association these include BDIH in Germany, BIOFORUM in Belgium, COSMEBIO & ECOCERT in France, and Italy's ICEA, collectively accounting for around 10,000 certified products on the market.
Products as varied as eye shadow, essential oils and homeopathic remedies can carry the Cosmos organic label, signifying that they have been independently verified to strict organic standards. In the UK, the organic health and beauty market is experiencing strong growth already - sales in 2008 grew 69% to £27 million.
But Cosmos also creates a standard for certification of a product as ‘natural'.
‘There is no legal backing to this, what we are hoping is that there will be enough support from consumers and the media so that anyone using the term "natural" will get proper certification,' says Francis Blake, director of Soil Association standards. While this won't mean an end to all dubious claims of products being ‘natural', it will give consumers a compass with which to help navigate the myriad products on offer.
Cosmos's ‘natural' standard does not currently require a minimum of organic ingredients, but significantly, many commonly used ingredients such as parabens, phthalates, GM ingredients, and the vast majority of petrochemical-based ingredients cannot be used.
Francis believes this is a major step forward for the beauty and health industry as a whole. ‘It is revolutionary because it requires the principles of green chemistry - a whole ethos of chemistry using cleaner, less dangerous chemicals in processes which minimise waste and create fewer by-products. We are introducing the natural ethos on a global level'.
Francis says there has been a lot of interest from the large cosmetics companies. ‘What we hope is that as things progress, the "natural" certification should serve as a stepping-stone to companies becoming certified as organic. Any sensible cosmetic company is looking at natural and organic cosmetics now - if they aren't they are getting behind the times.'
The COSMOS standard can be found on www.cosmos-standard.org