Organic Certification for Cosmetics - a Guide
Aug 19, 2015
It's not uncommon for me to get a little heated about greenwash on this blog. I get cross with companies that try to fool us into thinking that their product is somehow greener or more eco than everyone else. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll have heard me say before now that you should look for organic certifications where ever possible.
In today's post, I thought I'd explain why I go on about organic certifications for skincare and cosmetics, and what they actually mean. I've said before that the words 'organic' and 'natural' and 'green' and 'pure' don't have any legal meaning when it comes to what companies can put on their packaging. When it comes to marketing, it seems that just about anything is okay. Companies can't claim that products have therapeutic benefits unless the benefits can be proven, and skincare and cosmetics sold in Australia must have all the ingredients listed on the packaging, in order of the greatest to the smallest ingredients. There are exceptions to even these legal obligations, however. Perfume, fragrance and flavours don't have to have the ingredients listed. Manufacturers don't have to disclose what's in those because they are considered to be a trade secret. There are 3,100 ingredients that can be used in fragrances.
As a consumer, you have no idea what the fragrance in your skincare product contains. Fragrance ingredients can be allergens, irritants, cause respiratory problems and issues with the human reproductive system. Okay, you say to yourself, I'll only buy skincare and cosmetic products made with natural ingredients. But there are problems with that, too. Australian Certified Organic explains:
"Natural ingredients are not certified by a third party organization like organic raw materials, and due to this the lack of regulation the term natural has been applied to ingredients derived from GMO materials, or to ingredients that although initially derived from natural sources, have lost any ‘naturalness’ after so many synthetic chemical treatments."
If you're a cosmetic company, you have to label your products with the ingredients, but no one checks up on that. So the company labels their product, and only gets into trouble if they get caught, like Natural Instinct did a few years back.
There are so many products already available, and so many new ones entering the market all the time that the ACCC doesn't have the time to check each and every one. When you're buying a product that is labelled with an organic certification, however, you can be sure that what's on the label is what's in it. All organic certification bodies here in Australia are overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the peak organic body in Australia is the Organic Federation of Australia. The basic standards for certification are set by DAFF, and organic certification bodies have to set standards that meet the Australian Organic Standards at the very minimum.
Some organic certification bodies set standards that are even stricter than the Australian standards. Any company who wants their products to carry an organic logo has to go through rigorous testing and certification procedures. This is your guarantee that the products you're using have been independently tested to make sure they're using the purest ingredients and processing methods available.
In Australia, there's not just one, but seven organic certification bodies. An Australian product doesn't have to be certified by an Australian certifying body, however, so you may see other organic logos on products available here, and that doesn't necessarily mean that the actual product has been imported, or that it's not made in Australia from Australian ingredients.
Why some Australian skincare products can never be organic
Ingredients can only be organic if they're produced through an agricultural process. In other words, if it can't be grown, it can't be classified as organic. So you can have organic oils, for example an organic sweet almond oil, because almonds can be grown organically. You can have organic beeswax, because honey and beeswax can be made and processed organically. Minerals, clays, chalks and salts can't be organic. You can't have organic zinc oxide, and you can't have organic kaolin clay, or sea salt, because none of these ingredients are grown - they're all mined. They have to be processed in a way that is approved by the organic certifying bodies, but they can't be certified as organic.
For a product to be classed as organic in Australia, 95% of the ingredients must be organic. So if you have a sunscreen that contains 20% zinc oxide, it's never going to pass the organic certifications in Australia, because you're never going to reach the 95% requirement. Sunscreens are particularly complicated, because in Australia, sunscreens are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and sunscreens have to be manufactured in a certain way, in approved facilities, none of which are approved by the Australian organic bodies. I'm going to discuss this in a separate post later in the year. Just to confuse you, this isn't the case everywhere in the world. So you'll see sunscreens that are USDA certified, because the USDA organic certifying body doesn't have the same rules when it comes to minerals and clays.
