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Chicago Tribune on Body Care Products Labeled as Organic

Chicago Tribune
May 9, 2004

Think `organic' products are only natural? Hardly

By: Julie Deardorff

Hoping to avoid harmful toxins in daily life, I began buying what I thought
were "organic" soaps, shampoos and lotions. I assumed organic meant the
product was wholesome, free of petrochemicals and carcinogens and
manufactured in an ecologically friendly way.

Then I examined the label of my organic lavender and aloe shampoo. Olefin
sulfonate and cocamidopropyl betaine didn't sound very herblike. In fact,
they are chemical compounds that create suds.

Although we don't ingest shampoos and soaps, studies have shown that
preservatives and additives in personal care products aren't necessarily
just washing down the drain. Instead, the chemicals can soak into the body
through the skin and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Some have proven to
inhibit the effect of hormones. But while organic food now enjoys an
official government seal and quality assurance, the body-care product sector
of the industry is as lawless as the wild West in regard to content and
labeling. The market for organic non-food products is burgeoning--it grew by
nearly 20 percent last year--but consumers have no idea whether "organic"
shampoos, toothpaste or soaps are really organic.

Not only are there no official standards, but there also is no agency
policing the label claims on non-food items, which include personal care
products, nutritional supplements, organic fiber, household cleaners,
flowers and pet food.

The industry has been trying to devise guidelines to prevent "organic" from
becoming as eviscerated and meaningless as "natural." But last month, the
U.S. Department of Agriculture said manufacturers of non-food items cannot
display the coveted USDA Organic Seal.

They can, however, call themselves "organic" or say the products are "made
with organic ingredients," even if they're not, charges the Organic
Consumers Association, which is fuming. The watchdog group believes body
care standards should mirror the standards for food. Many in the industry,
however, believe the food standards would be unrealistically rigid.

"Unfortunately right now most body care products are not organic and are
making the claim based on water," said OCA President Ronnie Cummins during
last week's organic conference and trade show in Chicago.

That's because of hydrosols, or floral waters, which have become central to
the debate. Some manufacturers believe hydrosols, which are the waters
collected when certain plants are distilled to create essential oils, should
be considered organic if the steamed plants are organic.

This allows manufacturers of personal care products to claim a higher
percentage of organic ingredients. California, the only state to issue
organic standards for toiletries and cosmetics, allows products containing
at least 70 percent organic ingredients--including hydrosol--to carry a
state-approved organic seal.

But the OCA says this means some products labeled "70 percent organic
ingredients" are 70 percent water, and the remaining ingredients are
petrochemicals. This deceptive practice, says the OCA, is called
"greenwashing."

"It's opening the door to massive labeling fraud, while punishing companies
that have made significant investments in certified organic ingredients,"
said David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, which uses
organic oils in its products.

Last month, an industry task force finally agreed that floral water should
not be counted as an organic ingredient, but at least three major natural
body care companies with prominent shelf space still do. The industry is
also trying to hammer out a consensus on how many petrochemicals--if
any--can be included in an organic personal care product.

In the meantime, read labels diligently. If the first ingredient is
hydrosol, or floral water, Cummins of the OCA says you've bought a bogus
organic ingredient. Companies that use solid organic ingredients include
Aveda products, Dr. Bronner's and Terressentials, he said.

Also watch for parabens and ingredients with "eth" endings, such as sodium
laureth sulfate. Parabens are widely used petroleum-based preservatives that
have been found to accumulate in breast tumors. Methylparaben and
propylparaben are the most common.

Sodium laureth sulfate, meanwhile, carries powerful irritant detergents,
said Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of environmental medicine at the
University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.

I know chemicals are part of everyday products, are considered safe in small
doses and give products the shelf life we expect. But "organic" should
represent a legitimate alternative for those who want it. It shouldn't
simply be another way to market chemicals at a higher price.

E-mail Julie Deardorff at mailto:jdeardorff@tribune.com. Send health and
fitness news to mailto:drose@tribune.com.