Organic Standards - Food & Skin Care/Cosmetics

by Karen Kerk March 08, 2013

Organic Standards - Food & Skin Care/Cosmetics

"What IS natural? What IS organic?”

Recently, CBC’s Marketplace aired a show on “Lousy Labels” which exposed the completely unregulated cosmetic labeling system in Canada. It sparked lots of questions from customers and the general public. We felt it was time to try and set the record straight on all this hullaballoo and share what we know about “natural” and “organic” food and personal care products. Grab a bevie – this is a long post!

Let’s start with food…

Organic Food Standards

There are 2 distinct organic standards in North America: The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (USDA’s NOP) and Canada’s Canadian Organic Standards (COS).

In both Canada and the US there are extensive regulations that define what is ‘organic’, what is allowed in organic growing, harvesting, processing, storing and selling products to consumers. There are also strict regulations on labeling food products as ‘organic’.

There are 4 US standards of ‘organic’:

  • ‘100% Organic’ – can use UDA NOP green and white seal
  • ‘Organic’ (95% or more of the ingredients are certified organic) – can use the USDA NOP seal
  • “Organic Ingredients’ (at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic) – cannot use seal
  • Less than 70% Organic (organic ingredients denoted in the ingredient listing only)

In Canada, there are only 3 standards:

  • ‘Organic’ where 95% or more organic content – can bear the Canada Organic Logo
  • products with 70-95% organic ingredients can claim ‘X% organic products/ingredients’ but cannot use the logo
  • products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify the ingredients on the ingredient list, but cannot use the logo or make the “organic” claim

It is against the law to label or represent a food product as organic if it is not certified organic. This applies whether the claim is made on a product’s label at the grocery store or a sign at your farmer’s market. Look for the certifying body’s logo to verify that it is certified organic. You can file a complaint if you feel a food product is making false organic claims.

So, the standards are pretty clear when it comes to food. How can you be sure that the food product you are buying is really organic?

  1. Look for the seal (Canada Organic Logo, USDA NOP, Pro-cert, Ecocert, etc. )
  2. Determine how organic it is – 100%? 95% More than 70%? Only one organic ingredient?
  3. Look for the organic certification body. This product certified by XXXX.

If you can confidently answer the 3 questions above, chances are you have a truly organic product.

BUT!!! Also remember that some truly organic products just aren’t certified (due to cost, availability, etc.) or they don’t believe the organic ‘hype’. If in doubt, ask questions. I proudly support many local food producers that use organic methods, but haven't been certified. The producer should be able to confidently answer all questions and you can ultimately make the decision to purchase or not. It does seem backwards that growers can spray seeds, crops and final products with no certification, but in order to grow something naturally, they need to pay big bucks and file tonnes of paperwork to get certified. Totally backwards.

And now to try and explain organic standards as they pertain to skin care/cosmetics. 

Organic Skin Care – USA

(Note: In this section, personal care products/cosmetics/skin care products are being used interchangeably to describe personal cleaning and beauty products such as soaps, moisturizers, creams, balms, make up, etc.)

Under the USDA NOP, if a cosmetic product is made with agricultural ingredients that are certified organic, and all handlers, processors, storage, etc. is certified organic, then that product can be certified organic as a food product. So, according to the USDA, if a cosmetic does not meet strict certification guidelines, it is not allowed to convey, imply, or state that the product is certified organic. Clear so far.

BUT, the USDA has no authority over the production and labeling of cosmetics, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does.

The FDA governs the labeling and selling of cosmetic products. It is against FDA regulations to put “false or misleading” information on cosmetic labels. There are a number of harsh sounding consequences for misleading product labels, but at the end of the day, manufacturers are still able to voluntarily register their products (ingredients and labels) with the FDA.

So how much power can the FDA actually have over misleading product labels? Very little.

This glaring gap in the regulations has been noticed by many consumer groups in the US. An organic body care standard regulation is being moved forward and may be enacted into law soon. It will more clearly define labeling, organic claims, personal product care certification, etc. Stay tuned!

Canadian Standards

In Canada, the Canadian Organic Standards do NOT cover personal care products/cosmetics. Cosmetic labeling is governed by Health Canada and currently there are NO guidelines or rules about calling products “natural”, “organic”, etc. (see CBC Marketplace Lousy Labels episode) So, you should not be able to buy certified organic skin care products with the Canada Organic Standards logo on them (unless they are certified by the USDA NOPprogram above, as food).