Australian Organic Bodies
The most common organic certifying bodies in Australia are:
- ACO - Australian Certified Organic (owned by BFA - Biological Farmers of Australia)
- NASAA - NASAA Certified Organic
- OFC - Organic Food Chain
- Demeter - Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (BDRI)
The Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) is the peak body for the organic industry in Australia, and they promote organics and help to build organic and biodynamic businesses within Australia. Any skincare or cosmetic product that is certified organic by an Australian organic label must adhere to the following:
- no animal testing
- no GMOs
- no synthetics
- no synthetic colours or dyes
- no synthetic fragrances or perfumes
- no silicones
- no paraffin or other petroleum or petroleum derived products
- only preservatives from natural sources can be used
- ingredients can't be irradiated
- ingredients can't be processed using sulphonation, ethoxylation or propoxylation methods
So it doesn't really matter which of the organic logos your skincare product has been certified with, you're guaranteed at least these standards.
Australian Organic Logos
Australian Certified Organic (Australia)
The Australian Certified Organic (ACO) label ensures compliance to some of the highest organic standards in the world. ACO certifies food, cosmetics and textiles and is one of the most respected and rigorous standards in the world for organic production. ACO certifies organic cosmetics under the Australian National Standard, and also certifies under the US National Organic Program (USDA), as well as the European COSMOS standards. There are three certification standards with ACO:
- Certified Organic (contains at least 95% organic ingredients excluding water)
- Made with Organic Ingredients (contains at least 70% organic ingredients excluding water)
- Natural Certified (ingredients and processing must pass standard requirements set by ACO) for less than 70% certified organic ingredients, and the product can only list ingredients as 'organic'.
There are some non organic ingredients allowed, usually because it's not possible to find organic ingredients in commercial quantities. Even the non organic ingredients must be processed according to the organic standards, however, so you're not going to find contaminants like 1,4 Dioxane that can be left after processing in non organic products. There's more about the ACO certification process for cosmetics here.
NASAA National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (Australia)
The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture in Australia (NASAA) is another Australian certification label that ensures you're getting the highest standards of organic certification. NASAA can also certify to products under the USDA standards. Like ACO, there are different levels of certification:
- Certified Organic (contains at least 95% organic ingredients excluding water)
- Approved Cosmetics (contains at least 70% organic ingredients excluding water)
These ingredients are not allowed in NASAA certified products, under either organic or certified natural standards:
- Synthetic vitamins (incl. dl-tocopherol)
- Synthetic colouring agents
- Synthetic flavours
- Synthetic fragrances & perfumes
- Sodium Laurel sulphate
- Padimate-O (PABA)
- Ethoxylated ingredients
- Mineral oils
- Propylene glycol
- Butylene glycol
- Petroleum derived solvents
- Genetically modified organisms
Only organic grapefruit seed extract can be used to ensure purity. If the product uses clays and minerals, these are not classed as organic, as discussed earlier. The complete guide on the organic standards for NASAA is here.
Organic Food Chain (Australia)
The Organic Food Chain is another leading Australian Organic Certification body certifying to the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce for primary producers, food and skincare processors, distributors and wholesalers. The OFC was founded by farmers who were looking into methods to reduce their chemical usage following years of poor yields, quality loss and high debt, recognising the improvement in soil fertility, animal health and better returns. The Organic Food Chain adheres to the Australian National Standard for organic and biodynamic products. There are no:
- synthetic colours
- synthetic fragrances or perfumes
- ethoxylated ingredients
- paraffin or other petroleum or petroleum derived products
- no 'nature identical' ingredients
- no animal testing
Once again, there are different OFC labels according to the quantity of organic ingredients:
- Organic - at least 95% of the product must be organic
- Made with Organic Ingredients - at least 70% of the ingredients must be from organic or biodynamic ingredients.
International Organic Bodies
Products sold in Australia may also carry international organic certification labels. As we've already discussed, some of the Australian organic certifying bodies can also certify for COSMOS and USDA. Here are some of the international organic labels that you may see in Australia:
- COSMOS - Brussels/Europe
- NaTrue - Brussels/International
- Soil Association - United Kingdom
- BDIH Bundesverband Deutscher Industrie-und Handelsunternehmen - Germany
- Biocosc - Switzerland
- Cosmebio - France
- EcoCert - France
- ICEA Istituto per la Certificazione Etica e Ambientale - Italy
- USDA’s National Organic Program - USA
- OASIS Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards - USA
- QAI Quality Assurance International - USA
- Certech - Canada
- COR Canada Organic Regime - Canada
- NSF/ANSI 305: Personal Care - USA