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May 18, 2003 ny times
Is Organic Shampoo Chemistry or Botany?
By JOHN LELAND
he other night I served an organic pasta sauce and washed my face with
an organic cleanser. The sauce was made from tomatoes and other farm
ingredients, all certified organic under strict federal guidelines. The
facial cleanser featured a handful of synthetic and chemical
ingredients, including some that ecological activists have questioned as
possibly harmful to users or the environment.
Both products came from the same store and promised the same organic
quality. But in each case the word organic described a different set of
When it comes to soaps and shampoos, "almost every product out there
labeled organic isn't," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the
Organic Consumers Association. At meetings of organic manufacturers and
federal regulators in Austin, Tex., last week, the consumer group
complained that companies are exploiting the term organic to sell
products little different from any others — and with little oversight
from the government.
The United States Department of Agriculture, which regulates organic
food labeling, has neither standards nor the authority to regulate
labels on personal care products.
The cleanser I used, selected at a local health food store, is made by
Avalon Natural Products. Its components are used in a range of shampoos,
conditioners, scrubs, lotions and lip balms labeled as organic by
Twenty years ago, an organic label might have been of interest to a few
health purists. But as organic foods have moved from farm stands to
major supermarkets, the term "organic" has come to represent not a set
of farming guidelines but a lifestyle, accessorized with everything from
unbleached cotton sheets to hemp clothing, to beauty and body-care
"These things are coming into supermarkets on the back of organic
foods," said Peggy Northrop, editor in chief of Organic Style magazine,
which comes off as Vogue for vegetarians. For young women, she added,
"organic doesn't mean food, it means an attitude toward your life."
The promise of organic, in foods or body lotions, is that natural
ingredients, minimally processed, are healthier for people and better
for the ecosystem than conventional products. Though this logic doesn't
always hold up, consumers are willing to pay more for products bearing
an organic label.
When the Agriculture Department issued the first standards for labeling
organic foods last October, after more than a decade of wrangling, it
closed a loophole in the food industry, putting strict limits on how
manufacturers and stores could use the label organic. An organic label
on one company's food products meant the same as on another's.
But for cosmetics and personal care products, consumer advocates say,
"organic" means whatever manufacturers say it does. Products made using
petroleum-derived and other synthetic or chemical ingredients,
prohibited in organic foods, can be found among the organic shampoos and
lotions made by Avalon, Nature's Gate, Jason Natural Cosmetics, Kiss My
Face and other brands, said Urvashi Rangan, an environmental health
On a recent evening at Whole Foods Market in Manhattan, Dr. Rangan, who
runs Eco-Labels.org at Consumers Union, the company that publishes
Consumer Reports, examined the labels in an aisle of shampoos and
conditioners. She shook her head.
"Even with a Ph.D. in toxicology, I can't tell whether these are any
different from what you'd find in a drug store," she said. Dr. Rangan
did not think the products posed big health risks. But reading a list of
ingredients — "Zinc gluconate, methyl propyl paraben, olefin sulfonate,
DEA, steareth-2" — she added, "You have to ask yourself, What are these
doing in a product that's called organic?"
Allyn Jones, who runs the Whole Body division of Whole Foods Markets,
said the company carefully chooses only products with no petroleum-based
colors or oils, and avoids brands "that were just using organic as a
marketing gimmick." She added that since personal care products are
mostly water and may be stored for long periods, they need preservatives
not found in organic foods. Even so, she said, "it's really confusing
for consumers." Standards that apply on one side of the store do not
apply on the other, Mrs. Jones said.
Because the word organic is used to mean different things, it is
difficult to tally the sales of products using the name. The Natural
Marketing Institute, which analyzes the sales of products positioned as
natural, estimated that personal care products for this broader group
accounted for $2.8 billion last year.
Most people don't monitor their hair products as vigorously as they do
their pasta sauce, of course, for the obvious reason that they don't eat
their styling gel. But the skin, scalp and hair are remarkably efficient
at absorbing toxins and carcinogens. A group of researchers at Stanford
University in 1999 found they could deliver a DNA vaccine to laboratory
mice as effectively by rubbing it on their skin as injecting it into
In fact, some toxins can do more harm absorbed through the skin than
through the digestive system because they lodge directly in fat cells,
bypassing the liver, said Dr. Rangan.
Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, an emeritus professor of environmental and
occupational medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of
Public Health and chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, has led
some of the most aggressive campaigns against toxins in personal care
products. Even natural-sounding ingredients, he said, might break down
to form carcinogens, or be contaminated by pesticides.
But surveying the ingredients of a dozen personal care products labeled
organic, Dr. Epstein saw few reasons for alarm. "Good Lord, these are
lower in carcinogens than the average bottle," he said.
Even so, such products fall short of the promises implied by the label
organic, said Diana Kaye, a partner in Terressentials, a small
Maryland-based company that makes shampoos and lotions without
artificial ingredients or processes. Ms. Kaye, a former architect,
started the company after chemotherapy treatments for cancer left her
sensitive to the chemicals in many products, even those labeled organic.
Such products merit careful scrutiny, she said, because people use them
daily over long periods of time.
The organic industry has formed a task force to develop voluntary
guidelines for cosmetics and personal care products, said Katherine
DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, which
represents many of the major manufacturers. "We feel we should protect
the integrity of the organic claim," she said. "It's quite an
unregulated business." Past attempts to get manufacturers to agree on
standards had broken down, she said.
As first steps toward voluntary standards, Ms. DiMatteo cited broad
consensus about banning petrochemicals, genetically modified crops,
irradiated ingredients and certain synthetics or chemicals that are
prohibited in organic foods.
Manufacturers are divided, however, on what to do about water. Under the
guidelines for organic food, products labeled "certified organic" must
include at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients; those with at
least 70 percent organic ingredients may be labeled as "containing
organic ingredients." Food manufacturers cannot count water toward these
percentages. The main ingredient in many personal care products is water
— with a little herbal extract dissolved in it, like a tea — and
manufacturers often count the weight of water in their organic claims.
This herbal "tea" is sometimes listed on labels as hydrosol, and refers
to water that has been used to extract essential oils for other use. A
shampoo calling itself 80 percent organic may be 80 percent water or
hydrosol, with a hint of rosemary or other herb throughout. The
remaining 20 percent of the bottle may contain synthetic detergents and
California, the first state to pass its own guidelines for organic
personal care products, allows manufacturers to include hydrosols in
their percentages of organic ingredients. Earlier this month, the
Organic Consumers Association lodged a complaint with state agencies in
California, singling out Avalon Natural Products for claiming that
hydrosols were organic, which the association said was deceptive.
Mr. Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said this practice
allows products with very small traces of organic oils or herbs to be
labeled organic. "We're afraid of the degradation of the entire organic
label," he said.
Emma Mann, the brand manager for Avalon's organic line, said the
company's use of hydrosols, as well as synthetic detergents and
preservatives, complied with California law. "We'd like to see those
synthetics replaced by organic ingredients," she said, but she added
that such replacements were not available.
Along with Consumers Union, Mr. Cummins's group called for manufacturers
and government agencies to hold open meetings on standards, inviting the
public to watch and comment. "If it gets out there that we've got this
multibillion-dollar industry that's a hoax," he said, "it's going to
undermine people's support across the board."
As for my own experience, the organic cleanser was gentle and
nonirritating, but left my skin dryer than my usual synthetic soap. The
pasta sauce was from Muir Glen. To my taste it needed salt.