Many of us are mindful about what goes into our body and, as an extension of this, are also careful with what we put on our skin. This increase in awareness has caused a boom in organic and natural personal care products, with New Zealand and Australian brands leading the way.
Health-conscious shoppers will spend significantly more for products branded ‘natural’ or ‘organic’, believing them to be safer, of superior quality, more nutritive to their skin, and better for the environment than conventional products and, with a good selection to choose from, it’s helpful for consumers to understand the difference between natural, certified natural and certified organic.
What is ‘natural’?
Although natural products should be safer than their synthetic counterparts, they can still contain all manner of questionable ingredients, for instance: harsh surfactants, plastic micro beads, artificial fragrances, GMOs, and nanoparticles. It’s also impossible to know what agricultural and industrial pollutants are present or exactly what processes were used to make the product. ‘Naturally derived’ implies naturalness even though the ingredient has been created through synthetic processes from a raw material (i.e. the end product does not occur naturally).
To create a standard for products made with natural ingredients, the German certifying agency BDIH was established in 2001. European-based Natrue followed suit in 2007 with three different certifications: 1) natural, 2) natural with an organic portion, 3) certified organic – all with the same logo but a different subheading, so read labels carefully, and see www.natrue.org.
Certified natural products are definitely a healthier option than conventional products, but they are not organic, which for many savvy shoppers is essential. Certified organic products must meet standards that surpass natural certification. The ingredients they contain are costly compared to non-certified options, harder to source because of limited supply, and there’s less variety. Materials are also seasonal and vary in composition, making them trickier to formulate with than their standardised synthetic counterparts.
Organic systems respect the intelligence of nature and the complex synergy inherent in living matter, which is why processing is kept to a minimum, with ingredients kept as close to their whole state as possible. This approach differs greatly to the majority of skincare companies, which use many artificial, isolated and fractionated materials.
Although there are now countless organic skincare brands worldwide, very few take organic principles beyond simply using certified ingredients (see table). Also, as their formulation requires specialised skill and resources not yet in abundance, contract manufacturers trained in the use of synthetic materials may not understand or appreciate the philosophy and reasoning behind organics.
A work in progress
Certifiers today face the difficulties of developing standards for an industry at odds with organic principles, now trying to green itself up, at a time when the health and beauty sector of organics is still in its infancy; until recent years, the focus of organics was solely on food and farming.
It’s essential that the integrity of this precious system is upheld, but with demand for organic skincare products soaring, unless vigilant, certifiers risk losing consumer trust as market pressure to deliver goods races ahead of standards.
For example, a self-tanning product meets organic certification standards to the 70%+ level (see below), but it contains dihydroxyacetone (DHA) within the other 30% of ingredients. DHA is a controversial ingredient present in most self-tanning products which generates high levels of free radicals that damage the skin. Adherence to the precautionary principle should be first and foremost in the organic health and beauty sector, just as it is with organic food and farming.
Certified organic the best guarantee
Despite the challenges, organic certification is still the best guarantee that skincare products are safe, healthy and environmentally sustainable. New Zealand has two main organic certifiers:
· AsureQualitydoesn’t have a separate health and beauty standard, but as long as skincare brands meet their organic production standards (for farming and food) they can gain certification.
· BioGrodeveloped their health and beauty standards as recently as June 2013. BioGro also adopted Natrue certification under license.
Two levels of organic
Both AsureQuality and BioGro have two tiers for organic health and beauty products.
95%+ Products with a minimum of 95% certified organic ingredients are identified by the words ‘certified organic’and the certifier’s logo on the front of products (displaying the actual percentage is voluntary).
70%+ Products ‘made with organic ingredients’ contain a minimum of 70% certified organic ingredients. Products must display the percentage of certified organic ingredients alongside the certifier’s logo. With this category, BioGro doesn’t allow its logo on the front, while AsureQuality allows its logo on the front of packaging along with the words ‘certified organic’.
NOTE: Water, minerals, salts and preservatives cannot be included as organic ingredients in the 95%+ or the 70%+ (but may be in the remaining portion of up to 5% or up to 30%).
Until recent years, skincare companies required their own in-house expertise and manufacturing facilities to make products, but it’s now possible to contract outside manufacturers. This has enabled an influx of new brands, but there are some facts consumers should know.
Some natural products such as cleansers and moisturisers can contain up to 80% water and as little as 20% active ingredients. Organic standards don’t allow water to be included in the 70%+ or the 95%+ of organic ingredients, so some manufacturers use ‘water substitutes’ like reconstituted aloe vera powder and raspberry water to attain certification.
Unfortunately it is impossible to know if a product contains quality fresh aloe vera liquid, or reconstituted aloe vera powder (which is far more processed, less bioactive, cheaper, easier to store, ship, and formulate with), because labels only require ‘Aloe barbadensis leaf juice’.
