Thursday, April 1, 2010

Natural Versus Organic Skin Care....Is There A Difference?

Sorting Through The Muck

So much conflicting information is being put out there and used by many cosmetic and skin care companies to promote their products using terms such as "All Natural" or "Organic". It is enough to make ones' head spin. There are some in their marketing campaigns whether on a website, commercial, or through networking, try to convince you that their ingredients remain in a natural state when added to their formulas. If you see this then grab your hat and turn tail and run, because they are selling you snake oil and possibly selling something which could very well harm your body if what they are stating is true....and one can only assume it is.

An example: Foxglove is known for "digitalis" which is an extract from the leaves and is used to regulate heart rhythm. Processed safely in a lab this is a powerful pharmaceutical and doses are carefully controlled. Eaten directly from the plant in its purest form, it then bears the name "digitoxin" and is extremely poisonous bringing about death. In fact Herbalists have abandoned its use due to being unable to control the doses accurately for therapeutic effect. Also if you have small children or pets this is a plant to be very cautious with. When placed in a vase, if the water is drunk, can also poison a pet or child. In growing this in my garden in the past I would wear gloves whenever I handled this lovely flower. Inhaling the pollen or seeds can send you on a trip to the emergency room.

You can see with this extreme example that all things natural are not necessarily safe and require processing to make them safer!

In doing my research when I began with my ONATI Skin Care line, it was all I could do to keep my brain from short circuiting and throwing my keyboard across the room when seeing so much misinformation being put out there for which I would otherwise describe as "for strictly marketing purposes". To answer the question "is there a difference?" the answer is "yes". These terms are not interchangeable and have completely different meanings and are used in different marketing campaigns.

It was only when I collaborated with a fantastic team of herbalists, chemists and aromatherapists that a complete understanding was reached of how I wanted my skin care to be formulated and why it was important to keep it as natural and organic as possible with the utmost skin safety in mind.

What Is Natural?

It is pretty self explanatory since natural means by one definition just that....plant or mineral which is unadulterated, unchanged, in its' original state. But by definition is not how it is actually interpreted or used by many in the food or cosmetic industry. There is no governing body that regulates this term and it can pretty much mean whatever the manufacturer wishes it to mean.

Now of course we all know that keeping it completely "all natural" cannot be the case with cosmetics and skin care products as this would produce a world of problems. Plants for instance would host mold, possible contaminants, bacterial growth, decomposition and oxidation. In regard to minerals, then you are dealing with impurities found naturally in our soils and rocks such as lead, copper, arsenic and mercury.

Only through laboratory manipulation in order to remove the impurities, whether synthetically processed for refinement as in the case of minerals or through an extraction process for botanical ingredients, will these ingredients be safe to use. You will also notice that some ingredients will be a derivative of plant extracts and through a chemical process create the final product. Think lye mixed with vegetable oils to make luxurious soap as an example.

So you can very much have a product made from natural sources, however they are no longer in their natural state if they are to be considered safe for cosmetic and skin care use. And those companies who wish to market with truth and integrity would declare this fact rather than expound something as being completely natural.....and in many cases you will find this declaration to be only held in the eyes of the beholder. It is important to note that minimal manipulation can occur through cold process formulation, whereby keeping the plant derivative as close to its' natural state as possible, retaining most of its' healing properties we seek.

What Is Organic?

These are plants that are grown without chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers. However, again these must go through a process in order to make them ready for cosmetics. Nothing raw can be used in a skincare product based on what I stated earlier and these unprocessed ingredients would also not be allowed under FDA regulations of item b and c of

Section 601 of the FD&C Act [21 U.S.C. 361] describes what causes a cosmetic to be considered adulterated:
  • (b) If it consists in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance.
  • (c) If it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.
Plant sources for cosmetics and skincare are in the form of extracts, oils, butters, distillates, tinctures or juice. These are created through steam distillation, solvents, or cold pressed.

What Is Certified Organic?

This is now getting down to the nitty gritty and where most consumers get confused. Also many unscrupulous brands, large commercial and smaller companies are guilty of using this ploy for marketing their products trying to convince the consumer that if they state "100% organic" or just "organic" on the label this is the equivalent of being certified or it gives the implication the product is all organic somehow with no synthetics or chemicals being used. Or they are simply misguided believing that if it even has one organic ingredient the product can be labeled as such. In fact, Dr. Bronner Magic Soaps filed a lawsuit over this very issue against more than several skincare companies. This article explains in detail what is happening with an excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle. It is safe to say that a standard should be reached to also eliminate consumer confusion, and perhaps the outcome of this lawsuit will do just that.

