Debunking the myth behind organic beauty

Beth Brand investigates the rising trend of ‘organic’ beauty and asks if we should be more sceptical

Following the recent ‘clean eating’ trend, consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of not only what they put into their body, but also what products they put on it. Driven by rumours of health risks associated with some synthetic ingredients, as well as the perceived benefit to the environment, more and more women are switching to using natural products. ‘Organic’ beauty collections are cropping up everywhere, with packaging boldly boasting about their ‘natural’ ingredients; but what do these claims really mean and are they justified? While the word ‘organic’ suggests a product’s ingredients are good for both the consumer and the environment, on further inspection this is not necessarily the case.

‘Clean beauty’ in its most basic sense should be used to refer to products free from any dyes, perfumes, parabens, petrochemicals or phthalates. However, unlike the food industry, there is currently no legal standard in place for organic beauty. This lack of regulation means that in practice, companies can legally write ‘made with organic ingredients’ on product labels even if as little as one per cent is truly organic. With the £61.2 million UK organic health and beauty market growing, and sales up 20 per cent in 2016 alone, it seems that some firms think it is worth being economical with the truth when they have so much profit to potentially cash in on.

The Soil Association, the UK’s largest organic certification body, has recently launched their ‘#ComeCleanAboutBeauty Campaign’, accusing many major brands of misleading consumers with confusing labelling, and urging them to use the terms ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ either responsibly or not at all. Last Monday they published a league table revealing a cross-section of companies, including Boots and Faith in Nature, who they controversially claim are ‘greenwashing’ and using the label ‘organic’ simply to sell more products at a premium price. Even Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s range Goop, which on its website claims to ‘nurture your skin with powerful organic ingredients’, features some products that contain petrochemical derivatives. Goop’s £108 replenishing night cream contains retinyl palmitate, which is listed by the Soil Association as one of its ten most hated ingredients.

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How, then, can we ever be certain that what we’re buying is really free of unwanted chemicals? There are several useful apps on the market, like ‘Cosmetic Ingredients Maze’ or ‘Think Dirty’, that allow you to enter ingredients of a product or scan its bar code to discover what’s actually safe. The easiest thing to do though, is to look for the brands that have had their products officially certified as organic, such as Neal’s Yard, whose eco-friendly motto is ‘if in doubt, leave it out’. While the standards and requirements differ for each country, with debate raging over what constitutes ‘natural’, there are various trustworthy international certifying bodies.

In Europe, the Soil Association, BDIH, Cosmebio, Ecocert, and ICEA have teamed up to form an internationally recognised cosmetic organic standard known as COSMOS to ensure that beauty products meet the standards they claim to. Founded in 2010, the logo isn’t widely seen at the moment, but is likely to become more visible in coming years and is something to look out for. For a product to be approved as ‘organic’ by COSMOS at least 95 per cent of all its ingredients must be verifiably organic. We must also question however, our assumption that ‘natural’ ingredients are always safer and gentler than their man-made and chemically identical counterparts.

While it is true that some synthetic ingredients may cause irritation to sensitive skin, there have been no rigorous large-scale clinical trials to definitively prove that any of these chemicals represent a serious risk to consumers or are harmful. In fact, certain essential oils, like lavender and tea tree, can cause skin reactions and allergies; and citrus oils are among those that sensitise skin to sun damage. Natural products also have a much shorter shelf life, as they are harder to preserve against microbial contamination and growth. Even Liz Earle, known for her ‘natural’ skincare range, incorporates synthetics in her formulae.

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She justifies this use of preservatives on the grounds that not everything natural is good, giving the example that “cyanide and arsenic are natural and are poisonous, of course”. The ‘clean beauty’ label is wrought with problems, and so any products claiming to be ‘organic’ demand a greater degree of cynicism and research. Despite its appealing ideology, ‘organic’ has become a term hijacked as a marketing tool. It has come to define a woolly category and brands need to provide further definition and transparency