Is It Organic? How To Read the Labels

Cosmetics companies bedazzle their products and packaging with seals that proclaim their green credentials. Since there’s no one organization regulating organic standards within the beauty industry, in the United Stated or internationally, keeping up with the myriad acronyms can make your head spin.

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We’re here to help. Flip through the gallery for the seals you’re most likely to see on store shelves, and exactly what they mean.


Who’s behind it: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is a private, non-profit organization that coordinates voluntary standardization in the U.S. In this case, ANSI had input from cosmetics industry representatives, health/regulatory officials, regulators, organic program administrators, organic product retailers, and other involved in the organic products community.

What it means: the American National Standard for personal care products verifies that all materials, processes, production criteria, and conditions must be met to call a product organic.

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It’s specific to personal care products containing mostly organic ingredients (as opposed to the USDA Organic Seal, which handles products that claim to be 100 percent organic and does not yet certify cosmetics). Under NSF/ANSI 305, products with a “made with organic” label claim must contain at least 70 percent organic content. All other ingredients must have passed a rigorous vetting process by a scientific panel.

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Where to find the seal: Avalon Organics has recently re-formulated all of its products to meet this standard. Pictured here is their Vitamin C Refreshing Cleansing Gel ($10.50, The gel contains aloe, lemon and white tea, as well as plant-derived vitamin C. The NSF-approved version will be available in stores and online in January 2012, for a slightly higher price ($12.50).

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Who’s behind it: It’s an inspection and certification body established in France in 1991 by eco-friendly agronomists. The goal is to set standards for and certify organic agricultural products.

What it means:  In 2002, Ecocert developed standards for natural and organic cosmetics, stating that ingredients must be renewable and packaging must be biodegradable or recyclable.

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For the organic cosmetic label, a minimum of 95 percent of all plant-based ingredients (and 10 percent by weight) must be products of organic farming. The natural cosmetic label certifies 50 percent of ingredients are organic (at least 5 percent by weight).

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Where to find the seal: Physicians Formula Organic Wear Jumbo Lash Mascara ($9.95, at drugstores) contains the following organic ingredients: tapioca starch, olive, orange water, rice protein, beeswax, aloe and cucumber. All packaging—even the brush—is recyclable.

Absolution, a French skincare line now available in the US, also bears the Ecocert label.

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Who’s behind it: The Natural Products Association (NPA) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that established a national standard for natural personal care products in 2008.

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What it means: A product labeled “natural” should be made up of at least 95 percent natural ingredients.

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These ingredients should not have any suspected human health risk. There’s no animal testing in development, and the ingredients are biodegradable and packaging is environmentally sensitive. Ingredients must come from renewable resources with no petroleum compounds.


Where to find it: All of the products from the Silken Earth makeup linen bear the seal, including Aubrey Organics Silken Earth Body Shimmer ($24,

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7USDA Organic

Who’s behind it: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its National Organic Program (NOP).

What it means: According to the NOP website, “the label ensures that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.”

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The label isn’t designed for personal care products, but for those products containing agricultural products, they have cosmetics guidelines. For example, if a label reads “100 percent organic” it must be all organically raised ingredients, excluding water and salt (which can’t be classified as organic or not). “Organic” products must contain 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt), and the remaining ingredients must be on an approved National list. “Made with organic ingredients,” products must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients, but may not display the seal.

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8USDA Organic

Where to find it: Origins Organics Purifying Tonic 95% Certified Organic ($25, contains Organic Lavender Alcohol to cleanse pores and Organic Vinegar to slough dead skin cells; Organic Willow Bark contains salicylic acid to break up clogs. All products from John Masters Organics also follow USDA guidelines.

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9The Soil Association

Who’s behind it: A charity in the United Kingdom that promotes and develops sustainable approaches to food, farming, and other products.

What it means: They, along with four other European certification bodies (BIDH in Germany, Ecocert Greenlife and Cosmebio in France, and ICEA in Italy), have developed the Cosmetics Organic Standard (or COSMOS-standard) to create global standards.

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To get this certification, 95 percent of a product’s ingredients must be organic. If an ingredient is available organically, it must be used. The remaining ingredients must meet strict health and environmental standards.

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10The Soil Association

Where to find it: Lush Therapy Massage Bar ($9.95, contains only organic ingredients, including lavender oil (to relieve stress) and Neroli oils (a yummy-smelling tension and anxiety reliever said to increase circulation) all certified by The Soils Association. However, you won’t see the seal on the packaging—this is one of over 50 percent of Lush products that are sold “naked,” i.e. with no packaging.

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Who’s behind it: A Brussels-based international nonprofit organization “to promote and protect natural beauty and skin care products” founded in 2007 by several European makers of natural and organic cosmetics.

What it means: The label ensures that a product is made with natural and organic ingredients, using “soft” manufacturing processes and environmentally friendly practices.

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This means no synthetic fragrances or colors, petroleum derivatives, silicones, genetically modified ingredients, or animal testing. They certify to three levels: natural cosmetics, “natural cosmetics with organic portion,” and organic cosmetics.

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Where to find it: ($28, contains skin rejuvenating natural antioxidants.

Burt’s Bees is also a member of Natrue.

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13California Organic

Who’s behind it: The state of California passed The California Organics Product Act of 2003.

What it means: The act prohibits the retail sale of any cosmetic product labeled as “organic” unless that product (excluding water) has a minimum of 70 percent organic content.

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14California Organic

Where to find it: Juice Beauty Green Apple Age Defy Moisturizer ($45, contains a 100 percent organic juice base with over 60 active organic ingredients.

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Who’s behind it: Germany’s Federation of Industries and Trading Firms for medicines, health products, dietary supplements and personal care products (BDIH) created a seal in 1996 to establish strict guidelines for the manufacture of natural cosmetics.

What it means: Plant-based ingredients must be responsibly sourced, manufacturing processes must be ecologically responsible, and there is no animal testing.

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Synthetic dyes and fragrances, silicones, and petroleum products are not allowed. All preservatives must be eco-safe.

Where to find it: Aubrey Organics displays this seal on its European product labels.

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Who’s behind it: It was created in 2002 with the collaboration of ten European cosmetic laboratories committed to an ecological and natural cosmetics industry. The group now includes some 350 companies in France and abroad, including cosmetics laboratories, distributors, contract manufacturers and raw material suppliers.

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What it means: The Bio label means that the contents are at least 95 percent natural ingredients or derived from natural sources, at least 95 percent of plant ingredients were produced by organic farming, and at least 10 percent of the total product was also organically farmed (this allows for water content which can’t be certified organic). The Eco label means that a product has at least 95 percent natural ingredients, 50 percent organic plant ingredients and 5 percent organic total contents.

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Who’s behind it: It’s a 501(c)6 Mutual Benefit Trade Association with a membership composed of cosmetics companies, manufacturers and other industry leaders.

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What it means: The seal certifies products to two levels: organic and “made with organic.” The latter contains minimum 70 percent organic content with criteria for the remaining ingredients. Organic required 90 percent organic ingredients as of January 2010 and will shift to 95 percent in 2012.

Where to find it: Aveda is a member.