Let's clarify shall we what would qualify for being 100% Certified Organic to end the confusion......

First off to receive and be allowed to display the USDA Organic Seal on a product label or website the following parameters must be met:
  • 100% Certified Organic Ingredients - natural ingredients derived from organic farms containing the logo of an international certifying body.This is the core component of any certified organic skin care product.
  • 100% Beneficial Ingredients - every single ingredient must be working in your body's best interests.
  • No Synthetic Chemicals - no synthetic toxins used at any stage of the production process.
  • Cruelty Free - this is the dirty little secret that many "natural" skin care makers keep from their customers, as many non certified companies outsource animal testing to third parties.
  • No Pesticides/Herbicides - no pesticides sprayed at the source (i.e. farm).
  • No GMO - no plant source corrupted with genetically modified organisms.
  • Cold Formulation - This process ensures that the organic ingredients are kept in their original fresh state by allowing no heat during production.
  • No Artificial Flavors/Additives - nothing unnatural added in the production process.
It also is crucial how the ingredients are handled from harvest to manufacturing facility. USDA Certified Organic, a meaningful seal on food products, is also permitted for cosmetics made from agricultural products meeting those standards. Products bearing the USDA label have been vetted by an independent third party as meeting the National Organic Program’s standards.

Other parameters for what is and isn't allowed to make claims of organic products and/or display the USDA Seal:
  • 100% Organic - Cosmetics with this label are made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA seal. Salt and water are not included.
  • Organic - These products contain at least 95 - 99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the National Organics Program. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.
  • Made With Organic Ingredients - Food with this label must contain 70 - 94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the packaging.
  • Other - Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.
What Is Greenwashing Or Green Marketing?

Well I can assure you it does not mean washing your greens before eating them.....Basically this is a practice by some companies wanting to capitalize on the latest buzz words such as "100%", "natural" and "organic". You will see these on labels as descriptions or as the actual name of the product. As the demand for "organic" or "derived from natural ingredients" grows, it becomes imperative to compete by using these buzz words to connote that they too are an all natural or organic product.

Is there a problem with claiming Organic? Absolutely not!....the problem begins when you turn over that bottle or jar and read further only to see nothing but synthetics and chemicals with a few token organic ingredients tossed in for good measure. Or you will see only the key ingredients on a website with the remainder of the list completely invisible. Only after purchase and it arrives on your doorstep will you know what you actually received in your product. This is the definition of greenwashing! And this is a disingenuous attempt to dupe the consumer.

Why Do They Greenwash?

Well based on the Organic Trade Association Survey consumers have made their preference known as there has been a steady increase in purchasing organic products despite the recession. In 2008, the non food organic sales jumped 39.4 percent and reached $1.648 billion in revenue. This is clearly quite the incentive to greenwash without actually having to reformulate existing products or create a completely new line which the costs would be considerable.

Fortunately, once the savvy consumer understands what all this organic and natural stuff means, then it is as simple as turning over the label and reading.

Is It Really Organic?

There are companies out there that have achieved their seal by the USDA and are striving to create a truly organic product. However it is the basis of 100% versus the other ratios allowed in order to bear the USDA Seal that I wish to address in terms of what is really on the label.

I truly commend those that strive for perfection in creating 100% certified organic products. There is one caveat however..... when I read some of these ingredient lists I see repeatedly the use of Grapefruit Seed extract, not to be confused with Grapeseed Oil (true antioxidant, different plant altogether). I often get these two fruits jumbled in my mind when glancing at this ingredient.

The reason you will see this ingredient typically at the bottom of the list, is it is being used as a so called natural preservative and this commercially prepared ingredient is far from natural. It also gives the consumer incorrect information whereby giving a false sense of security that the product is ultimately safe and protected from micro-organisms. In some instances a formulator may acquire the natural version which is derived from the seeds, pulp and white membrane, however, it is extremely difficult to come by on the open market and is typically not the version being used in the skin care product. Even with assurances by the formulator or reseller that it is the all natural version, studies have shown that in its' natural form it possesses no antimicrobial benefit. So the question I have always asked, what is really keeping these products safe from bacterial growth? You may also notice fragrance oils or parfum.....this is another way to mask the use of preservatives without actually listing them.

