A couple of weeks ago I was at a Sustainable Cosmetics summit and we did a workshop on natural and organic certifications. It is a surprising complex topic – we spend 1/2 a day on it so I have no idea how most consumers get their heads around all the different certifications.
I think in theory certifications are a good thing and for many areas like Organic food we are very used to looking for certification of a well-known national body like USDA Organic. However, for beauty it are not as straight forward. In fact, it is dizzingly complicated….certified organic products are very rarely 100% organic but instead of focusing on these sorts of details I believe we can use the certification bodies as a guide to what is natural and safe. Of course, you may have specific conditions which will mean you have to do a layer of investigation on top.
I am going to go through the major certifications and what they actually mean – I hope this will provide you with an easy guide when you are looking at certified organic skin care brands in the future!
Who are the certifying bodies?
This really depends on but it is an important point to start with. Some of these certifications are done under the strictest conditions and the certification bodies have inspectors who visit the brand’s manufacturing facilities, monitor the marketing materials and restrict excess packaging. There are others who have a set of guidelines and in theory they can check everything but it is a guideline rather than an approval system.
One thing that is common across all the ones I mention below is No Animal testing – this is already a requirement for all products entering the EU but on a global scale some animal testing still goes on.
COSMOS – European standard
Cosmos was developed by the amalgamation of five charters members who were originally all national certification bodies:
- BDIH (Germany)
- Cosmebio (France)
- Ecocert Greenlife SAS (France)
- ICEA (Italy)
- Soil Association (Great Britain)
COSMOS combines them all in order to have a minimum common requirements and make it easier for consumers to understand and recognise.
To be super clear Cosmos is a non-profit, independent organisation who sets the standard and then they work with different certification bodies around the world who check on the brands and issue the certifications like ACO – Australian Certified Organic, Ecocert, Soil Association.
All Cosmos certified products will have:
– NO Animal testing
– NO GM ingredients
– NO Controversial chemicals
– NO Parabens and Phthalates
– NO Synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances
There are two different levels of Cosmos – Cosmos Natural and Cosmos Organic.
95% of all physically processed agro-ingredients (minimally processed) must be organic
There are certain ingredients that are compulsory to be organic because these are easily obtained eg: Argan oil, almond oil, apricot oil etc
No more than 2% can be synthetically derived – this is to allow for preservatives. Cosmos has a very limited list of preservatives that are allowed to be used.
Cosmos Natural is easy to understand. These are products that contain certified natural ingredients or a few organic ingredients that haven’t met the minimum number to be certified organic.
They have the same requirement as above on the synthetic ingredients.
One thing that is important to know is Cosmos allows brands to certify one product in range – they do not require all products to be certified.
Natrue Is an international non-profit organisation with a strong awareness amongst consumers in Germany. It was established by brand owners – Dr. Hauschka was one of the founding brands. They require all products to contain 100% certified pure natural ingredients. They have a 3 levels:
The product contains 100% certified pure natural ingredients.
Natural Cosmetics with organic portion:
At least 70% of the ingredients come from organic production.
At least 95% of the ingredients come from organic production.
For preservatives, they also have an allowed list with only nature-identical preservatives or derived natural preservatives.
A big distinguishing feature between Natrue and Cosmos is that Natrue requires the brand to certify 75% of their range – which stops brands green washing by having just one product that is certified in the range.
Certified organic skin care products by Natrue: Lavera, Dr. Hauschka, Weleda, Trilogy
EWG – Environmental Working Group is a well recognised organisation in the USA. They do a lot of lobbying for safer agriculture, food and cosmetics. They recently brought out their own certification. They have an ingredient safety ranking system where you can look up the safety profile of all any cosmetic ingredient. It is based on the compilation of scientific research, looking at toxicity levels, allergic reactions etc.
Their criteria can be found here but this is my high level summary:
1. Product must score green on their database – this does not mean all the ingredients are green, it is the overall score that is given to a product.
2. They have an unacceptable list of ingredients
3. All ingredients must be disclosed – this sounds simple but it means that a product can’t have a generic term “Fragrance or Parfum” on the INCI list. Transparency is key for them.
4. Any reactions to products must be reported to EWG – no matter how minor. If a customer notifies the brand must tell EWG.
They are the only certification body to also certify everyday items like mattresses. Their goal is to eliminate the use of harmful chemicals in products and they want to solve the consumer confusion over chemicals.
Their steps are:
1. Screen each ingredient for behavioural, developmental toxins, endocrine disruption, GMO, heavy metal, neurotoxin, high risk pesticide, reproductive toxin, toxic solvent or harmful VOC, as well as carcinogen. They don’t permit the use of nanoparticles or synthetic biology.
2. They have a clear hazard list on their site of which ingredients they do not allow.
3. Then their chemist looks at ingredients to determine if they bio accumulate or how they break down in the environment after use.
4. They have the same rule about 75% of the products from a brand needing to be certified.
Other less rigourous certifications to be aware of but not to rely on.
USDA Organic is very well recognised for food and this gives it a lot of clout in the minds of consumers but it are not really well adapted for Cosmetics.
They have a limited list of ingredients because it can only be ingredients that are deemed agricultural ingredients. This includes preservatives so very few are able to be used. The downside to this is they allow products without preservatives which is unsafe! For more details on their criteria see here.
There are 3 levels:
Made with Organic Ingredients
The product must contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. However, it cannot display the USDA logo on its packaging.
The product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients.
The product must contain only organically produced ingredients. This excludes water and salt as they can not be certified as organic.
This is a new standard that was designed to be globally recognised and was done by consensus. It is a standard NOT a certification so they have guidelines and the brands determine if they meet the guidelines and then can put the logo on their products.
The criteria are not strict. It doesn’t involve any social or environmental vales and it doesn’t exclude any ingredients which means that potentially harmful synthetic ingredients can be in the formulations. I believe this sort of standard just facilitates green washing – so watch out for this one.
Looking for Certified Organic Skin care brands is tough but these certifications are a great place to start. We all have different criteria and priorities.
One problem with these certifications is that many small brands can’t afford to certify their products and even if the products are certified there are still concerns with some of the criteria! Minefield, I know and I hear you saying you just want a simple answer….honestly it comes down to research.
There are some great retailers who are trying to do the research for you so everything they sell has been through screening for harmful ingredients – two of my favourite are Beauty Heroes and Content Beauty Wellbeing they both ship worldwide.
Also, you can keep coming here to find the products I discover – this is what we are using at home currently.