BEHIND THE LABEL: Organic Skincare
We are told that organic foods are better for us as they contain no synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilisers and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives (that's the scientific definition!).

Well, it is not just the things we put on our dinner plates that can be organic, so too can the products we use in our everyday beauty routines.

But, did you know that there are actually no set regulations in the beauty industry for formulating organic skincare?

Organic doesn't just apply to food

A recent survey of shampoos, creams and other toiletries by The Soil Association revealed that many brands labelled as 'organic', 'natural' or 'inspired by nature' actually contain chemicals found in antifreeze, floor cleaners, oven cleaner and engine oil. These included big names like Boots and Nivea. But this doesn't mean all organic products are not what they claim to be.

Look for the logo

If you want to make sure your beauty products are 100% organic then look out for endorsement from voluntary certification schemes run by organisations like The Soil Association. To qualify for its scheme, manufacturers have to make sure the ingredients they use do not contain certain chemicals and that all plant-based bits and bobs have been organically grown.

As spokesman told Beauty Without The Beasts: "Your skin is the largest organ of your body and what you put on it can be absorbed in tiny amounts, so it's no surprise that a growing number of beauty products are now being produced with organic ingredients. Unfortunately, unlike organic food, there are no legal standards for organic beauty products so, as a result, some companies choose to label a product as 'organic' even if it only contains 1% organic ingredients or if it contains potentially-hazardous substances."

Look for the logo
Meeting the standards

To help consumers, The Soil Association, alongside four other European certification bodies, has developed the Cosmetics Organic Standard - or Cosmos standard . The first products certified to these new standards hit the shelves in spring 2011.

To achieve certification, 95% of a product's agro-ingredients, and 20% of the entire product, must be organic. If an ingredient is available organically, then it must be used, although in some cases no truly organic alternatives are currently obtainable. The remaining ingredients must meet strict criteria to ensure they are not damaging to your health or to the environment. Products must also meet environmental standards for packaging and manufacturing, and use approved 'green chemistry' processes when modifying ingredients.

If a product uses between 70-95% organic agro-ingredients The Soil Association will certify it, though will not allow it to claim to be organic. In this case the manufacturer can state that it is made with a particular percentage of organic ingredients. However, no product with less than 70% organic ingredients will be certified at all.

So, if you see a Soil Association or Cosmos symbol on a product it means:

  • The producer has had its manufacturing facility inspected annually. This includes an audit of the organic ingredients used and a demonstration of ecologically-sound production methods.
  • All product formulae and labels have been approved.
  • It will be clearly labelled so that you can make an informed choice about the product you are buying.Any non-organic ingredients are being used because no organic equivalents were available.
  • All ingredients are GM free - non-organic ingredients can only be used if their suppliers has submitted a declaration that it is non-GM
  • It has used minimal non-organic additives and only those from a restricted list.
  • These must be non-GM and can only be used if the organic version of that ingredient is not yet available.
  • Any processed ingredients are processed by ecologically-sound means.

Cruelty-free and organic

Some of the cruelty-free brands on our Where to Shop list have already achieved the standard, including Balm Balm, Botanicals, Green People and Neal's Yard Remedies.

A spokeswoman for Neal's Yard Remedies said: "Over the last 50 years, tens of thousands of new chemicals have been developed, most of which have never been properly tested on humans. We are absorbing a vast array of these new synthetic chemicals from our food, our toiletries, and our immediate environment and surely it can be no coincidence that over the same time period, the incidences of illness such as eczema, allergies and even cancers have greatly increased."

Thinking about the products you buy

Like many manufacturers, not all of the company's products are certified, but those that are carry the Cosmos standard.

The spokeswoman explained: "Organic sourcing is always our first choice, but there are several reasons why it's not always possible. We need a constant supply of raw materials to ensure the quality of our product remains constant. It's not always possible to find a reliable organic supply, but as the organic market continues to grow we're able to source more and more of our ingredients organically.  

"In addition, all of our raw materials are tested before being accepted to ensure they contain the necessary levels of the active constituents to make them work. If we can't get organic ingredients of the best quality, we won't use them.

"We may not be able to avoid all of these chemicals, but we believe it makes sense to do what we can to minimise contact wherever possible."

100% organic?

This stumbling block faces many companies, although Balm Balm has managed to achieve 100% organic status effectively by not manufacturing certain products.

As the company's founder, Glenda Taylor, explains this is not ideal: "We manage to achieve 100% organic status by not using water in our products. Once water is added, an emulsifier and preservatives have to be added and these are the ingredients that are not available organically. This is the reason we do not make creams, lotions, soaps or shampoos, because they can't be made without water.

"It is very frustrating for us because hardly a day goes by without someone asking us for those products. I haven't used a cream for years though and don't miss it at all. It's very tempting to go in this direction, but our 100% organic status keeps us fairly unique and we think it's worth it."

Balm Balm - choosing to be 100% organic

So, if you want to make sure products are 100% organic, then make sure you read the labels carefully, and while The Soil Association does not endorse every company that is truly organic, its certification policy is a good starting point when shopping for cosmetics and other beauty products.


The information given in this feature (ie the cruelty-free status of the brands, product information and prices) is correct at the time of publication (June 2013). For an up-to-date list of cruelty-free brands and their contact details, please see our Where To Shop Guide.

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