Down the Drain?

Organic personal care products denied certification

In May 2003, the National Organic Program announced a broadening of the scope of organic certification. Richard Mathews, at the National Organic Standards Board meeting, told attendees that included in that organic scope were cosmetics and personal care items, pet food, dietary supplements, textiles, and fish.

Certifiers and manufacturers took advantage of the opportunity and “certified organic” soaps and shampoos, lip balms, and such soon hit the market. On November 12, 2003 the Dr. Bronner’s company announced its introduction of “…bar[s], 8 and 32 oz. soaps at a great price with all soap and essential oils certified organic by Oregon Tilth under the USDA’s rigorous food standards.”

A year later, the National Organic Program (NOP) changed its mind, and in April 2005 announced that cosmetics and personal care items may not carry the claim of NOP or USDA organic certification. Although Dr. Bronner’s is not alone in having gained organic certification for its products, it is unique in its reaction. The company has sued the USDA.

Bronner said consumers are confused by the myriad products that claim to have “organic” or “natural” ingredients. He feels that the USDA organic seal guarantees consumers that his products are free of chemicals and synthetic ingredients.

David Bronner is not alone in his opinion on this issue. Diana Kay of Terressentials also wants to use the USDA Organic label on her products. Many of Terressentials products, like Dr. Bronner’s, are made from organic agricultural ingredients. The question for NOP is not what is in the products but who has authority over them. In the case of cosmetics and personal care items, the authority is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Can USDA organic standards be applied to personal care items? Certainly there are products that meet the standards—certified organic food-grade cocoa butter, oils, herbs, and many other products which in some cases comprise 100 percent of the ingredients. Does the difference in their use make them ineligible for certification? As Ronnie Cummins, of the Organic Consumers Association, says, “Certified organic olive oil does not magically become nonorganic if it is used as a massage oil instead of on a salad.”

Many consumers want more regulation and FDA oversight on these products. Chemically sensitive consumers feel the need for real organic choices. Even those who do not swing toward organics are now questioning the safety of some of the chemicals regularly used in many of the products we apply to our skin. Some question whether FDA really is doing a good job of regulating these items and feel that the application of the organic regulations would improve the quality of choices in the market.

Does the argument that cosmetics and personal care items are under the sole authority of FDA hold water? We see examples of FDA co-regulating with USDA in at least a few organic products. Under the National Organic Program, organic livestock supplements may contain any FDA-approved minerals or vitamins. The FDA recently required a veterinarian’s guidance before allowing the use of homeopathic medications in an organic dairy operation in Indiana.

There are other examples of agencies co-regulating organics. The Federal Safety Inspection Service oversees meat labels, and the Environmental Protection Agency now performs NOP registration of pesticides. Can any of these examples be applied to personal care items? And if not, then why?

Complicating the question even further, NOP task forces have been set up for the creation of fish and pet food standards. However, government legal counsel and policy officials are still considering whether or not dietary supplements will be certifiable. Meanwhile, the first certified organic supplement has made its debut; the product is certified by ICS. But the FDA regulates supplements, too. Why question one and not the other?

Will certified organic dietary supplements go the way of personal care items? The USDA’s decision is very frustrating to companies that spent money and time to put the organic label on their products. Bronner said his company spent some $100,000 to meet the standards and attain certification. Clearly some manufacturers of personal care items have gone to great lengths to provide credibility in their organic claims. Others have simply used the “O-word” to get into a lucrative and growing market. In an unregulated world, the potential for misleading labels is tremendous. Without some sort of oversight or regulation—by the USDA, FDA, or both—consumers are not protected against bogus organic claims.

The Bronner lawsuit and its impact will surely be one to watch. Meanwhile, consumers who are seeking the purest products possible will continue to rely on the organic label. Whether or not it will remain on personal care items is now a matter for the courts to decide.

Consumers who are interested in this issue can find more information from the Organic Consumers Association’s “Coming Clean” campaign, which is asking consumers to take action on behalf of strong organic standards by signing its petition and sending a prewritten letter to the USDA at


Cissy Bowman is an organic certifier and manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a nonprofit organization (317-539-4317 or [email protected]).

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