Issue Date: May 12, 2008
Sorting Through The Confusion In Personal Care Certification
Personal care product certification standards have become a high-stakes, hotly contested issue.
Late last month, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps sued personal care product makers Jason Natural Cosmetics and Estee Lauder, along with Stella McCartney's Care and two standards certification organizations, Oasis and Ecocert, to "stop them from making misleading organic labeling claims."
Dr. Bronner's, an Escondido, Calif.-based maker of cleansing and moisturizing products that claims its main ingredients are made with certified organic materials, filed the suit in California Superior Court together with the Organic Consumers Association.
"We have been deeply disappointed and frustrated by companies in the 'natural' personal care space who have been screwing over organic consumers, engaging in misleading organic branding and label call-outs on products that were not natural in the first place, let alone organic," company President David Bronner said in filing the suit.
Bronner claimed, for instance, that the major cleansing ingredient in Jason's natural and organic liquid soaps, body washes, and shampoos is "sodium myreth sulfate, which involved ethoxylating a conventional nonorganic fatty chain with the carcinogenic petrochemical ethylene oxide, which produces carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane as a contaminant."
The suit also charges that certifying organization Ecocert "engages in creative misinterpretation of its own rules in order to accommodate clients engaging in organic mislabeling." It charges that the recently formed group Organic & Sustainable Industry Standard (Oasis), largely backed by U.S. industry stalwart Estée Lauder, has set weak standards. Oasis, it charges, permits use of the label "organic" even if personal care products contain hydrogenated and sulfated ingredients "such as sodium lauryl sulfate made from conventional agricultural material grown with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides and preserved with synthetic petrochemical preservatives."
As the Dr. Bronner's suit suggests, there is a great deal of confusion in the industry over organic standards. In many cases, cosmetic makers are still grappling with definitions of what is natural, organic, or sustainable. Many of the standards organizations are in talks to harmonize the standards among them, but some in the industry are skeptical about their ability to agree.
Dr. Bronner's was itself part of a working group at the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Products Association that was formed about a year ago to come up with a definition for the term "natural" as it applies to personal care products. NPA issued its definition and natural seal earlier this month. "Arriving at a clear definition for use of the word natural is something both our industry and consumers want," says Daniel Fabricant, NPA's vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. Other terms such as organic and sustainable are really subsets of natural, Fabricant says.
NPA's natural certification seal will appear on personal care ingredients that meet its definition of natural. Formulations must be at least 95% natural and involve no processes that adversely alter purity. In addition, the products must contain ingredients that come from a renewable or plentiful source. The standard permits nonnatural ingredients only when "there are absolutely no suspected potential human risks."
Other U.S. groups are also working on standards for personal care products. NSF International, which defines itself as a "public health and safety company," published a 46-page draft document earlier this year to define a standard for organic personal care products. According to the group, the standard under development will not address toxicology or social responsibility but only organic label claims.
Oasis has developed its own standards to certify formulations containing synthesized ingredients using certified organic plant materials. According to Oasis, "There has been no united voice among health and beauty companies that has supported credible development of organic and sustainable production, or the ability to communicate what this means to retailers and consumers." In addition to Estée Lauder, founders of the group include ingredient maker Cognis and personal care product companies such as Aveda and L'Oréal.
In February, the Canadian environmental, health, and food safety standards certification firm Certech Registration began offering natural and organic certification to cosmetics makers. According to its President Brian Lane, until Certech began to offer its own standards certification, North American firms had to resort to regulation intended for agricultural products, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program.
Europeans are further ahead in the effort to define and certify cosmetic products. France-based Ecocertwas founded in 1991 largely to certify organic food products. In the U.K., the Soil Association certifies personal care products that meet its standards for organic content.
Another European group, the European Natural & Organic Cosmetics Interest Grouping (ENOCIG), recently formed a partnership with the German Cosmetic, Toiletry, Perfumery & Detergent Association (known by its German initials IKW) to establish the NaTrue label for natural cosmetics. And the Federation of German Industries & Trading Firms (known by its initials BDiH) also has a set of standards governing natural personal care ingredients.
Certification standards are still up for debate and are likely to continue causing confusion. But unless ingredient makers and formulators sort out their differences, the subject of what is natural, organic, and sustainable may have to be sorted out in court.
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