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The above quote comes from a book titled 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics, by Arthur Kallet and F.J. Schlink. Published in 1933 and based on extensive medical research, it ran through 34 printings by 1939 and unwittingly became a catalyst for the organic movement we know today.
Indeed, it seems more than a coincidence that organic production began in earnest in the 1940s, growing from experimental garden plots to farms with surplus products to sell under the "organic" label. This growth drove the need for verification that products are produced according to certain standards. By the 1980s, the organic industry petitioned Congress to draft the Organic Foods Production Act—which it passed in 1990—defining "organic," and by 2002 the National Organic Program was in effect, in which the USDA put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet.
Organic-oriented consumers were ecstatic: Suddenly, stores were carrying a wide variety of foods with "organic" labeling, and they could be sure that what they were putting into their bodies was pure and wholesome. However, just a few aisles away in the HBC section, soaps, shampoos, and lotions also marketed as organic are packed with chemicals and water—lots of water—which, according to the standards of the National Organic Program, can't even be counted as an organic component.
Diana Kaye, co-owner of Middletown, Md.-based personal care product manufacturer Terressentials, studies the patents of HBC manufacturers' products to see what's going on behind the scenes. "These companies won't reveal how they make their products, so we review documents from the patent office," she says. "For a lot of these products made by major manufacturers and marketed as organic or natural, they heat oil and add pressure—sometimes 1,800 pounds per square inch—to crack the molecule and make it into a synthetic compound. That's more than 80 times the pressure inside a pressure cooker. When people think of organic products, they're thinking of something that can be made at home. You definitely can't do that at home. Yet they're able to label their products as organic and the consumers don't know any better, since there are no standards."
And there's nothing that can be done about it at the moment.
To date, there are no organic standards for personal care products. In the National Organic Program Applicability Preamble, the USDA writes: "Producers and handlers of agricultural products used as ingredients in cosmetics, body care products, and dietary supplements could be certified under these regulations. Producers and handlers might find an increased market value for their products because of the additional assurance afforded by certification. The ultimate labeling of cosmetics, body care products, and dietary supplements, however, is outside the scope of these regulations."
Therein lies the problem. Since there are no standards to define the term "organic" for personal care products the way standards exist for food, suppliers are all over the map regarding definition: "Very clearly, you have conflicting pressures," says Larry Pleasant, president and founder of Vermont Soapworks in Middlebury, Vt. "On the one hand, there's tremendous pressure to have the actual meaning of the word to have as broad a definition as possible, so that large manufacturers can make only minimal changes to what they're doing. On the other hand, you have companies that want the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the pack."
The reason Pleasant says it's important to have a narrow definition is because consumers have certain expectations of what the term means. "They expect it to be chemical- and synthetic-free," he says. "They expect it to mean that the ingredients were farmed in a sustainable manner. There's also the expectation that the product is a safe, wholesome, natural product that's good for them. But knowing that the word 'natural' sells product almost as well as sex does, and knowing from experience that products labeled 'organic' sell better than those labeled 'natural,' there's a big race on to control the word. If you control the word, you control the marketplace."
Tim Kapsner, senior research scientist for Aveda and a member of the Organic Trade Association's (OTA) Personal Care Task Force, likens what's happening in the personal care products realm to the Wild West, when it comes to organics. "People are just going out there and staking their claim, saying they're organic because they can. Some of these companies aren't even interested in the standards—you don't see Procter & Gamble beating down the door to be on the committee." (Procter & Gamble declined to comment on this issue.)
What's interesting about Aveda is that it's owned by Estée Lauder, a large cosmetics manufacturer that doesn't make natural products. "They're not in the same business—they have department store distribution and reach a different consumer than Aveda does. But they don't make any claims to be natural, either."
Not that companies haven't taken any steps toward making natural, wholesome products. Some companies, in fact, aren't waiting for personal care product standards and are manufacturing their products according to the food standards. "The USDA had developed pretty good standards for food, and those standards are also good for body care products," Terressentials' Kaye says. "For example, our moisturizing body oil is composed of ingredients that are all certified organic. You just blend them together and pour."
Water, water everywhere
One thing that's difficult about creating standards for personal care products, according to Kapsner, is the fact that many of these products are made mostly from water, and water is not included in the organic equation. "The USDA is interested in creating standards to work this out, which is why we put together the task force," he says. "But it won't be easy. There are certain ingredients that are tough to avoid when it comes to these products, and we have to address that."
But some manufacturers have tried to work around this problem by using hydrosols (water that has been used to extract essential oils) in their products, and this has been the center of one of the hottest debates on the subject of organic standards.