Raspberry water is listed as ‘Rubus idaeus water’, or sometimes more misleadingly as ‘Rubus idaeus extract’. Until its recent inclusion in organic skincare, raspberry water was a waste product of the food industry. (The water content from fruit or its juice evaporates as steam, to condense as a liquid, leaving behind the antioxidant pigments, vitamins, minerals and flavour in the concentrate or juice.) Odourless and clear, it’s cheaper than botanical steam distillates, which contain essential oils. Cleverly marketed as ‘living cellular water’, it’s been developed specifically to allow manufacturers to overcome the water exclusion rule of organic standards. Although there’s nothing wrong with raspberry water, whatever substances it contains are in insignificant trace amounts only and, to date, scientific evidence to substantiate its antioxidant properties is lacking.
Transparency and traceability
Many consumers assume that because a brand is certified organic that it adheres to principles of sustainability, and honours traceability. However, when a skincare company contracts a manufacturer, they may not know where all their ingredients come from, how some are produced, and in some cases what their properties are – as demonstrated with erroneous ‘antioxidant-rich’ claims about raspberry water by some certified organic skincare brands.
Consumers are prepared to pay a higher premium for products that contain quality bioactive ingredients, and along with this expect transparency, clear labelling and high standards.
Table showing natural and organic skincare brands
[Information correct to the best of our information as at December 2014]
|Certified organic||All products certified
|No. of products
|No. of products with 70%+
|No. of products
|NEW ZEALAND MADE|
|Antipodes, est 2006||AsureQuality||✗||15||6||5||✗||✗|
|Caithy Organic, est 2010||✗||✗||20||✔||✔|
|Carol Priest, est 1991, certified organic 2006||BioGro||✗||56||21||✔||✔|
|Evolu est, 1997||AsureQuality||✗||28||1||✗||✔|
|Geo Skincare, est 2011||✗||✗||23||✔||✗|
|Karen Farley, est 2008,
certified organic 2014
|Kiri Organics, est 2014||BioGro||✔||2||?||✗|
|La’bonic, est 2012||BioGro/USDA||✗||2||28||✔1||✗|
|Living Nature, est 1987||BDIH||✗||✗||200||✔2||✔|
|Millefeuille, est 2014||BioGro||✔||25||1||?||✗|
|Moana, est 2012||AsureQuality||✔||3||11||✗||✔|
|Oxygen, est 2009||✗||✗||17||✗||✔|
|Plantae, est 2011||BioGro||✔||12||✔||✔|
|River Veda, est 2011||BioGro||✗||1||24||10||✗||✔|
|The Organic Skincare Co,
|Trilogy, est 2002||Natrue||BioGro||✗||38||2||✗||Most products|
|True, est 2013||BioGro||✔||6||3||✗||✔|
|True Blue, est 1996||BioGro||✔||11||✔||✔|
|Tui Balms, est 1984||✗||✗||25||✔||✔|
|Viola, est 1996,
certified organic 2003
|Dr Hauschka, Germany, est 1967||Natrue/BDIH||Natrue
|Jasmin Organics, Aust,
est 1999, certified organic 2002
|Jurlique, Aust, est 1985||✗||✗||110||✔||✔|
|Miessence, Aust, est 2003||ACO/USDA||✗||2||24 (excl. cosmetics, haircare)||✔|
|Mukti, Aust, est 2000, certified organic 2006||OFC||✔||9||16||✔||✔|
|Sanctum, Aust, est 1992, certified organic 2006||OFC/USDA||✔||37||15||✔||✗|
|Sukin, Aust, est 2007||✗||✗||41||14||✗||✔|
|Weleda, Germany, est 1921||Natrue||Natrue||✗||36||23||17||✔|
|BioNatyr, Italy, est 2004, certified organic 2009||Natrue||Natrue||✗||3||8||2||✔5||✔|
ACO: Australian Certified Organic
OFC: Organic Food Chain, Australia
USDA: United States Department of Agriculture
BIDH: German agency est. 2001 that regulates natural ingredients.
Natrue: A non-profit international association est. 2007 by European manufacturers of natural and organic cosmetics.
Est: Established – when products became available for sale, as far as I could ascertain.
1. La’Bonic owns CNS Laboratories, which also manufactures skincare products for other brands.
2. Living Nature makes most of their products except lipsticks and powders.
3. A clay face mask: its mineral content excludes it from organic certification.
4. A certified organic rosehip oil, but Sukin does not hold certification for it.
5. BioNatyr makes their own products and manufactures for other brands.
Dr Hauschka, Plantae and Weleda apply Anthroposophical principles.
Kyra Xavia is a freelance writer, photographer and qualified nutritionist, naturopath, herbalist, homeopath and aromatherapist. www.euphory.com
Disclosure: Kyra Xavia provides copywriting services for Plantae on a part-time contract basis.