What Does Certified Organic Really Mean?

Our Wellbeing Expert, Sam Sample, gives an overview of the different certified organic logos and how to best choose a beauty product that meets your desires.

There is no universal standard for “certified organic”. Every organic certification processor has a different set of standards and a different list of what they will allow in a product and what they prohibit. It’s also an expensive process, which deters many pure and effective brands (with product made from 70 – 100% organic ingredients) and suppliers (with genuine organic ingredients) who either don’t have the budget to go through the certification process, or those who know better than to follow blindly without questioning the efficacy and integrity of the process.

Following is a very brief outline of various certifiers commonly found on cosmetic labels.

If your products bear the ECOCERT logo then you really might want to double check that ingredient list and method of ingredient sourcing by the manufacturer. ECOCERT is the most misleading standard currently out there. They allow as little as 10% of the ingredients to be organic. They allow various petrochemical ingredients and synthetic preservatives that other certifiers strictly prohibit.

NATRUE has 3 different levels of certification: natural, natural with a portion of organic, and organic. For the highest level of organic certification, at least 95 % of the natural and/or naturally-derived ingredients must come from controlled organic cultivation and/or controlled wild collection. However, NATRUE allow many potentially toxic and irritating ingredients such as synthetic preservatives, sulfates and hydrogenation of oils.

The BDIH is a natural certification body. Meaning that the product does not need to contain organic ingredients. Herein lies the highly probable risk of pesticide residue. They allow synthetic preservatives but prohibit the use of certain petrochemicals that other organic certifiers allow.

The SOIL ASSOCIATION has stricter standards than ECOCERT, NATRUE and BDIH with a sliding scale of 70% organic content for the product to bear the “made with organic” certification and 95% organic content for the “organic” certification stamp of approval. BUT, they allow certain synthetic preservatives and foaming agents that are renowned skin irritants, as well as frequently being found to be contaminated with the -amine group of chemicals that can react with other substances in your products to form another class of chemicals called nitrosamines, most of which are carcinogenic.

The USDA, OFC and ACO have stricter standards than those mentioned above, with a sliding scale of 70% organic content for the product to bear the  “made with organic” certification and 95% organic content for the “organic” certification stamp of approval. BUT … just because the product bears either one of these logos, it does not mean that it contains superior ingredients than brands that aren’t certified.

Then there’s the latest COSMOS Standard that is bringing together 5 certifiers: BDIH, Soil Association, Ecocert, ICEA and CosmeBIO. Some are having to step up to a more strict compliance, whereas others are compromising their existing high standards to drop down and meet a middle ground with the others. COSMOS will allow the following known irritants and toxic chemicals, to mention just a few examples of those that initially jump out as ingredients that you’d be much better off avoiding: various preservatives and denaturing agents from petrochemical origin, various petrochemical molecules, Bismuth Oxychloride (skin irritant), Mica (skin irritant and linked with child labour) and Carmine (part of insects).

My other main concern about the entire certified organic industry is the License Fees. Some certifiers demand a percentage of profits based on the previous year’s turnover of products or ingredients that bear their certified organic logo. What this means to you as the consumer, is an increase in the end price of the product. Why? because the significant fees that are involved in obtaining that certified organic logo are factored in to the pricing. It is also, not just a one off fee. It is an annual fee that is charged year after year, and a hidden trap for the brand owner, as it doesn’t exactly look great if the brand decides not to renew their certification logo with the certifier. Public perception would undoubtedly be something along the lines of “perhaps they are not genuinely organic anymore.”

Just because one fabulous brand bears a certification stamp, doesn’t mean that all the other brands with the same certification stamp have the same level of purity (due to the sliding scale of organic content requirement), performance (delivering similar results) or ethical standards.

Following is an example of two skincare products marketed as Cleansing Balms:

Full list of ingredients for the certified organic cleansing balm: caprylic/capric triglyceride, glycerin, sunflower seed oil*, water, sucrose laurate, sucrose palmitate, parfum (natural fragrance), tocopherol.*ingredients from organic farming

Full list of ingredients for the cleansing balm that is not certified: sunflower seed oil*, virgin coconut oil*, chamomile flower*, marigold flower*, raw shea butter*, candelilla wax, carrot root*, rosehip fruit oil*, natural vitamin E in GMO-free soybean oil, orange essential oil*, petitgrain essential oil*, rosemary leaf extract*, bog myrtle essential oil, neem seed oil*.* ingredients from organic farming and wild crafted?(product contains 90% organic ingredients)

Considering the first 3 ingredients of a product make up the majority of the ingredients I know which one I’d prefer to use on my skin. Especially as the certified organic product only contains one organic ingredient. Whereas the product that is not certified organic contains a much higher percentage of organic ingredients as well as being totally transparent in informing the actual percentage of organic ingredients.

Having personally tried both products, there isn’t a comparison in terms of effectiveness. The certified organic cleansing balm was unimpressive to say the least. The non certified organic cleansing balm was an absolute heavenly experience that removed all traces of makeup and left my skin feeling clean and fresh, soft and smooth, as well as nourished and hydrated.

So, what’s a girl to do??
1. Read the full ingredient list.
The first 3 ingredients make up the majority of a product. Not always the case, but it’s a fairly safe bet. Look out for any hidden nasties, most likely words that don’t look or sound anything like a botanical plant name.
2. Get to know the brand you are planning on using. Are they owned by a big multinational that is more concerned with profitability than the long term health and appearance of your skin and wellbeing? Do they source their ingredients ethically?
3. Most importantly … follow your knowing. Try a product and determine the results for yourself. If you aren’t impressed, try another brand. Sooner or later you’ll find the right beauty brand for you.
4. Remember the fundamental truth that applies to everything in your life. There is no-one else that knows what is better for you, than you.

Over the years I’ve tried an extensive number of so-called natural, organic, and certified organic brands. The brands that I’ve found to be far superior in terms of purity (organic, wildcrafted and biodynamic ingredients, no nasties etc), performance (delivering beautiful results) and with ethical standards that tick all my vegan, cruelty-free and sustainability boxes, and most are not certified organic. But that’s what works best for me.

If in doubt, always go with what feels light, and what is right for you. Only you know what is best for you.

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