Under the food guidelines, products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients. Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Products under both of these categories may display the USDA Organic seal.
Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients," but can't use the seal. Products consisting of less than 70 percent organic ingredients can't use the term "organic," other than to identify in the ingredients statement the specific ingredients that are organically produced. Food manufacturers can't count water toward these standards.
Since water is the primary ingredient in many cosmetics, some of these manufacturers are using hydrosols, or floral water, in their products and claiming that the hydrosols are organic.
According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), the added water from steam in hydrosols is substantial and unregulated, and may constitute 90 percent of floral water by weight. The association says that body care companies that purchase floral waters for addition to their synthetic body care products are doing so to deceptively increase the organic ingredient percentage, while they're actually diluting the product with water.
So, a product may be 75 percent hydrosols and 25 percent chemically manufactured ingredients, and some companies will still refer to it as made with organic ingredients.
California was the first state to pass its own guidelines for organic personal care products under the California Organic Products Act of 2003. While the OTA supports the act, there has already been controversy regarding the hydrosols issue, as some manufacturers believe the act allows hydrosols to be counted as organic material.
In a letter to assembly member Barbara Matthews of California's 17th Assembly District, David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, criticized the California regulations relating to organic body care products as being weak. "They have no criteria for core ingredients and stipulate only that 70 percent of ingredient content by nonwater and nonsalt weight be organic," he wrote. "The latter in itself would be quite rigorous, except that companies are exploiting a perceived loophole and touting compliance with these regulations by simply adding flower waters [hydrosols] composed mostly of ordinary distilled water from steam to otherwise conventional formulations and counting such distilled water as organic.
"However, insofar as the problem with flower waters can be rectified under the existing SOP [California State Organic Program] for body care, then the SOP program represents a significant step in the right direction in regulating organic label claims on body care products, such that consumers are not completely defrauded. Consumers have a high degree of trust in the term 'organic' and do not want to see it rendered as meaningless as 'natural' in the marketplace."
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps was not reappointed as a member company of the OTA's Personal Care Task Force, according to the OCA, and will therefore be locked out of discussions regarding standards this fall.
Vermont Soapworks' Pleasant agrees with Bronner, saying that the use of hydrosols is merely so manufacturers can use the term "organic" without really putting in the work—and expense—of procuring truly organic materials. "Instead of placing an order for organically certified oils from Brazil, waiting two months for them to arrive, paying way too much for them, and then making my liquid soap from these organic oils, I can take my plain old natural coconut and olive oils and substitute hydrosols, save myself a bunch of money, and still say that I'm making organic soap. But this shows an amazing lack of integrity across the board. The whole purpose of labeling something is so that it's held to a higher standard." Vermont Soapworks was removed from the California Advisory Group to the SOP.
Terressentials co-founder James Hahn says these actions are an attempt to intimidate those who speak out against the corruption of organic standards, but his company has decided to stay on the OTA's personal care task force despite reservations about the group's efforts to institute lesser organic standards for primarily synthetic body care products. However, opposing voices have not gone unheard.
In June, the SOP and the California Department of Health Services launched an official investigation into misleading organic claims on more than 30 body care products manufactured by Avalon Natural Products. The investigation is in response to a formal complaint launched by the OCA, stating that Avalon is abusing the fact that hydrosols are considered organic under the California guidelines. "What Avalon is doing damages consumer trust in products labeled 'organic,'" says OCA executive director Ronnie Cummings. "It sends the signal to other cosmetic companies that they can use synthetic surfactants and preservatives in part or wholly derived from petroleum in products claiming organic status."
A bill passed by the California Assembly and under consideration by the California Senate may eliminate the hydrosols problem entirely by removing cosmetic products from regulation by the California Organic Products Act of 2003. However, it would put personal care products back to square one as completely unregulated in the state. "Eliminating these provisions from the California regulations would be a step backward and against the best interest of consumers and the entire organic community," says OTA executive director Katherine DiMatteo.
The resolution of the hydrosol issue seems to be the key factor that must be addressed for organic standards for personal care products to move forward.
In the end, it's the consumer who will decide on the fate of standards for personal care products, and the best thing a retailer can do is recommend to its health-minded consumers to ignore marketing claims and pay attention to the ingredients when it comes to personal care products. "Getting the consumer involved is extremely important," says LaRhea Pepper, president of Organic Essentials, a manufacturer of organic cotton personal care products—and a member of the OTA. "We need more grassroots consumer education campaigns on a store-by-store basis. By getting them involved, we'll be able to better determine standards for these products. Regardless of whether you're a manufacturer or retailer, consumers make the ultimate decision."