HOWEVER, a number of Canadian cosmetic companies (many of our competitors, actually) do have organic certification by EcoCert. EcoCert is based in France and they have a specific cosmetic standard under which they can certify cosmetic products, including Canadian brands. Products can be certified into 2 categories:

  • Ecocert Organic Cosmetic: contains a minimum of 95% plant based ingredients, and a minimum of 10% of ingredients, by weight, must come from organic farming*.
  • Ecocert Natural Cosmetic: contains a minimum of 50% plant based ingredients, and a minimum of 5% of ingredients, by weight, must come from organic farming*.

(*ingredients like water and salt cannot be included as they are not from farming).

There are also private companies in Canada that provide "organic certification" for skin care products, but they are not supported by or regulated by Health Canada or any other Canadian regulatory agency. 

So, what’s a consumer to do??

You should be looking for:

  1. Organic certification from an international body (USDA NOP, Ecocert);
  2. PLUS, more importantly, you need to determine how “natural” or “organic” the product is;
  3. PLUS you should be reading ingredient labels to see if the organic and non-organic ingredients are safe to use.

BUT, as with food, also know that a number of high quality, organic-containing skin care products do not bear the EcoCert or USDA NOP label. As with food products, not all producers can cover the yearly costs of certification, some don’t believe the ‘hype’ and many are waiting for clearer, cosmetic-specific regulations before getting involved. Read more about our impressions of “organics” below.

Bare Organics’ Approach to Organic

Our understanding and support of organic products has grown and evolved over the years. When we first began mixing formulas in our kitchen, we learned a lot about cheap imitation “natural” ingredients and felt that certified organic products were a better guarantee of high quality, truly organic ingredients. For the most part, we still feel this way, but our concept of what is natural, safe and good for the environment have evolved since that time.

While we still have a strong preference for certified organic, we also recognize that certification is a significant and yearly cost for farmers and producers, so we will choose high quality, naturally grown/processed non-organic products in some cases. Case in point, we are switching from certified organic shea butter to a naturally grown unrefined shea butter because of several reasons:

-we know this supplier is ethical, treats workers fairly, and pays them a fair wage

-that the product is grown and harvested without the use of harmful chemicals

-that it is a superior quality product

In this case, we feel the benefits of a natural, fair-trade friendly and high quality product outweigh the organic certification of a lower quality (in our opinion) product.

We also feel that the cost considerations for small, family-run businesses can be considerable. Certification quotes average about $3,000 PER YEAR (for a small scale production), a cost which surely must be passed along to consumers.

And, while the regulations and requirements are still fairly loose for cosmetics, we’d like to take a more active approach in shaping the future direction of organic skin care products so that the regulations are clear, that they make sense for cosmetics, and that they have some “teeth” with legislation. Once we feel the certifications are truly meaningful for cosmetic products, we will gladly support certification.

Overall, while we are refining our product offerings and reviewing all of our ingredients and their sources, we are trying to make ethical buying decisions that account for sustainable growing methods, reduced transportation miles, and fair treatment and compensation for workers. It’s no easy feat! So, while we feel ‘organic’ is an ideal that all agriculture should strive towards, we shouldn’t lose sight of other equally important environmental and human considerations along the way.

Final Consumer Recommendations

We hope this post provided valuable information on the ‘organic’ landscape in North America. We also hope it will inspire you to do more of your own research. We like to leave you with this advice for how to make the best buying decisions for organic food and personal care products:

  1. READ LABELS – familiarize yourself with organic certification logos, certifying bodies, standards and terminology. Learn to understand cosmetic ingredient listings (INCI language).
  2. ASK QUESTIONS – if in doubt, call the manufacturer, check their website, get clarity. If they are unclear, you should take your spending dollars elsewhere.
  3. THINK! Just because something has a certification seal doesn’t mean it is totally safe. You also have to read the labels and consider other important ethical considerations. Are those imported organic carrots a better buy than locally grown, unorganic carrots? You may say “yes”, I’d probably say “no”. Figure out what’s important for you and your family.
  4. BUYER BEWARE – all final decisions are up to you. Do not expect the USDA or Canada Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada or the FDA to make your decisions for you. They cannot possibly regulate and monitor every single product on the market. DO not be lazy in your decision making.

And remember, every dollar you spend is like a “vote” for the world you want.

Vote wisely.

~ Mama Bare


Karen Kerk
Karen Kerk

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