Organic beauty decoded: the truth about your favourite natural products

Baffled by the growing number of claims made by organic and natural beauty companies? The Ecologist reveals the truth behind the myths

Appearances can be deceptive and nowhere more so than in beauty. Terms such as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are to be found on everything from product labels to farm stand signs, and splashed across supermarket adverts. The surge in products labelled organic and natural comes in the wake of a change in consumer behaviour that has seen increasing value placed on the chemical free. UK consumers spend £33 million a week on organic products, with 86 per cent of households now buy organic, according to the Soil Association’s 2011 Organic Market Report.

Organic is clearly seen as a good thing by the majority of consumers but thanks to persistent myths about the efficacy (or lack of) of organic beauty products, persuading women to swap their Maybelline for their Melvita can be tough. But the chemicals used by brands such as Maybelline and L’Oreal can also linger long after the bath and according to some sources, can build up in our bodies over time. Paraben esters were found in 99 per cent of breast tissue samples collected from 40 mastectomies for primary breast cancer in England between 2005 and 2008, according to research published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology this January. ‘My thinking is if the body is storing an ingredient in fat tissue, or any tissue, then it’s unable to detoxify through the normal route,’ says Imelda Burke, owner of London-based natural store Content. ‘There are lots of things we can’t avoid, like pollution, but we can avoid chemicals.’

Myth: All organic products are certified
Certification is an option, but not a requirement. ‘A company can label or describe products as organic even if they only contain tiny amounts of organic ingredients and could still contain potentially harmful ingredients such as parabens, phthalates, petrochemicals, nano-particles, and GM,’ says the Soil Association's Clio Turton. Unlike food and drink, which must be certified in order to be sold as organic, beauty products aren’t subject to such a standard. But certification bodies, like the Soil Association and ECOCERT, offer consumers reassurance. ‘I think if products are not certified it’s very difficult for the consumer to really pick out what’s in them and what isn’t,’ says Laura Rudoe, founder of Evolve organic beauty, who chose to have all her products certified by ECOCERT. Nonetheless, uncertified organic beauty products do exist. For instance, luxury spa brand Ila’s products aren’t certified but do use 100 per cent organic ingredients.

Myth: Certified products are 100 per cent organic
ECOCERT and the Soil Association follow the COSMOS-standard for their certification, which means at least 95 per cent of a product’s physically processed agro-ingredients (plants) and 20 per cent of the total product must be organic. But the Soil Association will certify products as long as they use 70 per cent organic agro-ingredients, though the product can’t call itself organic. Why not 100 per cent? ‘The remaining five per cent allows for ingredients that are not available organically such as antimicrobials, antioxidants and preservatives, which are needed for safety purposes,’ says Turton. For certification companies must also undergo manufacturing facility inspections, submit all formulae for approval and provide clear labelling for consumers, she adds. For any non-organic ingredient, companies must provide proof that it is non-GM and not available in organic form.

Myth: Organic doesn’t work
Rudoe is living proof that organic can be effective. For years she suffered with bad skin, and it wasn’t until she ditched chemical-based products for natural alternatives that she saw an improvement. ‘It was a blessing because when I develop products I make sure they won’t make my skin flare up,’ she says.  Still, it’s often a challenge to find organic ingredients that replicate the effects of synthetic ones, especially in shampoos and conditioners. Instead of cetrimonium chloride, a cationic conditioner that changes the charge of the hair so other active ingredients can stick to it, Evolve uses an ingredient derived from seaweed. Surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulphate, used in mainstream brands, are effective cleaning agents but also known irritants. The COSMOS-standard permits limited amounts of sodium coco sulfate and cocamidopropyl betaine, which are both derived from coconut oil and create that reassuring tingly lather. Turton adds that many organic companies, such as Germany’s Amala, are conducting clinical testing to prove organic can get the job done.

Myth: Organic products are unaffordable
In light of the current economic travails, Rudoe recognises the difficult position that many people are in. ‘I’m realistic and I understand that [organic] is not necessarily peoples’ primary purchase driver,’ she says. ‘It’s going to be one of several things that they’re looking at.’ That’s why Rudoe developed Evolve with cost in mind, and has priced all of the products in her line at less than £20. ‘It helps people live a little bit better in their everyday lives, which means they can afford to use the products every day,’ she says, adding that organics should not just be a treat but a lifestyle choice. And at £9.99 Evolve’s Skin Cocoon Body Wash won’t break the bank. Though Content stocks plenty of luxury brands, Burke says it’s possible to go organic without going broke. She recommends Pai Skincare, which is made in the UK, certified by The Soil Association and accessibly priced. Try the Fragonia and Seabuckthorn Instant Hand Therapy Cream, £16.99, to keep hands soft and supple.

Myth: Natural and organic mean the same thing
According to the International Fragrance Association [IFRA], natural products aren’t necessarily organic, as they can be grown using pesticides and fertilisers, but organic products are always natural. Natural is also not always sustainable, while synthetic is not necessarily indicative of unsustainable activities. All of this can leave your head spinning, which is why Burke aims to inform customers so they know what they are purchasing. ‘We would rather people know the kind of synthetics they are purchasing than believe something is completely natural and then find out it has a synthetic preservative,’ she says. Content stocks both natural and organic products. ‘For us natural and clean skincare is excluding the synthetic ingredients like parabens and sodium lauryl sulphate,’ Burke says. ‘Organic is also looking at the way the ingredients are produced and extracted, and then looking at the whole ethos of the company.’ And if you’re still confused, you can always look for an organic certification seal. Customers often come to Content after battling illness, and having made the change to a natural lifestyle. Beauty is usually the last aspect of their lives to receive an organic makeover. ‘It’s common knowledge that if you eat pre-made, pre-packaged fast food that it’s not the best for your body,’ Burke says. ‘If you apply the same kind of principle to skincare, it makes more sense.’

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