Excerpt from Wikipedia: Independent studies have shown that commercial preparations of GSE contain the compound benzalkonium chloride, which is a synthetic antimicrobial commonly used in disinfectants and cleaning products, the related compound benzethonium chloride, the antibiotic triclosan, or the preservative methylparaben. Some samples were shown to contain up to 22% benzalkonium chloride by weight, despite the known allergenicity and toxicity of the compound at higher doses. These chemicals were not present in grapefruit seed extracts prepared in the laboratory, and GSE preparations without the contaminants were found to possess no detectable antimicrobial effect. Although citrus seed extract is sold in health food markets, there is no good evidence for any natural antimicrobial activity.

So even if they have the completely natural ingredient incorporated into their formulas, it will offer zero protection from the product deteriorating over time. So one must consider the products suspect in either form.

Why I Don't Seek 100% Certified Organic

For the most part I am completely about total safety, not just what is implied, and being all organic does not keep the consumer safe from micro-organisms which can grow in a product, nor will this compliance really assure the consumer that there may or may not be a contaminant which gains entry at the lab or after it is open for use.

This is where I take precautions in formulating products when the majority of the ingredients being that of botanical origin. The majority of our skincare products are 80% to 95% organic and / or naturally derived, and the ingredients are notated in parentheses including their INCI identifier. However, what continues to be consistent with my philosophy, is to keep botanical ingredients free from bacterial growth, and I also believe in combining science with nature for a complete skincare benefit for fighting aging and damage to delicate skin tissue.

So in our skin care line we do incorporate a small percentage of synthetics shown to actually have age defying benefit, along with a small amount of phenoxyethanol (.05%) in overall ratio for protecting the integrity of the products. Allow me to give you an example of my objective in our formulas:

Herbal Extracts and Distillates

Depending on the formulation these will be the basis for our products. A key ingredient in all of our products is organic Aloe Vera juice, well known for its soothing and calming properties. Herbal extracts and distillates are chosen for their soothing, astringent, anti-inflammatory or antibacterial properties, and our gentle fruit extracts are used for exfoliation and renewal of skin cells, and are organically grown.

Essential Oils, Plant Oils and Butters

Many different plant oils are infused into our products. Examples include Coconut Oil, Olive Oil Olive Butter, Avocado Oil, Shea and Mango butters, and essential oil blends of Bergamot, variety of Citrus, Lavender, Ylang Ylang and Rose Geranium to name a few, and are naturally derived.


Our lovely inherent aromas are created through the use of herbal infusions, floral waters and essential oils. The majority of our herbal infusions are made using organic herbs. The floral waters we use are obtained through the steam distillation process.


A skincare product that contains both our Aloe Juice, distillates and oil ingredients must also contain an emulsifier. It is the emulsifier that enables the oil and water concept to blend together to create a cream or lotion. Without using an emulsifier, creams and lotions would separate. We use a vegetable based emulsifying wax for all of our products, and currently there are no certified organic emulsifiers available on the market.

UPDATE 4/3/2010: After this article published, I heard from a fellow formulator who wanted to strive for 100% Organic, and in her quest did actually locate an emulsifier called Oryza Mul. The data seems conflicting though since it states organic in their documents but as I read on it says "organic available upon request". It is derived from Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Extract and if organic is chosen, it is 95/5 NOP compliant. It is a spray dried powder. However, in researching it and attempting to incorporate it into her formulas, she noted it had a distinct odor, is brown in color and found it extremely difficult to work with. She also felt it was cost prohibitive. For a truly die hard organic formulator this would be a viable alternative if they are able to master and overcome any inherent problems with using it. Perhaps this is one reason why it is not widely used at the present time.


