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What's organic anyway?

There are no national guidelines to tell how natural a personal care product really is.

by LISA LIDDANEOrange County Register
June 26th, 2005

Lisa LaBarre has been filling up her shopping cart with organic food every week for more than two years. In the past six months, she has expanded the amount of organic products in her life, switching from regular skin- and body-care products to organic brands.

"I try to avoid chemicals, particularly those that are detrimental," said LaBarre, 33, a sales representative from Irvine, while browsing the body-care aisle at Whole Foods Market in Tustin. For LaBarre, going organic is all about maintaining health.

But not all organic products are created equal.

Consumers such as LaBarre recently lost a tool to help determine which organic brands are what they claim – and which aren't.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late April issued a directive prohibiting manufacturers of personal care products from using the agency's organic program seal and claiming the products are certified by the National Organic Program. The policy goes into effect Oct. 21.

Here, questions and answers about this directive and the impact on consumers.

Q. Why is this latest development significant?

A. It's important because organic personal care products are one of the fastest-growing categories in the organic industry. They're becoming more mainstream, making their way from natural foods stores to chain drugstores, supermarkets and warehouse retailers such as Sam's Club.

Sales of organic personal care products grew 19 percent from 2002 to 2003 and totaled $170 million, according to a survey by the Organic Trade Association.

Q. Who is buying these products?

A. Those with skin allergies, sensitive skin, chronic medical conditions and those who want an "organic lifestyle" – one with less chemical exposure, organic-product retailers said.

Q. Why did the USDA issue this directive?

A. Because the agency does not have jurisdiction over cosmetics and body-care products, said Joan Shaffer, an FDA spokeswoman. "We don't have standards for personal care products."

The agency does not have guidelines on whether a personal care product can carry the kinds of labels used for organic food and drink.

Q. What does this mean for consumers?

A. It means there are no national guidelines governing what's organic and what's not for personal care products. It opens the door to fraudulent labeling or misbranding, said Craig Minowa, environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a nonprofit organization.

Q. Why are the USDA organic label and National Organic Program certification important?

A. Because they give clarity for consumers and manufacturers, said Ronnie Cummins, national director for the OCA. The labels help consumers understand the subtle differences among products that claim to be organic. And they give organic food and drink manufacturers and distributors the ability to label their products according to specific categories.

Q. What were the labeling guidelines?

A. A product that contains organic ingredients can be labeled as follows:

100 percent organic: All ingredients are organic; can use the USDA organic seal.

Organic: at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic; can use the USDA organic seal.

Made with organic ingredients: 70 percent organic; cannot use the USDA organic seal or the word organic on the main label.

Q. How many personal care products actually complied with the highest category for organic labeling – 100 percent organic and with the USDA label?

A. Only a handful, Cummins said. But those manufacturers have worked hard to meet the USDA's certification standards at a cost of thousands of dollars, he added. "They've had the rug pulled from under them," Cummins said.

Q. How have those manufacturers responded?

A. The OCA and manufacturer Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps/Sun Dog's Magic filed a complaint in federal court June 14 to stop the new USDA policy from taking effect.

Q. Does California regulate organic personal products?

A. Yes. California has the nation's only organic program overseeing personal care products. This means that organic shampoos, lotions, deodorants and other related products made or sold in California have to meet the state's standards. According to the California Organic Products Act of 2003, "cosmetic products sold, labeled, or represented as organic shall contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients."

But California's program is controversial and some say not tough enough on manufacturers, because it allows them to list hydrosols – water used to extract essential oils – as an organic ingredient. The OCA does not agree with this rule.

Q. What do studies show about the health benefits of organic personal care products?

A. There are no studies comparing health benefits of organic personal care products with those of nonorganic products. The perception of health benefits is based on studies showing that organic foods contain fewer pesticides and chemicals than nonorganic foods. However, there are more studies showing potential harm or strong associations between certain synthetic or chemical ingredients in personal care products and diseases or medical conditions.

Q. What are my options if I want to buy organic personal care products?

A. You have several:

Take your chances, and trust manufacturers' claims, knowing that some may not hold up under careful scrutiny.

Purchase only at natural foods stores where buyers specialize in selecting products that have met those stores' internal quality standards. You'll need to call these stores and ask them about their criteria.

Do your own research, then read the ingredient list, usually found on the back of each product.

Q. Where can I go to get more information before I buy?

A. Some organic-product advocates cite the Environmental Working Group's 2004 report called "Skin Deep" as a source of information on ingredients in personal care products: www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep/.

The EWG is a consumer watchdog group specializing in environmental investigations. Another site is www.safecosmetics.org, a campaign by the environmental and consumer groups.

Q. Where can I get more information?

A. Go to:

•Organic Consumers Association: www.organicconsumers.org/bodycare

•Organic Trade Association: www.ota.com

Guidelines for reading labels

•Read all the labels.If the front label contains the words organic, organics or 70 percent organic, turn over the product and read the ingredient list.

•Note the order of ingredients. Ingredients should be listed in order of amounts, from greatest to least. Are organic ingredients listed first, in the middle or last?

•If there are certification organizations listed on the label, check out the Web sites of the organizations to learn more about their organic certification process.

•Know which chemical or synthetic ingredientsmay have the potential for harm or exacerbating skin allergies.

Sources: Suzanne Murray, beauty and fashion editor, Organic Style magazine; Jordonna Vargas, body-care manager, Mother's Market, Costa Mesa; Maren Giuliano, whole body coordinator, Whole Foods Market's Southern Pacific stores; Craig Minowa, environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Association.