The organic beauty con: Happy to pay over the odds for products that promise they’re pure? Read …

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By Claire Coleman


They are sold at a premium and bought by women who believe — with some justification — their claims that they contain fewer synthetic chemicals and are environmentally friendly.


But, unlike food labelling which is strictly regulated, when it comes to cosmetics, the term ‘organic’ means very little.


In fact, they can be composed of fewer than 1 per cent of organic ingredients. Not only that, they may even contain ingredients that some campaigners believe could be harmful to your health and the environment.


Organic…? Many ‘organic’ beauty products only contain 1 per cent organic ingredients


Thanks to a dearth of regulation, an absence of any legal definition and a series of self-appointed certification bodies each with their own standards, trying to buy organic beauty products is at best confusing and at worst utterly futile.


‘When it comes to beauty products, there is no legal definition of the term “organic”,’ says Emma Reinhold, of the Soil Association, a pro-organic charity.


‘Food is strictly regulated and, in the case of processed foods, can only state it is organic if 95   per cent of the ingredients are organic, i.e. produced under strict conditions.


‘A beauty product, however, can contain 0.01   per cent organic lavender oil and still legally claim to be organic. But most shoppers don’t know this.’


It’s a shocking revelation — especially given the boom in organic beauty products, with UK sales up 17  per cent year on year to £37.2 million.


Four out of five households now buy organic items, with under-35s buying the most


A recent survey revealed that one in three consumers is prepared to pay 25  per cent more for natural or organic versions of their everyday purchases, which makes it a tempting environment for cynical manufacturers keen to make a quick buck.


‘I get really cross when I see brands using the term “organic” as a marketing device just so they can put a higher price on their products,’ says Margo Marrone, of the Organic Pharmacy, a UK beauty brand that insists every ingredient that can be organic is, and eschews artificial colourants, fragrances, petrochemicals and preservatives.


‘Making genuine organic cosmetics is ten times harder than making regular ones. If I can’t source an ingredient organically, I can’t make the product.’


You only have to scan the shelves of your local pharmacy to see how the term ‘organic’ hikes up the price.


Take Boots’ Botanics range — 50ml of its Hydrating Day Cream, which doesn’t carry an organic label, costs £4.99, but 50ml of its Organic Hydrating Day Cream costs £8.99.


For Aveda, body lotions are £23 for 200ml, except for the organic version, which is £27. And Timotei’s Pure Shampoo for Normal to Greasy Hair costs £1.99 for 250ml, while its Organic Delight Health & Shine Shampoo for Normal Hair is £3.49 for 180ml (pictured below). While all of these organic versions contain varying levels of organic ingredients, it’s almost impossible to know whether the premium you’re paying is solely down to the higher cost of those.


To make matters more confusing, several independent certifying boards have sprung up — the Soil Association, Ecocert, CosmeBio, to name but three — all of which have different requirements. This means a ‘certified organic’ stamp from the Soil Association, for example, isn’t the same as one from Ecocert.


For a Soil Association certificate, 95   per cent of the plant-based ingredients must be organic, and all other ingredients have to meet strict criteria. Overall, the product must be at least 20   per cent organic.


While that may sound low, many beauty products are mostly composed of water, which cannot be organic. Shampoo, for example, is 80   per cent water, so if the remaining 20   per cent is organic, that’s about as good as it gets.


While Ecocert and CosmeBio agree on the 95 per cent rule for plant-based ingredients, only 10   per cent of the overall ingredients have to be organic to get their certification.


And they certify individual ingredients as well as products, so you may see their logos on the front of a shampoo bottle and assume it is certified as a whole, when only a couple of components are.
Suddenly, that organic stamp on your beauty cream or shampoo starts to seem pretty worthless.


And, just as worryingly, it doesn’t necessarily provide any reassurance for the 39  per cent of people who buy organic products for health reasons or to protect sensitive skin.


Take the products of beauty brand Creation’s Garden, which are labelled as ‘Organic & Natural’ but contain petroleum-based ingredients — not a bad thing in itself, unless you have a sensitivity or allergy to them, but a little surprising in a product that claims to  be organic and natural.


In a bid to cut through the confusion, five organic certification bodies in Europe have got together to try to thrash out the so-called Cosmetics Organic Standard — COSMOS — in a bid to start a consensus on what constitutes ‘organic’.


But even when an internationally recognised standard is adopted — hopefully towards the end of this year — it will remain voluntary.


In the meantime, beauty firms don’t get off scot-free. If you feel you’ve been duped, you have some redress. ‘Companies have to be able to provide evidence to support the claims they are making,’ says Dr Chris Flower, of the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association.


‘If you think a product is misrepresenting itself, you can complain to Trading Standards or the Advertising Standards Authority, and they can ask the manufacturer to substantiate its claims.’


In 2012, the ASA upheld a complaint against a skincare product for children by Little Me Organics. Although the firm was able to prove it contained organic ingredients that met certain standards, they only made up 5   per cent of the product, which, said the ASA, made it ‘misleading’. The ASA ‘considered consumers would understand the claim “Little Me Organics” to mean it used a high proportion of organic ingredients’. The company has now dropped the word ‘Organics’ and rebranded as Little Me.


Two other beauty brands, Organix and Organic Root Stimulator haircare, have also recently rebranded, as OGX and ORS. But the pace of change is slow. The Boots website still carries the two firms’ products under their old labels, despite the fact some products don’t have any organic ingredients.


A few even contain MI, a preservative thought to be responsible for rising in skin sensitivities.


So what can shoppers who want to buy organic beauty do? The answer is rather time-consuming: scrutinise the labels. Look out for certification from the likes of the Soil Association and COSMOS, and check to see if it’s the ingredients or the product that are certified. If it’s not clear, call the company and ask.


If you feel the labelling is misleading, complain to the ASA or Trading Standards. ‘Opting for organic is a choice,’ says the Soil Association’s Emma Reinhold. ‘If you make that choice, you should get what you think you’re getting.’

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