We use naturally derived gentle foaming agents to achieve a mild lather in our Honey Foaming Cleansing Gel. Our naturally derived Cocamidopropyl Betaine which is an amphoteric cleansing agent and is a derivative of cocamide and glycine betaine. Cocamide is derived from coconut oil produced through a synthesis process. Glycine betaine is derived from sugar and is a byproduct of the sugar industry. Extremely gentle to skin and has shown it will not irritate mucous membranes or skin, and has antiseptic properties. Sodium Cocopolyglucoside Tartrate is a cleansing agent derived from coconuts combined with sugars and the salt or esters of citric acid. Citric acid is derived from the fermentation of sugars from citrus fruits. Sodium Cocopolyglucoside Citrate is a cleansing agent derived from coconuts combined with sugar and alcohol. Tartrate is a byproduct of the wine industry typically, through the fermentation process of creating the alcohol in the process. Both of these ingredients are exceptional for dissolving dirt and grime from the skin gently. At the present time no certified organic surfactants are available.

Preservative Systems

In using a high ratio of organic ingredients, an excellent preservative system is required which is why we use the low levels of Phenoxyethanol I stated above. Although this is a synthetic ingredient, it has an excellent safety record and is very well tolerated. It is shown to be a safe and effective preservative by the FDA and is allowed by the EU and Japan. It is also on the list of permitted preservatives for use in cosmetics certified as organic by the Soil Association in the UK. It is not approved by the USDA standards, but at the same time those which are not preserved, or are claiming all organic including botanical preservative systems, will not pass challenge testing or retain efficacy for protecting these products, and will at some point become compromised.

Be aware though there are some companies who have achieved a longer shelf life with naturally preserved products. However my research into those products, testing of those products, and conversations with the formulating lab revealed they are treated through an organic grain alcohol process. Not to be confused with Isopropyl Alcohol.

I ended up inquiring further into the true nature of these naturally preserved products with my lab after I sampled some cream preparations using this method and I immediately detected a faint alcohol smell....(my nose is more sensitive than most). Also my extremely sensitive skin reacted to the alcohol (some stinging) even though they claimed there should be no residue since it is a process and not an ingredient left in the product which is why they don't need to declare it. Though this unique naturally preserved enhancement through the use of filtering ingredients through grain alcohol is perfectly acceptable to prolong shelf life, and is created through a natural fermentation process, it still can have its own set of problems some of which are skin sensitivities, such as in my case, and is the reason why I opted not to formulate using this process.

Another simple fact is that all organic or natural ingredients can have the potential for being skin irritants or for some cause an allergic reaction, whereby chemically formulated ingredients would be the alternative, and can be just as safe as their natural counterpart. Nothing is ever perfect in science or nature! Finding the perfect balance should always be the objective.

Dr. Bronner for instance has incorporated this process into his products as he lists Organic Ethanol (grain alcohol) as his natural preservative system in order to keep his natural and organic products safe, and to retain efficacy for a longer duration providing a longer shelf life.

However for me, until such time as a proven preservative system meeting USDA standards protecting the skin care product against microbe invasion, arrives on the market that would not sensitize skin in some as well, being completely USDA compliant other than in terms of a great marketing tool, will not be the forefront of the purpose behind creating our truly safe ONATI Skin Care line or any of our other mineral makeup products.

So in short, Natural and Organic are mutually exclusive and are very different in their meaning when it comes to producing and marketing skincare and cosmetic products. The key is to filter through the list of ingredients and determine what is what. Just realize that nothing is really remaining natural in a skincare product and it has been altered in order to make it safe for use. Organic is as simple as reading labels and making sure that the product really consists of these ingredients. It is also going to be dependent on the integrity of the company providing truth in labeling.

Enjoy Nature In Its Natural State

Have a great weekend and hope you have lovely weather for this Easter Holiday! The flowering trees should be in full swing and is a lovely time to have a Sunday brunch with family or friends.

A cherished memory for me this time of year is wandering through Golden Gate Park and visiting the Conservatory and the Japanese Tea Gardens with my Gran when everything was in full bloom from trees to tulips. A truly splendid way to to spend the day.....

Cheers and Happy Easter!

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1 comment:

  1. A letter I received in regard to this article:

    Loved this newsletter, as always! Just sent it to a bunch of my friends.

    I was very glad to see the Dr. Bronner’s article/lawsuit too…I have always wondered how those other companies get away with those ingredients and misleading labels.

    You just inspired me to get back to figuring out my perfect mineral foundation color…I just placed an order for a bunch of samples. I did order a bunch of samples last fall, but none turned out to be my right color. This time I am determined! I did love the feel of your products tho, and the ease with which they go on and wear.

    Thanks again for all the great info! Looking forward to getting my new stuff!

    Katie R.
    Manlius, New York