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Not so "natural" after all

Thursday, May 22, 2008

makeup_lo83.jpg According to a recent survey, 78 percent of American women think natural personal care is currently regulated or don’t know if it is, while nearly all (97 percent) think it should be.

What makes a cosmetics item “natural” or “organic”? Two of every three American women think a personal care product labeled “natural” should contain at least 95 percent natural ingredients. Likewise, one intuitively expects that a product labeled “organic” would contain only certified organic ingredients and not synthetic chemicals manufactured in gas-spewing petrochemical plants.

Contrary to what most buyers of pricey “natural” cosmetics believe, the current reality is a lot more mixed. Under the current federal law FDA has no authority for pre-market review of cosmetic product formulation and labeling. In fact, cosmetics safety is virtually unregulated by the government: FDA cannot require companies to test cosmetic products for safety before marketing and cannot require product recalls. The only way for FDA to remove misbranded products from the market is by going to court against the manufacturer, a cumbersome task for which the agency has no resources – and little interest.

As a result of labeling loopholes and lack of standards, companies are free to use almost any ingredient they choose in personal care products. FDA hands-off position has opened up an opportunity for industry groups and certification bodies to offer their own seals or approval, voluntary standards and marketing claims that can best be described as “organic mislabeling.”

Only a government certification can set reliable standards for organic or natural cosmetics. Meanwhile, while the FDA is looking on, many personal care product companies tout their sustainability credentials, although many of them seem not entirely sure just what is green, organic, or sustainable. Some companies have taken to certifying their products as green through third parties such as Ecocert (France), the Germany-based industry organization BDiH, the Soil Association (UK), Oasis (US cosmetics companies), and Certech (Canada). Add to this list the Washington, DC-based Natural Products Association, NSF International (formerly National Sanitation Foundation) and many others who are jumping into the fray. The prize is indeed worth the effort: sales of natural cosmetics products are growing at an annual rate of 15%, three times faster than the overall cosmetics market.

It's all very bewildering for consumers, as well as for the cosmetics manufacturers themselves. As a colorful example of this state of uncertainty, in April Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps company together with the Organic Consumers Association filed suit against many of its personal care competitors and two organic standards certification organizations over the validity of their organic labels. At the same time, one of the two industry groups named in this lawsuit, French organic cosmetics certifier Ecocert, filed a pre-emptive lawsuit of its own against Dr. Bronner's soap company. Apparently, in the absence of government regulation, litigation is the only way for companies and certifiers to fight it out.

Where does this leave consumers? Pretty much in the same spot, whereby cosmetics products labeled organic or natural can and do include synthetic ingredients, especially manufacturing impurities and preservatives linked to many suspected human health risks. On their own, claims announcing “organic” or “natural” on the front label are fairly meaningless.

The best thing that shoppers can do to protect themselves and their families is reading the small print in the labels on the back of the package. When a back label lists synthetic preservatives such as parabens, undisclosed fragrance ingredients that likely contain phthalates, or one of the numerous petroleum-based ingredients that can be contaminated with cancer-causing chemical 1,4-dioxane -- a consumer has to take the “organic” or “natural” label on the front with a grain of salt.

And, of course, the only long-term solution to the current cosmetics debacle is the establishment of safety and labeling standards for cosmetics under the FDA enforcement authority. Product claims and marketing terms must be backed up by tests and must meet explicit definitions set by the FDA. When I buy an organically grown apple, I expect it to be exactly that – grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and not treated with any post-harvest preservatives. Should not consumers expect the same from “organic” cosmetics?

Photo by lo83.