DESPITE THE EMPHASIS on food and beverage, everyone knows the world of whole health is incomplete without natural and organic skincare products. Organic chamomile-infused lotions, Dead Sea-salt facial scrubs, paraben-free hand salves and hypo-allergenic soaps are part of the regimen that the wellness-minded use to enhance and round out their care of body, mind and spirit.
Yet incomplete is precisely how some in the industry feel. They criticize the lack of federal leadership regarding organic oversight and the inadequate guidance on defining the term “natural.” They are confused by the industry's own competing certification plans, and are wary of self-promoting claims that many manufacturers place on their labels.
“Consumers can be very easily misled in this marketplace if they're not paying attention,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy for Consumers Union, Yonkers, N.Y.
A number of retailers are aware of the confusion and have taken steps to implement their own buying policies in an effort to reassure their consumers that the products they purchase are authentic in their claims. After setting up its own organic standards in 2010, Whole Foods Market  this summer introduced its Premium Body Care standards program to help define “natural.” To date the chain has approved more than 2,500 products, including most of its 365 private-label line.
“The products that meet our PBC standards are flagged on shelf with special signs showing the PBC logo,” wrote Chris Jenson, a Whole Foods blogger on the company's website.
In Seattle, PCC Natural Markets relies on the ingredient criteria set forth by the Natural Products Association's Natural Standard. The 10-store co-op notified its vendors in 2009 that ingredients in natural personal care products must comply within a year with the NPA rule.
“The term ‘natural’ in reference to personal care products has never been defined or regulated by any government entity,” said Wendy McLain, PCC's health and beauty aids merchandiser.
Nearly three years later, McLain says the chain is pleased with the progress made, particularly in its facial, skin and hair care product lines, though the process is ongoing: Sourcing deodorant that is propylene glycol-free and toothpaste that is free of sodium lauryl sulfate can be a challenge.
“We haven't dropped manufacturers who are making a good faith effort to comply with the standard,” McLain added.
For Whole Foods, the combining of the new PBC standards and the organic standards adopted earlier allow the chain to now cover just about every skincare product it sells. The criteria is used in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standard, as well as the NSF/ANSI 305 organic standard created in 2010 by NSF International, a nonprofit testing and certification organization.
The latter is currently working with the European International Natural and Organic Cosmetic Association, Natrue, to introduce rules for natural personal care.
“Consumers are coming to realize that what they put on their skin is as important as what in they put in their body,” said Jackie Bowen, general manager of Quality Assurance International, a third-party firm working with NSF on the natural standard.
This broadening portfolio of third-party certification options has allowed retailers of all sizes, from Whole Foods to single-store independents, to take additional steps in selling authentic natural and organic skincare products. The National Cooperative Grocers Association, which counts PCC and Minneapolis-based The Wedge among its 122 members, last year took the step of approving changes to the overall group's promotions policy based on the emerging standards.
“Effective June this year, NCGA changed our promotions program policy to exclude ‘organic’ body care vendors who aren't compliant with USDA NOP or NSF/ANSI 305 standards,” said Kelly Smith, the NCGA's spokesperson.
Retailer interest in certification is a direct result of indecision and infighting at the federal level. For example, the USDA established the NOP for organic products, but is only willing to regulate the use of agricultural ingredients used in personal care formulas. Oversight of the actual, finished products — made up of lotions, salves and cosmetics — falls under the realm of the Food and Drug Administration.
A recent push by Congress to get both agencies to reconcile their differences and establish a single standard for organic personal care products only partly resolved the issue. While FDA issued a “statement of intended collaboration” should the NOP clarify its lead authority over organic skincare, the agency cautioned that NOP would have to make sure any new regulations would not contradict already-established FDA rules, or force already-approved products to fall out of compliance.
“USDA made the commitment to put [organic] in its scope, so we think they should be giving it its full due diligence,” said Rangan of the Consumers Union.
Last year, Consumers Union joined the Organic Consumers Association in filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging the USDA was failing to enforce organic standards equally among food and personal care products.
The outlook is equally confusing for the term “natural,” which remains largely unqualified for both food and nonfood items. Consumer advocates are hopeful federal agencies, which have seemed more responsive under the Obama administration, will work out their conflicting, crossover responsibilities.
“We continue to encourage them that they can be involved with each without stepping on anyone's toes, and that they can help the others work syngergistically to make sure that their eco-label programs are as good as they can be,” said Rangan.
- • Set up ways to stay informed. Third-party certification programs are quickly growing.
- • Consumer campaigns should be comprehensive but keep the language simple.
- • Natural/organic skincare is a very technical subject and may require a staff specialist.
These ingredients often top the list of consumer concerns, and their use is strictly monitored in the most popular certification programs.
- • Propylene glycol: A moisturizer suspected of causing skin and eye irritation; potentially damaging to internal organs.
- • Sodium lauryl sulfate: Ethoxylated ingredient linked to tissue damage; added as a foaming agent to toothpaste and shampoos.
- • Parabens: Synthetic preservatives that are potential endocrine disruptors.
- • Phthalates: Synthetic fragrance components and suspected toxins.
- • Diazolidinyl urea: One type of preservative known to create formaldehyde as it breaks down over time.
SOURCE: Natural Products Association