Organic Consumers Association

Tricks of the Trade

Posted 03/24/2003

Trick #1: Outright lying. Technically, it's illegal, but somebody has to catch them first. The FDA told us that they don't have the time or the resources to do anything about it! Sometimes you'll see the word "organic" on the label, and the product doesn't have a single certified organic ingredient in it. One manufacturer of chemical products, when we called them on the phone, told us that all of their ingredients were certified organic. They weren't. Here's the bottom line: organic ingredients are plant oils or extracts, or other unadulterated agricultural products. They are not chemical names!

Trick #2: Natural water. There's nothing wrong with water, but it shouldn't be used to cheat customers. Here's how it works: most personal care products have a lot of water in them. That's OK. (We use distilled water. In our products, the remaining portion is truly natural and organic ingredients - certified organic sunflower oil, for example.) If you want to make a chemical product have the appearance of being natural, make the water portion a ridiculously dilute infusion (weak tea) of a huge number of herbs, preferably organic. The herbs don't have to really do anything. Throw in all sorts of exotic sounding things, and don't forget trendy things like kava-kava and ginseng that have no place in a body care product. Since they're in the water, they'll come first on the label, even if they barely exist in the product. (Is the product white, or clear? Real herb tea isn't clear - it's brown.) All of those herbs sure look great on the label, don't they? Use any sort of chemicals for the rest of the product. Most people aren't familiar with conventional product formulation, and they focus on the plant names and the pictures of leaves on the bottle, glossing over the words they don't understand. By the way, watch out for the word "Tea." Sometimes it's triethanolamine, an industrial chemical. Sneaky!

Trick #3: "Organic" water. Water can't be organic, because it's not an agricultural product. That's why the USDA, in their regulations, say that you're not allowed to count the water portion of a product when calculating the percentage of organic ingredients. Because if you could count it, you could use that to be very deceptive. How? Imagine if you made a product from a very weak herbal tea made from certified organic herbs, along with a blend of synthetic chemicals. You might say "contains 78% organic ingredients" and the remaining 22% of the ingredients are synthetic chemicals. Would you eat an organic food product that was 78% water and 22% chemical ingredients? You could also use a hydrosol (floral water), a by-product of the essential oil industry to inflate your "organic" percentages of ingredients in your product. While there is nothing inherently wrong with hydrosols, they are still around 99% water and, according to the USDA organic rules, can't be part of the organic ingredients calculations. The actual certified organic content of a hydrosol, if you could remove the water, would be very small indeed. Did you ever let a cup of tea evaporate? There isn't much left in the cup, just a little residue. A very important thing to know about the USDA organic regulations is that the non-organic portion of an organic formula can't contain synthetic petrochemicals. Sadly, most body care companies (even some of the ones you trust) have chosen to ignore the current organic regulations.

Trick #4: Oleochemicals. There are two kinds of synthetic chemicals: petrochemicals, made from crude petroleum, and oleochemicals, made from plant oils, most often coconut oil and sometimes from conventionally-grown, genetically-modified corn. (Did you know that a new version of canola (rapeseed) has been genetically engineered to produce "coconut" oil?) They're all processed in factories and chemically turned into a wide range of different substances through the use of high pressure, extremely high temperatures of thousands of degrees, and combinations with various solvents, catalysts and other chemicals. They all come under the official USDA definition of synthetic. They'll say that they're "derived from" natural sources. Every man-made object or substance on earth or in outer space is derived from natural sources, if you think about it. To really fool people, put the name of a plant in parentheses after the chemical, like this: "methyl paraben (blueberries)". You can say "no petrochemicals" and still use cheap synthetic chemicals - detergents, foam boosters, emulsifiers, thickeners, the whole works. They call them natural but they really aren't. Why not call petrochemicals or gasoline "natural?" They're "derived from" natural plants and dinosaurs! (It's been done!) Remember, petrochemicals and oleochemicals aren't permitted in certified organic foods. They're synthetic.

Trick #5: Word games. Some manufacturers say things like "made with 100% organic botanicals," meaning that a few of the individual ingredients are "100% organic"...but the others could be synthetic. Makes you think the whole thing is certified organic! Some say things like "no sodium lauryl sulfate" or mention some other chemicals, to give the impression that they don't use any chemicals. They just don't use those chemicals. Sometimes they say "made without any unsafe chemicals" - they just use chemicals that they consider to be safe. Often you'll see "made with" or "contains" this herb and that herb - to make you think that's all they're made of. Ha! How about the ones who say they're "environmentally-friendly," and put their products in vinyl bottles and bags? With friends like that, who needs enemies?

One last thing. According to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), food products that are labeled as "organic" are not permitted to be made in chemical factories. In fact, organic ingredients are not even permitted to come into contact with synthetic chemicals not permitted by the NOP. The USDA defines synthetic ingredients in their rules and says that a synthetic ingredient is one that was "altered" in a chemical or non-biological process - in other words, something "derived from" something else. So, how can you have a product that is labeled "organic" that contains unapproved synthetic petrochemicals and oleochemicals? According to the USDA organic rules for food, you can't. Body care ingredients are absorbed, rapidly, through your skin. It's a lot like eating food. Always choose the less questionable products - look for products in which all of the ingredients have names like organic foods that you eat, or natural, nontoxic minerals like clay, or water. Natural clays and minerals can be a portion of the soil that organic plants grow in and, of course, water is a necessity. If you look in a seed catalog, could you find seeds for each ingredient? You've got to look out for yourself. It's not necessary to use any synthetic chemicals to make body care products.

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.