Misleading Organic Beauty Claims
You have may spotted a number of reports in the press over the past few days about misleading organic beauty claims. The Guardian picked up on this, as did Vogue, the Daily Mail and the Soil Association (SA) has launched a 'Come Clean About Beauty' campaign.
According to the Soil Association, a national independent survey indicates that 76% of participants felt 'mislead' by the labels on these products and that a cross section of beauty brands and products make 'potentially misleading' organic claims on the label. They published a league table of major beauty brands which featured Boots' Beautiful Hair Moisturise & Nourish Shampoo with Added Organic Argan Oil at the top.
As many of you know, but in the interest of full disclosure, I am the founder of an organic beauty business and we are not certified with the Soil Association, Ecocert, COSMOS or any other certification body. More on why not a little later on.
So what's all the fuss about, and what can you do to ensure you get what you expect when you buy organic beauty?
The Soil Association survey identified a number of misleading examples.
Organic refers to a tiny percentage of the overall ingredients
In the case of the Boots shampoo, the organic statement on the bottle refers to only one ingredient, and only a tiny amount of organic argan oil is included in the product. To be fair to Boots, the label does state 'Added Organic Argan Oil' and not that the other ingredients are organic.
My verdict - Many brands recognise that adding 'organic' to their labels makes them a whole lot more appealing to an increasingly green conscious market, and at the moment, there is no control about how the term 'organic' is used. That said many reputable brands will tell you which ingredients are organic (not all ingredients are available with an organic status) and also tell you the overall percentage of organic ingredients - we certainly do. If they don’t, ask, it is your right to know. If they won't or can't tell you go somewhere else!
Organic but with a whole lot of 'dodgy' ingredients
Another common example in the Soil Association league table is products that contain organic ingredients but also a raft of other less healthy ingredients . The SA have come up with a list of 'Terrible Ten Ingredients' and also a list of ingredients that would not be permitted under their own certification but which appear widely.
This is where it begins to get a little more complex. There's a raft of discussion amongst experts about the safety of these ingredients, with experts disagreeing on whether they are safe in the small quantities found in skincare, or not. Plus different certification bodies permit different ingredients under their own certification, although there should be more clarity with the new COSMOS organic standard which came into play in January 2017. Our personal stance is to not use them, preferring to err on the side of caution. Here's some examples of such ingredients for you to make up your own mind about:
PEGs (Polyethylene Glycol)
These have multiple functions in skincare, enhancing penetration, as a binding agent or stabiliser. They are followed by a number eg PEG - 40, PEG - 100. There is a suggestion that these act as a skin sensitiser causing reactions such as hives and eczema, the thinking being the higher the number the more likely it is to sensitise the skin. They is what they look like on a label: PEG 40
Polysorbates are widely used in both food and skincare applications, and act as solubilisers and emulsifiers. They are usually made from a sugar derivative called sorbitol, oleic acid, a fatty acid usually derived from olive oil and polyethylene glycol, which is a by product of the petrochemical industry. They often appear on labels followed by a number eg Polysorbate 20. The concern often cited with these is that there is a risk of contamination with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane which are purported to be toxins.
Parabens are the preservative system that everyone loves to hate. Preservatives in skincare are a necessity, the exception being for products that contain no water or distillates eg an oil based balm, or a clay powder formulation. Parabens occur naturally in fruit and vegetables where they form a natural barrier against bugs and bacteria, and synthetic parabens work in the same way.
The mooted problem with them is that they are reported to disrupt certain body functions and can have a mildly oestrogenic effect on the body. There is some feeling that they have become a scapegoat for the green beauty industry, having been used in the food industry for many years. You can read more about preservatives in skincare here. They look like this on the label: methylparaben
Mineral oil and its derivatives is a versatile oil used extensively in skincare being clear, odourless and cheap. You can find paraffinium liquidum or petrolatum cropping up in many balms, creams and oils. It's unlikely to do you any harm, it's purified and pretty inert, but it's not going to do you much good either. And in my view there are so many other beautiful plant oils that although are many more times more expensive bring some real skincare benefits, anti-aging, hydrating, protecting, redness reducing properties etc.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and its variants are essentially detergents that are found in a huge proportion of bath and shampoo products on your bathroom shelf. What makes SLS/SLES so appealing to most of us is their ability to form bubbles - they are the principal ingredient in bubble baths and shower gels for that exact reason. But there is a catch; they are known skin irritants, drying out the skin and causing irritation. SLS is thought to be more gentle than SLES and can be found in some organic skincare. Both are associated with eczema and other skin irritations, I suggest proceeding with caution if you have dry, sensitive or eczema prone skin.
What can you do?
My verdict with all of these ingredients? You have to read the label and then It’s very much a personal choice about which ingredients you choose to use. Label deciphering is simple once you know what you're looking for, you can see my guide on decoding labels here.
If you have super sensitive skin, you might have to keep a diary and a note of the ingredients you are using that disagree with you. It's not so black and white that ingredients are 'terrible' or not, we all have different tolerances and also choices to make about what's acceptable to us.
Regarding the different certification bodies, Soil Association, Ecocert etc. we have chosen not to apply for certification. The reason being for our very small business, we simply do not have the budget and resources needed, at least not currently. My customers expect products that do what they say, and demand transparency with regard to the ingredients we use, which is what we do, and why we list our ingredients for every product, and include the total overall percentage of organic ingredients for all of our skincare.
What's your experience of natural skincare? Have you felt mislead by labelling? Olga would love to hear your feedback!