Terminology Tuesday

Published on April 8th, 2014 | by GrowWNY Intern


Terminology Tuesday: “Organic” Cosmetics


How many chemicals do you expose your body to everyday through the use of cosmetics? How can you reduce this number? We posed this question to you recently on our blog, and even shared our number with you. To answer these questions we must first understand what is in the products we are using.

The first step is to read the label, but beware, labels do no tell the entire story. The FDA does not regulate the term “organic.” Before we get started, we must go over some basic definitions.

  • Cosmetics, body care products, and personal care products (from here on, simply referred to as cosmetics)
    • The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) defines cosmetics by their intended use, as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human bodyfor cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance” [FD&C Act, sec. 201(i)]. Among the products included in this definition are skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup preparations, cleansing shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, and deodorants, as well as any substance intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product.
  • Greenwashing
    • Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. Defined by Oxford Dictionaries.
    • When a company makes “green” claims to appeal to consumers even though the product, company or ingredients is not truly healthy or sustainable. Defined by the Safe Cosmetics Action Network.


The FDA does not define or regulate terms such as “organic” and “natural.”

The FDA regulates cosmetics under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). The term “organic” is not defined in either of these laws. There are private organizations that certify “natural” and other claims; however, these organizations are in no way affiliated with FDA.


Logo from usda.gov

The only way the term “organic” is technically regulated is through the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). These regulations define “organic” as it applies to agricultural ingredients, and include labeling standards based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product, the same 4 organic labeling categories as all other agricultural products. The USDA can certify cosmetics made with agricultural ingredients that meet the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing and labeling standards. Eligibility for USDA organic certification does not mean the same thing as regulation. Neither the FDA nor the USDA regulates “organic” cosmetics. The USDA does not verify falsely labeled organic products. The USDA allows body care products to claim terms like ‘herbal,’ ‘natural,’ and even ‘organic,’ so long as they don’t falsely claim ‘USDA organic.’

Products labeled ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ often contain synthetic chemicals with harmful effects. Suppose a product contains organic lavender oil, but also contains 1,4-dioxane, a known cancer-causing chemical. Since the product has harmful ingredients, it cannot be USDA certified organic. But since no one regulates the term organic, the manufacturer labels the product as ‘Organically Herbal Lavender Shampoo’, and consumers see the label and assume it’s safe and organic. The debate over non-organic and certified organic cosmetics is confusing and is much easier to understand through an example outlined in the article, “Why Certify Organic Personal Care Products if You Don’t Have To?”.

For more information on “organic” labeling for cosmetics, see the NOP publication, “Cosmetics, Body Care Products, and Personal Care Products” and the FDA publication, ‘Organic’ Cosmetics.

Key Highlights:

  • The USDA does not verify falsely labeled organic products.
  • The USDA allows body care products to claim terms like ‘herbal,’ ‘natural,’ and even ‘organic,’ so long as they don’t falsely claim ‘USDA organic.’
  • The FDA does not assess the safety of cosmetics, or their ingredients.
  • Products labeled natural or organic often contain harmful, synthetic chemicals.
  • There is no FDA definition for ‘organic’ cosmetics.

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