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Dear Fig+Sage :: Where Do You Stand On Organic Labeling And Claims For Personal Care?

Q: "Where do you all stand on organic claims and organic labeling?  Do you promote products that claim organic but are not USDA certified?  I like one product line that has some USDA certified organic products but most are not, yet they use the term "organic" in their promotional literature, their labeling and their ingredients."  -S.A.

A: Great question and one that I could possibly talk/write ad nauseam about!  I'll try to keep this from becoming a novel, so here goes:

Where Do You Stand On Organic Labeling and Claims?

1). Organic claims and labeling is a very hot button for me.  It can also be an entirely confusing subject to navigate through, even for brands and organic experts.  The first thing I do when I discover a new organic product is to dig deeper into the claims on the label.  I try to be very careful about what is promoted here and we are both interested in promoting honest brands with truthful labeling and great ingredients.  If a product has "organic" in the brand name, claims to contain organic ingredients or says organic anywhere, my radar goes off, my eyebrows go up and I begin to dig deeper.  I have been burned by false labeling in the past by a brand that I used to love, but no longer use or support due to labeling deception so I am even more weary of claims now than I used to be a couple years ago. It was an EcoCert logo they were using on their product labels without having permission/actually being certified, not a USDA one - just to be clear.  It's also important to realize that just because a product isn't USDA Certified Organic doesn't mean they don't hold another organic certification from another country. 

Just as equally important to understand is that not all certification bodies have the same organic content standards.  For example, USDA's Organic certification requires that no less than 95% of the entire contents of a product must contain organic content while France's EcoCert organic certification only requires that 10% of the entire contents of a product come from organic farming. Though EcoCert's organic standard has been around much longer than USDA's, EcoCert's organic certification standard has the lowest organic criteria worldwideSaffron Rouge has a great breakdown of organic certifications and easy to understand definitions here.

Here are some tips to sort through the murky waters of organic claims and labels:

a). Be very leery of brands who use the USDA Certified Organic seal on their website or marketing material but not on their product labels. I've run across several brands that think it's okay to use the seal on their site if their products contain any USDA organic ingredients (even just 1 or 2), but it is not okay, it's actually illegal.  I've emailed a couple sites who have done this and the seal was promptly removed.  The USDA Organic seal cannot be used if a brand just happens to think they meet their USDA organic's criteria - they've actually got to go through the expensive and time-consuming process to prove their claims are legit.

b). If a product has the USDA Certified Organic seal, flip the product over and glance at the ingredients.  Are the organic ones marked with an asterisk?  And at the bottom of the ingredient list does it indicate who the third party certifier is (i.e. QAI)?  It must list the third party certifier.

c). You can cross-check brands in the USDA's NOP database to see if they show up.  Be aware though that this is not always updated frequently, so if you don't find a brand here - check with their Third Party Certification Agency (that should be clearly listed on the product label, if not - ask the brand who their certification agency is). 

Do you promote products that claim organic but are not USDA Certified Organic? 

2). Yes.  If you take a look around our site you will notice we promote both products that are and are not USDA Certified Organic. Why? Because I don't believe "if it doesn't have the seal it ain't the real deal". I know from personal discovery and disappointment that even if it does have the seal it still may not be the real deal.  Sure, it's true that it's a lot more difficult to tell what is and isn't truly organic without a third party certification to substantiate claims but there are indeed legitimate organic brands that haven't pursued USDA Organic Certification for their products either because they don't have the money or they feel as though their standards exceed those of the USDA NOP.  To claim a product isn't organic unless it has the USDA organic seal on it doesn't make sense.  To understand this, the true definition of organic must be understood which is a living plant that has been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  So sure, the USDA has it's own specific definition, but a plant that grows wild in the middle of a forest or on top of a mountain that has never been touched with anything other than sun and rain, would indeed be an organic plant/ingredient, it just doesn't have a paper trail to prove it.  And there are several brands that when we first wrote about them did not have USDA organic certification, but now they do.  Were their products any less organic before they had the USDA organic seal?  No.

What this all comes down to is trust between consumers and brands and claims that brands put on their label.  The thirty party certification seal is there for the purpose of substantiating claims. I know there are many great brands that don't have the cert, but create great organic personal care products.  I totally understand feeling better about using products that have a cert and I certainly put value and assurance into a product that has it. 

Now, this is different than claiming a product is "certified organic" or "USDA organic" vs. claiming a product is "organic" or "made with organic ingredients". These are different things entirely and we've explained how to understand how the USDA defines "organic" in this post last year.

There are two brands we awarded "Best All Around Line" in our Best In Natural Beauty Awards, yet one has USDA Organic Certification (Intelligent Nutrients) on their skin care products and the other does not (Dr. Alkaitis).  Both lines are high quality, results-producing and truly our favorites.  Both have "organic" on their label and use organic ingredients.  We love them both though they have differing opinions on the subject of USDA Organic Certification as indicated below:

"The cosmetic market is interesting because the FDA has trusted the cosmetic and household-care markets to self-regulate. The word organic is not governed in these industries. The word organic belongs to the USDA, and they are the ones who can give an organic certification to food. We had to go get our seal for our products from the USDA."

"The word 'organic' is meaningless. It has no meaning in cosmetics." That's why certification is key. It cuts through the confusion most people associate with trying to buy organic products. Intelligent Nutrients products are certified organic by the USDA and UK Soil Association, two of the strictest certification agencies found globally."

-Horst Rechelbacher, Intelligent Nutrients

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"I use organic ingredients that have been certified organic as food.

Recently topical products have begun to be certified organic. This organic certification is much looser than that for food and allows a multitude of synthetics and other chemicals that one could not add to food. And that certification for topical products is being constantly diluted in response to industry's (the large manufacturers) demands. The assumption justifying these requests is that any effects from topical application are orders of magnitude less or non-existent than those from internal consumption. The underlying rationale for that assumption being that what one puts onto their skin does not actually go into one's body. That is not correct but that is the rationale used. Another way of saying it is that one has a lot more flexibility with how a product is formulated for topical application than one that is formulated for internal consumption - so it is basically unreasonable to certify topical products using the same guidelines as those used for food (internal consumption). I don't play this game and stick to the stricter food guidelines. If and when this whole business straightens out and the certification standards for topical application come up to those for internal consumption, at that point it would make sense to certify my products. As it stands, the current certification would just hurt my brand."

-Dr. Saul Alkaitis, Dr. Alkaitis Skin Food

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