When I started talking to people around me about Mademoiselle Organic, many said: “oh yeah, I use this great natural brand” or “a blog about natural skincare, how cool!” And then I realised that “organic” and “natural” meant the same thing to a lot of people. And it’s easy to understand why: skincare brands invest a lot of money in their marketing to make sure they blur the difference between these two terms as much as legally possible.
Let’s start with definitions
It is actually very difficult to give a single and accurate definition of the terms “natural” and “organic” as they are fairly unregulated in most countries. This means that legislation is quite flexible in allowing the terms “natural” or “organic” to be displayed on the packaging or included in brand names.
Generally, “natural” only refers to products or substances produced by a living organism that can be found in nature, when “organic” products would refer to “natural” products that have been obtained in an organic manner without being altered, grown or developed by adding synthesized chemicals or other additives to them. For example, a natural product could be sourced from a farm heavily relying on pesticides to cultivate their crops, which can be bad for your health and the environment; on the contrary, an organic product should be sourced from a farm that is following organic processes and does not use synthesized pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
Another example would be essential oils. There are several serious articles online that describe how pesticides can be found in pure “natural” essential oils (links at the end of the article). An essential oil can still be labelled as “natural” as it is coming from a plant, however, a small amount of synthesized chemicals may still be present in the final product as some of the pesticides and fertilizers used during farming would have transferred and concentrated in the oil. This is why it’s so important to buy organic, “pesticide-free” and pure essential oils!
It is sadly also important to remember that in many countries, both terms are not regulated (especially “natural”) and therefore, the proportion and quality of the “natural”/”organic” ingredients can vary greatly depending on the brand and products. For this reason, if you want to be sure of the quality of the product you are using, it is important to consider “certified” products.
Moving on to certifications…
Why are certifications important?
Certifications exist to help the consumer make informed decisions on the products they buy. Certification bodies audit distributors and producers to guarantee:
- The quantity of organic or natural ingredients
- The quantity and type of synthesized chemicals used in the final product
- The production process and if synthesized chemicals such as fertilizers were involved in this process
Certification bodies follow standards, which can be national standards or their own rules. Most certified products will display their certification labels on the front or back of their packaging.
There are few “natural cosmetic” labels.
Due to the lack of definition of what a “natural” product is, there are not many “natural cosmetic” certifications and as a direct consequence, many natural skincare products are not certified.
The best “natural cosmetic” labels are:
- ECOCERT in Europe.
A minimum of 95% of the total ingredients must come from natural origin. A minimum of 50% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 5% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming.
- BDIH and NATRUE in Europe.
Both BDIH and NATRUE have guidelines covering the ingredients and production process of natural skincare products.
Organic Certifications – more choices, stricter standards
Unlike “natural” products, there are many accredited organic certifications that exist to protect consumers and help them choose the right organic skincare products for them. Sometimes certification standards are based on national/regional guidelines.
A “certified organic” skincare product contains a majority of organic ingredients. The proportion of organic ingredients depends on their certification (see below) but it’s usually above 95%. Remaining non-organic ingredients must comply with some rules as well. For instance, in the US, they must be approved on the National List.
Main organic certifications include:
- USDA in the US
- NASAA in Australia
- ECOCERT in Europe
For the USDA and NASAA certifications:
- “100% organic” = 100% certified organic content
- “certified organic” = 95%-100% certified organic content
- “made with certified organic ingredients” = 70%-95% certified organic content
- <70 % certified organic content cannot make any certification claims, can only list ingredients as “organic”
To get the ECOCERT Organic Cosmetic label, products must comply with:
- A minimum of 95% of the total ingredients must come from natural origin.
- A minimum of 95% of all plant-based ingredients in the formula and a minimum of 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming.
Other accredited organic certifications exist, such as:
- SOIL ASSOCIATION in the UK
- ACO in Australia
- And more….
Organic skincare products may also be certified to other, private standards which are not regulated and in this case, the minimum standards required to get certification may vary.
Can brands use the word “natural” or “organic” on their packaging without being certified?
Well, it depends on local legislation but in most countries, brands can use the words “natural” and “organic” without being certified as long as it is not considered misleading. This means that they may not be audited to check that the quantity or type of ingredients they use, or their production processes, are actually “natural” or “organic”.
The term “organic” tends to be more regulated. In the US for instance, brands do need to be certified to use the word “organic” on their packaging. In countries where this is not the case (like for Australian products), brands can display “organic” on their packaging without being certified: only if a product is certified organic by a recognised certifier (e.g. NASAA in Australia) can consumers be sure it is truly organic.
Ok, so to summarize…
How to assess the quality of your skincare products
- Avoid to be influenced by marketing and packaging
The use of “natural” or “organic” on the label or in the brand name does not mean much in most countries. General information on packaging can be loosely regulated and used by the different brands as marketing tools. Focus on more regulated information such as certifications and lists of ingredients.
- Certifications: a simple and easy check
Look for the appropriate logo (depending on your country) or the mention “certified natural/organic”. To go one step further, make sure the logo identifies a well-known and respected certification. Each certification has clearly defined rules to classify products as natural or organic and this is usually the easiest way to be sure of the composition of your product.
- Dive in the list of ingredients
There are strict rules on how a list of ingredients must be presented. Ingredients must be ranked by decreasing concentration in the final product (the main ingredients are first in the list, ingredients near the end will be present in smaller quantities). Synthesized chemical components are named by their scientific name, when natural ingredients usually use Latin names. If some ingredients are “organic” or “certified organic” it’s usually indicated in the list.
- Do your homework!
As many brands try to improve their “natural” image, you will find packaging that could be very confusing trying to sell “natural” products which in fact may contain significant quantities of non-natural ingredients. To avoid this marketing pitfall, make your research upfront on the different brands, ingredients and certifications. You can also use apps to help you identify good and bad ingredients.
My personal preference
I personally buy certified organic whenever I can because I trust the formula and ingredients will be “clean”, plus more products are certified and it saves me time going through the list of ingredients. It’s also really important to me that ingredients should be sourced from eco-friendly farms. Furthermore, many organic certifications ban animal testing which is also a big plus.
On the Mademoiselle Organic blog, I focus on organic products and do all the above research work every time I review a product. To check a brand’s organic certifications, go to their dedicated page in the brand directory or check my reviews. For all my DIY recipes, I use as many certified organic ingredients as I can.
I hope this article has helped you gain a good understanding of what the words “natural” and “organic” mean when they are displayed on the packaging of your favorite skincare and makeup products ? If you have any questions or feedback, don’t hesitate to comment below!
Till next time, keep well ^^
Pesticides in essential oils:
- “The estimated concentration range of those pesticides that can co-extract with essential oils during the oil production […] is within 20 to 33 µg/g”
- “Residues of twelve pesticides were extracted from citrus essential oils.”
- This article talks about the many scientific experiments that identified the presence of pesticides in various essential oils, beeswax and herbs used in traditional and natural medicine and cosmetics.
- “Nutraceuticals, natural cosmetics and phytopharmaceuticals share the same kind of regulatory alibi where the risk due to the presence of pesticides residues has not been yet particularly considered. […]Since 1963 pesticide residues were detected in natural drug matrices although most monitoring reports have been published in the last 20 years. […]Depending on the extraction procedures, some oils could concentrate pesticide residues, as the case of citrus oils and extracts, being necessary to control the impact of the processing steps from fruit to the essential oil and the storage materials used. […]From [their] work, the authors conclude the wide occurrence of chlorpyriphos and dicofol residues in most [essential oils] samples, being Brazilian and Spanish ones the largest contaminated with individual levels up to 4.8 and 8.5 mg/L respectively”