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How to Tell if a Personal Care Product is Really Organic (and Why it Matters)

How to Tell if a Personal Care Product is Really Organic and Why it Matters
How to Tell if a Personal Care Product is Really Organic (and Why it Matters)

If you're like us, organic personal care is a priority. It's not the end of the world if we can't use it in some instances, but we think it's pretty dang important to slather our babies and pregnant/breastfeeding bodies with truly safe, certified organic products since a large percentage of ingredients will be absorbed right into the bloodstream (you know, like those medicated patches and creams your doctor prescribes?).

We've been researching safe products for the last 10 years, but would you believe that every once in awhile, we still get tripped up by products that aren't really organic? It happened just the other day and that's what prompted this whole article.

The great thing is that identifying truly certified organic products doesn't have to be terribly time-consuming or difficult. Stick with us and we'll show you exactly how to do it quickly and we'll also explain why it even matters.

Why is Organic Certification Important?

Organic certification offers the peace of mind of knowing that the ingredients are grown without toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or GMOs. It also holds manufacturers accountable by verifying that what's *on* the label matches what's actually *in* the product.

It's same situation with the food industry. Brian Bruno of Apple Ridge Farm told his story of empty organic claims in Modern Farmer:

It seems like with nine out of 10 farmers who allude to the fact that they’re organic it’s like, “well….except we don’t buy organic seed because it’s expensive.” Most of the farmers at the markets that I go to say “we don’t spray.” But they might tell you in a conversation later—”only if we have to… just last year we sprayed because there was late blight on our tomatoes.” They claim to be organic until they’re going to lose their crop. They might only use a pesticide or herbicide or fungicide once or twice a season, but it’s not fair to the people are actually doing it legit organically. So I struggle with it all the time.

Part of me says it sucks that it is so hard to get certified organic, but I see all these people cheating and being dishonest and I think you need somebody to police that. Otherwise the consumers just get ripped off constantly.

Speaking of difficult — the organic certification process is no joke. These companies are investing massive amounts of time and money into having all of their claims and ingredient lists verified. They're letting a third party dig through their underwear drawer so that you and I can rest assured they didn't swap out the organic vanilla for cheaper, non-organic vanilla when most of the crops in Madagascar were destroyed and the price quadrupled overnight…

Why False Organic Claims Are a Problem

Let's be honest: you can write anything you want on the label when no one's looking over your shoulder.

When manufacturers make organic claims without going through the certification process, it's the same as grading your own test with a red pen you found in the kitchen drawer. Unless the teacher double checks your work, it's just a big NOTHINGBURGER.

The Campaign for Clarity underlined the incredible difference a slick “organic” marketing campaign can make in consumer perception. They performed independent market research in April of this year where they spoke to 1000 women across between the ages of 18-65 about beauty products. They showed consumers the labels of five of the products which had “organic” featured in various levels of prominence, all with a slight change to the brand name. Significant proportions of people picked up on organic as a notable feature unprompted.

People said they think the term “organic” conveys multiple positive benefits, particularly that it is better for their health and the environment.

  • When the possibility that the products are not certified organic and could not meet organic standards was raised, the response was unequivocal: 76% of consumers strongly agreed or agreed that they would feel misled.
  • 74% of people said that by choosing a product which says organic on the label, they’d feel like they were using a product free from nasties.
  • 72% of people said they’d lose trust in the brand when they found out the product could not meet organic standards.
  • Most people (69%) thought it should be against the law to make organic claims on products which are not certified.

That's why it matters.

PAUSE: Just to be clear — we personally use natural products that aren't certified organic too. It's not our top choice, but it's next best. And we really have no issue with manufacturers who don't have their products certified organic, so long as they're not making false organic claims either. This whole situation is a matter of integrity. And you'll see that we've recommend many products over the years that aren't certified organic but have better-for-you ingredients (like shampoo).

What's the Difference Between the USDA and NSF/ANSI 305 Organic Programs?

The differences are pretty complicated, so we're borrowing these super helpful descriptions from Earth Mama®.

