"Organic" Skin Care to Go Unregulated

When purchasing certain products labeled "organic", or "certified organic," customers will have to shop with a very sharp eye. Recent pressure on the USDA to honor an exemption clause in the National Organic Policy (NOPS) with regard to skin care products, cotton and dietary supplements has been successful, which will leave these industries unregulated with regard to the term organic. According to the Preamble on Applicability and Clarification, "the ultimate labeling of cosmetics, body care products, and dietary supplements, however, is outside the scope of these regulations."

For the record, the National Organic Standards as they apply to food are very clear -- a product containing 100 percent certified organic ingredients might be labeled "Certified Organic" with no synthetic ingredients. A product containing 95 percent organic ingredients may be labeled "organic with no synthetic ingredients." Anything less then 95 percent may use the term organic with regard to the specific organic ingredient only.

Many large and influential Health and Beauty Aid (HABA) companies have been lobbying USDA to relax or completely exempt these standards for personal care. Their main complaints are that they weren't given enough time to get ready, even though members of the trade association have been intimately involved in the evolution of the policy statement drafted in 1990. They also maintain that skin care products cannot be made without synthetics, enhancers, and/or chemical stabilizers and preservatives (even though Grandma's been doing it for years). Tom Hutchinson, the Quality Assurance Director of the Organic Trade Association, stated that the HABA industry's biggest "hurdle will be to convince the overall organic industry that the synthetics it uses in processing products are as necessary as the allowable synthetics in food processing."

The recent reports of the USDA being shackled by the exemption clause in the Federal regulations for skin care products has already resulted in a virtual free-for-all as products passing themselves off as organic and certified organic have begun to flood the market. Ads for certified organic products are already appearing in mainstream magazines whose ad deadlines closed months ago. Many of these products have as little as 50 percent organic ingredients, and an alarming number have only a tiny percentage of organic ingredients or none at all. Some companies are claiming that all of their ingredients are certified organic including the controversial class of synthetic parabens and glycols such as methylpropylparaben and propylene glycol, along with many chemically derived botanical extracts.

Highlighting the difference under the new standards, one leading HABA manufacturer recently published the following statement on their website: "[Ours] is the only brand in the industry that lists the percentage of certified organic ingredients on their labels and that each of their products contains at least 50 percent certified organic ingredients."

Already, confusion and mayhem are brewing in the HABA industry with regard to what the standards for organic are for food, what they should be for personal care, and who can use the word as part of their company name or on the front of their label. It looks a lot like the fox guarding the henhouse, explaining that he'll eat only 5 percent of the chickens.

However, the true victims in this new chapter will be the customers that trust the "organic" label, who expect (rightfully so) that skin care manufacturers are held accountable by regulations that apply to food.

Many will be led to believe these products are better, healthier and therefore may cost more. There is also a growing awareness among the health care industry and consumers that regulations for organic skin care products should be stricter then that of food due to the skins absorbency rate, which is ten times greater. The bottom line should not be determined by the gross profit margin for manufacturers but by the health and well being of the customer, because that which we lather on our skin should be as pure if not purer of synthetics and chemicals then the food we eat.

Given the situation, it is painfully clear that we cannot leave the regulation of organic for skin care, supplements and cotton products up to the trade industry. Until adequate regulations are strictly enforced the old rule of thumb still applies: "believe only half of what you see and none of what you hear."

Jayne Ollin is a freelance writer, artist, activist and organic farmer currently living in Central Vermont. To learn more about the current organic regulations, visit  the NOP website.

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