Making Sense of Personal Care Labels

Have you noticed it too? An ever-increasing number of items on the personal care shelves—from conditioners and cosmetics to UV protection—feature a few key concepts on their packages. Pure. Natural. Organic. Eco-friendly. Qualities once unique to a minority of environmentally and health-conscious products (and long valued by loyal natural products consumers) are suddenly touted on mainstream labels. Green Is Growing It’s a good news, bad news situation. The good news is that this trend reflects the power of shoppers to influence the marketplace through values and buying choices. The explosion of natural personal care options results from consumer interest in high-quality, nontoxic, and eco-conscious products. The bad news is that the labels can get confusing because no single, federal certifying program exists for organic and natural personal care items in this country. While many reputable companies continue to make and market safe, sustainable, and natural personal care products, other companies have been accused of greenwashing—or repackaging conventional ingredients as healthful and earth friendly. Until recently, consumers were hard-pressed to separate the truly green from the pretenders. But here again positive news wins out. Trade organizations and nonprofits have recently begun to create their own standards, certifications, and recognizable seals. Until one federal certification process is in place, these labels help shoppers locate products they can feel good about choosing. Let’s take a look at the specifics of the natural seals you’ll see on the shelves. USDA National Organic Program Certified Organic Before the development of personal care standards within the industry, several manufacturers formulated products that are certified organic based on the strict USDA standards for organic food items. Organic foods are grown and processed without toxic and persistent pesticides, genetic engineering, sewage sludge, or irradiation. No synthetic preservatives are permitted. Though some experts consider the USDA organic (95 percent minimum organic content) and “made with organic” (70 percent organic content) seals the gold standards, others point out that ingredients and processing methods for cosmetics and bath products vary significantly from those in food production, so the standard is not an ideal fit for the personal care industry. Natural Products Association Natural Seal This certification program and seal debuted in May 2008 and requires that products are made of at least 95 percent natural ingredients (defined as renewable natural resources with no petroleum components). These rules also call for minimal processing and disallow ingredients with potential human health risks. The Natural Products Association (NPA) seal is the only one that clearly defines and enforces the meaning of “natural” on a product label. According to Curt Valva, general manager at Aubrey Organics, 215 products from 13 different companies are currently certified natural by NPA. “The average consumer wants to buy natural but doesn’t know how to find these products,” says Valva. “They can now look for the seal with confidence.” NSF International Made with Organic Seal The NSF International Made with Organic seal defines this term for personal care ingredients and processing techniques in a way that reflects core consumer criteria established by organic food certification. Products must be at least 70 percent organic in order to qualify for the label from this independent, public health nonprofit. Early this year, this seal was adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a watchdog organization for nongovernmental U.S. standards. OASIS Seal The Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards, or OASIS, was instituted as a nonprofit natural products industry trade organization in 2007. Under these standards, products made with a minimum of 85 percent organic components can qualify for the organic seal until 2010. The requirement is scheduled to rise to 90 percent in 2011 and to 95 percent in 2012. The member companies of OASIS are also working on a standard for sustainable packaging that may be available within a year. It’s always a good idea to talk with the knowledgeable staff at the store that provides Taste for Life about these standards and all the labels you find in the personal care aisle.