Admit it: When you buy a product labeled "organic" or "natural" you get a warm, fuzzy feeling -- even if it costs twice as much. Well, it's our job to bring you down to earth: Organic and natural beauty products are often twisted on labels to the point that they're virtually meaningless terms.
Q: Legally, what is "natural" or "organic"? There is no legal definition of "natural" on beauty products. "A product technically can claim to be 'natural' if it has one iota of a natural ingredient in it, even if the rest of the ingredients in it are all chemicals and preservatives," says Joannie McIntyre, beauty writer for Sephora. The product might contain water or a micro-drop of aloe, and a company can put "natural" on the label. Organic claims can be even sketchier. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed standards and labeling rules for products that are marketed as organic, there are plenty of loopholes, and the standards are confusing enough that cosmetic companies can still bend the rules. For example, an ingredient list on a product might say it contains "organic coconut oil," but unless there is an asterisk next to the ingredient, a USDA Organic Seal or the logo of a state government certifying agency on the label, it's extremely difficult to verify if the ingredients meet USDA standards. And, although the USDA set these organic standards, the Food and Drug Administration is the agency responsible for determining whether cosmetics are safe. They don't monitor or regulate the word "organic." Next page: Is the system fair? Q: Is the system fair? Despite efforts to codify organic standards, some cosmetics and beauty product producers complain that USDA standards are too stringent. They also say big conglomerates are the only businesses that can afford the extensive certification process -- effectively shutting out smaller producers whose products are more in sync with the organic philosophy. Others argue that the standards are too loose, allowing for ingredients and farming practices that stretch beyond the spirit of the meaning of what is or isn't organic. For example, companies can manipulate the percentage of organic ingredients in a product by adding more certified organic alcohol and hydrosols (the water left over from the steam distillation process of producing an organic botanical oil, like lavender oil) to the product. "It is, quite literally, a watering down of the meaning of organic," says Craig Minowa, environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Association. Next page: Is "organic" or "natural" safer? Is "organic" or "natural" safer? To date, there is no published independent research proving a product with organic ingredients is more effective than a conventional product. However, most experts, including Minowa, agree there is an eco benefit: An organic ingredient might not make your hair shinier or dark eye circles disappear faster, but it is produced without chemicals or pesticides -- which is good for the environment. "Natural" ingredients aren't necessarily better or good for you either. (Remember: Poison ivy and arsenic are natural, too.) "Companies want you to think products are safer because they contain natural ingredients, but there are many natural ingredients that show up in skincare products that are bad for your skin, such as fragrant extracts of lavender, lemon, lime and eucalyptus," says Paula Begoun, founder of Paula's Choice skin care. "These oils are irritating to the skin, and certain plant extracts are phototoxic, which means your skin is more susceptible to sun damage." Next page: How to spot true organic products How to spot true organic products Although some companies are guilty of misusing the term "organic," it's getting easier to separate the counterfeits and watered-down organics from the real deal. "Look for the USDA Organic Seal on the front of the product label, pure and simple," says Diana Kaye, co-founder of Terressentials, an organic personal care company. "You must be certified by the government to use the logo, and right now our USDA regulations are the highest standards we have for organic labeling on body care products." The certification process is an extra -- although not foolproof -- level of scrutiny that makes it harder for a company to get away with dodgy labeling. However, even within the USDA-accredited certifying agencies, there's a loophole that allows certifiers who are not supported by government funds to certify ingredients by standards other than those outlined by the USDA. "Joe Smith Organic Certifiers of Vermont" may certify an ingredient based on standards set by EcoCert or the Soil Association , two European certification agencies, or any of the countless other international organic certifying agencies approved by the USDA. "It's tricky because people can confuse round certifier logos with the USDA logo, but it's not the same thing," Minowa says. Next page: Organic: What it really means Organic: What it really means The USDA defines three tiers of certified organic products. If the label says "100 percent organic," it must be made entirely with certified organic ingredients. Products with 95 percent certified organic ingredients can be labeled "organic." The phrase "made with organic ingredients" means the product contains a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients. To