Sunday, May 2, 2010

Green vs Greenwashed Personal Care Labels

I never cease to be amazed at the prevalence of the word "organic" in the brand names of many personal care products, some of which not only contain not a single certified organic ingredient, but several toxic synthetic chemicals, such as paraben preservatives, and phthalates in synthetic fragrance!

As for "natural," don't even get me started. I will restrain myself to repeating that "natural" is an undefined and unregulated claim in the cosmetic marketplace.

What labels are meaningful? Quite a few. See the Choose It/ Lose It list below.


The Certified USDA Organic seal on a personal care product means that the whole thing is certified organic, meaning it must contain, at minimum, 95% certified organic ingredients. This is still a rarity, but some companies such as Organic Essentials and Origins Organics do make USDA certified products.

Australian Certified Organic uses stringent standards on a par with USDA's; it is accredited by the reputable International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

The Soil Association: An EU seal from the respected UK organic farming research institute, it's not quite as stringent as USDA Organic, allowing more synthetics, but is pretty pristine all around.

BDIH (Association of German Industries and Trading Firms) is an EU seal barring all petroleum-based ingredients. Very strict, the best, really, except for not requiring certified organic plant extracts.

Natural Products Association's (NPA) seal strictly limits chemical processing and additives, but is not as strict as BDIH. No organic requirement. Bars many specific toxic or irritating ingredients, including phthalates, parabens, and sodium laureth and lauryl sulfate.

NSF/ANSI (National Sanitation Foundation International/American Natural Standards Institute) requires the product to be 70 percent organic (per QAI standards) and strictly minimizes synthetics.

Made With USDA Certified Organic: As with food, the product must contain a minimum 70 percent certified organic ingredients, and no synthetic preservatives. All major cleansing and moisturizing ingredients must be made from organic, not conventional or petroleum-based, substances. However, there's a loophole that doesn't regulate the processing, which can create synthetic byproducts such as 1, 4 dioxane.

Contains USDA or Quality Assurance International (QAI) Certified Organic Plant Oils/Extracts": The whole product is not certified organic, but look on the ingredients list and see how many of the plant essences are certified organic. QAI is an international third party certifier that works with USDA. Chances are you're getting a pretty good green deal.

ECOCERT is a respected European mark still rare in this country. It requires at least some percentage of certified organic ingredients, and forbids many synthetics and problematic processing that can create toxic byproducts, but does allow some synthetics, so one should still read ingredients lists.

OASIS (Organic and Sustainble Industry Standards): This EU seal specifies 85 percent organic ingredients, but uses industry, not third-party, certifiers.

CERTIFIED VEGAN: No ingredients taken from animals


The following labels and claims are meaningless.

Chemical Free/ No Chemicals

Contains No Hazardous Ingredients per OSHA Regulations

Earth Smart

Environmentally/Eco Safe

Environmentally Friendly


Organic, when it appears on the label or in the name of a product that is not certified organic nor contains at least 70 percent certified organic plant ingredients.

For more information, including comprehensive shopping lists of Top and Runner Up Green Beauty Brands, see my new book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple Everyday Choices.

For news & updates, check our home page at

See GreenerPenny's specific product and brand recommendations and critiques here.

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