How to Tell if a Personal Care Product is Really Organic and Why it MattersThe USDA organic certification was created for simple unprocessed agricultural ingredients; however, personal care products are eligible to be certified by the USDA Organic program if the product meets the same stringent food grade standards. There are three levels:

  1. USDA Certified 100% Organic: these products are allowed to use the USDA Organic Seal and the words “100% Organic” on the front label as the legal organic claim
  2. Organic: If a product is USDA Certified Organic, 95-99.9% of the ingredients are certified organic. The product can legally use the word “Organic” and the USDA Organic Seal on the front label
  3. Made with Organic: USDA Certified “Made with Organic” assures that 70-94.9% of the ingredients are certified organic. The word organic can be used in the claim “Made with Organic (insert up to three specified organic ingredients or groups)” but the USDA symbol is not allowed on the front panel

The NSF/ANSI 305 program was designed for products like lotions that contain non-food ingredients and require different manufacturing processes. The USDA’s NOP food standard does not allow for some of the raw materials necessary to make personal care products, so an appropriate standard was created.

  • To be certified to the NSF/ANSI 305 standard, personal care products must contain 70% or more certified organic ingredients, and the remaining 30% of ingredients must be on the NSF allowed list
  • The organic claim is “Contains organic (insert ingredient)”
  • Products must be reviewed by an accredited independent third party certifier
  • The word “organic” cannot be used on the product label, including in the brand name/logo (we see companies get ignoring this rule all the time!)

How to Tell if a Product is Really Organic

How to Tell if a Personal Care Product is Really Organic and Why it Matters

Clean, natural, and non-toxic claims are not regulated. But organic is.

How to Spot Improper Uses of the Term “Organic”

  1. When a product uses “organic” in the brand name without a certifying agency listed on the label
  2. When a product uses phrases like “made with 100% certified organic ingredients” on the label without a certifying agency listed
  3. When a product is certified to the “Made with Organic” USDA standard OR to the “Contains Organic” NSF/ANSI 305 standard, the word “organic” can NOT be placed on the front label – even in the brand name/logo (it must be certified at either the 95% or 100% USDA standard in order to be able to use “organic” on the front label)

Be sure to look for the certifying agency's info on the back of the product and learn more about the rules on the USDA website.

NOTE: There have been reports of fraudulent use of the USDA organic seal lately too, so if something seems squidgy, take a minute to search the for the manufacturer in the USDA Organic Integrity Database. For example you'll find Bubble and Bee Organic listed there (one of our favorite, trustworthy skin care companies). You can also search for products certified by QAI, as well as those certified by Oregon Tilth.

TIP: You can – and should – report a suspected violation of the USDA organic regulations right here.

Examples of Improper, Misleading Organic Claims

There are SO many companies doing this, so we chose just a few to illustrate the point.

Puracy Organic Baby Lotion

This brand actually uses phenoxyethanol, which they call a “Biodegradable Preservative” to make it sound harmless. It's rated a 4 in EWG's skindeep database, so we always recommend avoiding it in skin care products.

Wash with Water Organics

The ingredient panel isn't even trying to be organic, even though it seems to be fairly clean. And yet they're using an organic claim along with the buzzword “organics” in their brand name…

BareBaby Organics Baby Lotion

This product's ingredient panel looks really good, it's just not verified to actually be 100% organic as they claim.

What About all those New Certifications that Guarantee a Product is Safe?

After years of experience researching the daylights out of massive, ever-changing ingredient lists, we've come to believe that certifications like Made Safe and EWG Verified that attempt to verify a product's safety by using a list of DON'T ingredients just don't provide a complete solution. While we applaud their effort, as well as the educational campaigns they provide to help parents avoid toxic chemicals, we just don't see how in the world they could possibly keep up with thousands of new untested and unregulated chemicals brought to market each year.

Organic certification, on the other hand, is built on a list of DO ingredients that have a documented safety record. Plus all labels and claims are reviewed and approved by the certifying body so we consumers don't have to worry about deceptive marketing shenanigans. The simpler, the better.

Certified Organic Makes Life Easier for Busy Moms

If you're like us and would give anything to finally be able to shop without a magnifying glass and a chemistry degree, then certified organic is for you.

The great news is that Gen Z is coming up to bat next, and according to Larissa Jensen, NPD Group’s beauty industry analyst:

Their purchase priority in beauty is that the product is formulated with pure and natural ingredients. The fact that this is the most important thing to them means things are going to have to change.

Let me tell you, we're excited for that change to finally happen!

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