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The Confusion of Skin Care Labels: What Does Organic Really Mean?
There are armies of skin care brands and marketers determined to push their products by using words that make you believe they’re the most effective and the least harmful to their distinct advantage. But what do these terms really mean? We break it down so you can be an informed consumer. Take back your power!
The term “organic” should signify that an ingredient was grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or radiation. In other words, the plant or animal was grown as close as possible to its natural state, just as if it was in the wild. Take note of this, it’s an important one for later...
The food industry in the US regulates organic food products through the National Organic Program (NOP). Manufacturers and farmers must meet the standards set by the NOP in order to have the organic label placed on their products.
In skin care, the criteria are far less stringent. Some companies may skirt around the issue, finding loopholes that allow them to label a shampoo or moisturizer organic simply because one of its main ingredients is water. Water is, after all, natural and harmless (permitted it isn't boiling hot). If you see a product with “organic” written on the package, know that no authority has deemed it so (unless it bears the certain certified labels, which we’ll get into below). It is possibly a marketing technique, or the manufacturer has figured out it can use the term because just one or two of its ingredients fits the bill.
Though “organic” on its own is a flimsy term, the “USDA Organic” logo has much more authority behind it—that’s because in order to display it, an ingredient or brand must be certified by the USDA. This certification is enough to give you peace of mind that almost all of the ingredients in the product have been grown and processed in regulated conditions that mandate cleanliness, and that it does not contain pesticides, synthetic preservatives, petrochemicals, GMOS or ionizing radiation.
USDA classifications are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in the product, ranging from 100% organic to 70% organic or less. A product containing 70% or less organic ingredients will not carry the seal, and may be simply labeled "made with organic ingredients."
The Soil Association, a nonprofit organic certification body in the UK, is another logo available to guide customers. Our Kigelia products are all certified by The Soil Association.
Like “USDA Organic,” The Soil Association classifications look for ingredients grown without the use of GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and more. They review the end-to-end manufacturing process including sourcing of ingredients, formulation process and premises as well as packaging. They even require an environmental waste management plan. For a product to be called organic, 95% of all ingredients must be organic. A product containing 20% or less organic ingredients will be labelled “made with organic” products.
And then there’s EcoCert, a certifying body that focuses on the percentage of natural ingredients within a formulation. To obtain EcoCert, the ingredients must be “derived from renewable resources and manufactured by environmentally friendly processes.” Formulations cannot contain GMOs, parabens, phenoxyethanol, nanoparticles, silicon, PEG, synthetic perfumes and dyes and animal-derived ingredients (unless it’s naturally produced, such as milk and honey). On top of that, they check out whether or not the packaging is biodegradable or recyclable.
EcoCert has two labels: “natural and organic cosmetic” and “natural cosmetic.” To obtain the former, at least 95% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and at least 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming. For the “natural cosmetic” label, a minimum of 50% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 5% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming.
The Tricky Part
Your best bet is to look for the USDA, Soil Association or EcoCert seal if using an organic product is important to you. But here’s the tricky part: It can be challenging for poor rural communities to obtain an official organic certification often due to costs, time constraints, lack of resources and education barriers. Moreover, it can be supremely difficult—bordering on impossible—to certify a plant grown in the wild, like the Marula fruit. Wild crops are harvested in areas not under any sort of agricultural management. Therefore, the specific organic certification cannot be applied the way it can on a farm, where everything is heavily regulated and under constant manipulation by humans. Do note that many of these communities, for the same hurdles that impede their ability to nab certifications, cannot afford pesticides in the first place. What to do in this case?
Remember how we talked about organic simply meaning that a product is grown in a manner considered to be as close as would occur in the wild? This is where wild harvested comes in: the practice of harvesting plants from their natural, or "wild" habitat, for food or medicinal purposes. It applies to uncultivated botanicals untainted by chemicals wherever they may be found in nature. Ethical and sustainability considerations are often involved, such as protecting endangered species and taking care to remove only a few flowers or branches at a time, so plenty remains to continue the supply.
It’s really up to individual brands to work in harmony with rural communities that practice wild harvesting to ensure the ingredients are grown in optimal conditions and processed using techniques that maximize benefits. For example, our Marula is extracted from the kernel (nut) of the Marula tree in the Kenyan bush and cold pressed by the Maasai. And our Camu camu comes from deep within the Amazon basin harvested from bushes that grow along the waterways, hand-picked and processed by the local community in Brazil.
This Is Where We Stand
Aside from the certified seals mentioned, labels don’t guarantee anything. They can tell the whole truth (and nothing but the truth) or they can tell you only a part of the story.
Ultimately, what matters is the integrity of the brand. It’s up to the skincare company to not only produce high-quality products that perform but also offer clear-as-glass transparency—from where and how their ingredients are grown, how they’re processed, transported and tested and how they ended up in the bottle you hold in your hand.
At LUXE Botanics we use certified organic ingredients whenever possible, but we believe wild-harvested is equally as beneficial and should be respected as such. Because of this choice, along with the high percentage of wild-harvested ingredients in our formulations, sometimes our end product doesn't meet the minimum percentage required by USDA/EcoCert/Soil Association to be certified as an organic product by these bodies. To meet their expectations, we’d have to reduce the percentage of wild-harvested ingredients in our formulations and increase our percent of those that are certified organic.
The downside? We wouldn’t be supporting local communities and wild-harvested areas. For us it’s all about balance, having a mindful skincare ritual that not only gives back to the environment but supports communities and nurtures sustainable farming practices for the future.
For more info on labelling take a look at our earlier blog on skin care buzzwords.
The LUXE Botanics Team