By Shannon R,SELF magazine
Most of us are striving to live a healthier lifestyle. Whether that means eating healthy, exercising more, buying organic or reducing your carbon footprint we all want to feel like we are doing the best we can to take care of ourselves and the people we love. In recent years, the beauty industry has joined the wellness trend by selling products with terms like "organic," "natural" and even "chemical-free". The question is, what do these terms really mean?
What does organic mean?
It really depends on who you ask. If you ask a chemist, the answer is clear. Organic means any chemical compound that contains carbon. In fact, to get a college chemistry degree you take a year of Organic Chemistry where you memorize endless chemical reactions between hydrocarbons, oxygen, nitrogen and more.
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In the food industry, organic products are regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) which is run by the USDA. Only producers and manufacturers that meet the standards set up by the NOP may label their products as certified organic. I won't go into the details of the program but they include things like promoting biodiversity and limiting the use of synthetic pesticides. If you want more details check out the USDA website. The main point is that organics are regulated in the food industry.
In the beauty industry, there is no industry-agreed meaning for terms like 'organic' or 'natural'. Unlike the food industry, these terms are not regulated for cosmetics which means companies can use these terms pretty freely.
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Are there any standard definitions in the beauty industry?
Unfortunately, not yet. This makes it hard for people to decipher what all this means and if there really are any benefits to natural or organic beauty products.
Some companies argue that if an ingredient comes from a natural source then it's natural. They conveniently overlook the fact that they chemically modify it to make it work the way they want it.
Also, products like shampoo, conditioner and body wash are mostly made of water so therefore are mostly natural (because water is natural, right?). So if a shampoo is 90% water, then a company can simply claim "90% organic or natural" and be telling the truth. Certainly, this isn't in the spirit of what people believe organic to mean, but it is within the law.
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Is there progress being made towards strictly regulation?
Yes, there are some companies campaigning to get tighter regulations on cosmetics that use terms such as "natural" or "organic". However, this process is not as simple as sounds. There are a few companies (very few) that uphold their own stricter definitions of what natural and organic means (following in the footsteps of food). If buying organic is a priority for you then you will have to take your own initiative and look at labels and visit websites to understand what companies really mean when using terms like organic and natural. There are a few beauty products that are USDA Certified which means they contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Look for the USDA Certified label right on the package.
Are organic beauty products better?
Currently, natural or organic cosmetic products don't really provide any added benefit for consumers. For the few companies who strive to actually make 'organic' or 'all-natural' products, their finished products are mostly functionally inferior to more mainstream products. This is the real trade-off of natural or organic products. That and a much higher cost for an often inferior product. However, this trade-off may be worth it for some people. And, as the demand for these types of products continue to grow there should be improvements in performance and a drop in cost.
The 'natural' and 'organic' area in the beauty industry is a hot topic and a consistent source of debate. Beauty products that are currently available are safe and work well and are mostly available at an affordable price. However, for the person that is truly looking for more organic or all natural products there will be some trade-off as to how well the product works and of course there will be a price to pay. Hopefully, there will be more standardization in the industry soon, which will make it easier for all of us to understand what these terms mean and make companies more accountable for what they say.