research the organic standards and definitions for other certifying agencies like EcoCert and Australian Certified Organic (ACO) , see each agency's official Web site. Look for: a USDA Organic Seal or the logo of a USDA-accredited certifying agency. There are currently 55 domestic and 40 foreign certifying agents approved by the USDA, but not all agencies use USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards for certifying products. To date, there are 20 government-funded agencies that are required to use USDA NOP standards. To find them, look for agencies with ".gov" in their e-mail addresses here . Caveat Emptor: Just because the brand name is, say, "Happy Earth Organics" it doesn't mean it contains certified organic ingredients. The USDA's National Organic Program doesn't police the use of the word "organic" on beauty products, and there are enough loopholes in the law that some unscrupulous companies use the word "organic" or "organics" on the label without containing the minimum (or any) certified organic ingredients. The moral of the story? Read ingredient labels. Next page: Products that are 95 to 100 percent organic Products that are 95 to 100 percent organic Trillium Organics We like: Pink Grapefruit Organic Body Polish ( $15.59 ) Terressentials We like: Lavender Garden Pure Earth Hair Wash ( w">$10.75 ) Dr. Bronner's & Sun Dog's We like: Magic Peppermint Organic Lotion ( $9.99 ) Nature's Gate We like: Rainwater Organic Lotion ( $7.99 ) Next page: Products "made with organic ingredients" Trillium Organics Pink Grapefruit Organic Body Polish Products "made with organic ingredients" (70 percent or more) Care by Stella McCartney We like: 5 Benefits Moisturising Cream ( $76 ) Juice Beauty We like: SPF 30 Sheer Moisturizer ( $29 ) Origins We like: Organics Foaming Face Wash ( $25 ) Dr. Bronner's We like: Bar Soap ( $3.99 ) Kiss My Face We like: Obsessively Organic Clean for a Day Creamy Face Cleanser ( $13 ) Next page: Products that contain some organic ingredients Care by Stella McCartney 5 Benefits Moisturising Cream Products that contain some organic ingredients This category is not defined by USDA standards, but there are boatloads of products with some organic ingredients. If you're committed to going organic, check the labels before you buy to make sure you're getting what you pay for. John Masters Organics We like: Honey and Hibiscus Hair Reconstructor ( $28 ) EO (Whole Foods Exclusive Line) We like: All-Purpose Organic Peppermint Soap ( $7.99 ) Huiles and Baumes We like: Alps SOS Balm ( $42 ) Next page: Natural/all natural: What it really means John Masters Organics Honey and Hibiscus Hair Reconstructor Natural/all natural: What it really means Although there is a definition of non-synthetic/natural outlined in the National Organic Program's standards ("a substance that is derived from mineral, plant or animal matter and does not undergo a synthetic process as defined in section 6502(21) of the Act (7 U.S.C. 6502(21)") neither the FDA nor the USDA monitors the term on personal care products. Any product containing a single natural ingredient (even if it's water) can call itself "natural." Look for: Products that don't just include natural ingredients but exclude chemicals and preservatives that may be skin irritants or raise other health safety concerns in cosmetics, like phthalates, parabens, petrochemicals, glycols, synthetic fragrance and color, sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, DEA and TEA, toluene and formaldehyde. BIDH, an association of German companies, has established guidelines and a recognizable logo for "certified natural cosmetics" in Europe. With the help of the Natural Products Association, a small but active group of natural and organic companies in the U.S. (including Burt's Bees, Dr. Bronner's and Aubrey Organics) are trying to develop industry standards for the definition of "natural" in personal care, as well as a recognizable logo. See The Natural Standard for more information. Caveat Emptor: If you have sensitive skin or allergies, even the most "natural" ingredients can rub your skin the wrong way. Read product labels thoroughly and research ingredients at Skin Deep or Paula's Choice Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary . Next page: Products in the true spirit of natural Products in the true spirit of natural Burt's Bees We like: Very Volumizing Pomegranate and Soy Shampoo and Conditioner ( $8 ) Weleda We like: Wild Rose Deodorant Spray ( $15 ) Aubrey Organics We like: Blue Chamomile Hydrating Shampoo ( $9.98 ) and Conditioner ( $12.28 ) Suki We like: SukiColor Pure Cream Stain ( $36.50 ) Laboratories Luzern Organic Cosmeceuticals We like: Serum Vanish Absolut ( $75 , in spas) Jurlique We like: Replenishing Foaming Cleanser ( $40 ) Jason We like: Red Elements Red Clay Masque ( $16 ) REN Clean Bio Active Skincare We like: Jiaogulan Revitalising Facial Mask ( $37 ) Naturopathica We like: Pumpkin Enzyme Peel ( $56 ) Kneipp We like: Almond Blossom Moisture Bath ( $19 ) Dr. Hauschka We like: Rejuvenating Mask ( $48 ) Burt's Bees Very Volumizing Pomegranate and Soy Shampoo Luxe vs. Less Hair Care Our Six-Week Eye Cream Expose The Deodorant Challenge Subject Subject Subject Message Message Message http://www.google.com /content/package/c_natural_products/