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New York Times on the Organic Body Care Controversy

The New York Times
Sunday May 18, 2003
Is Organic Shampoo Chemistry or Botany?
By JOHN LELAND

The other night I served an organic pasta sauce and washed my face with an
organic cleanser. The sauce was made from tomatoes and other farm
ingredients, all certified organic under strict federal guidelines. The
facial cleanser featured a handful of synthetic and chemical ingredients,
including some that ecological activists have questioned as possibly harmful
to users or the environment.

Both products came from the same store and promised the same organic
quality. But in each case the word organic described a different set of
standards.

When it comes to soaps and shampoos, "almost every product out there labeled
organic isn't," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic
Consumers Association. At meetings of organic manufacturers and federal
regulators in Austin, Tex., last week, the consumer group complained that
companies are exploiting the term organic to sell products little different
from any others ‹ and with little oversight from the government.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which regulates organic food
labeling, has neither standards nor the authority to regulate labels on
personal care products.

The cleanser I used, selected at a local health food store, is made by
Avalon Natural Products. Its components are used in a range of shampoos,
conditioners, scrubs, lotions and lip balms labeled as organic by numerous
manufacturers.

Twenty years ago, an organic label might have been of interest to a few
health purists. But as organic foods have moved from farm stands to major
supermarkets, the term "organic" has come to represent not a set of farming
guidelines but a lifestyle, accessorized with everything from unbleached
cotton sheets to hemp clothing, to beauty and body-care products.

"These things are coming into supermarkets on the back of organic foods,"
said Peggy Northrop, editor in chief of Organic Style magazine, which comes
off as Vogue for vegetarians. For young women, she added, "organic doesn't
mean food, it means an attitude toward your life."

The promise of organic, in foods or body lotions, is that natural
ingredients, minimally processed, are healthier for people and better for
the ecosystem than conventional products. Though this logic doesn't always
hold up, consumers are willing to pay more for products bearing an organic
label.

When the Agriculture Department issued the first standards for labeling
organic foods last October, after more than a decade of wrangling, it closed
a loophole in the food industry, putting strict limits on how manufacturers
and stores could use the label organic. An organic label on one company's
food products meant the same as on another's.

But for cosmetics and personal care products, consumer advocates say,
"organic" means whatever manufacturers say it does. Products made using
petroleum-derived and other synthetic or chemical ingredients, prohibited in
organic foods, can be found among the organic shampoos and lotions made by
Avalon, Nature's Gate, Jason Natural Cosmetics, Kiss My Face and other
brands, said Urvashi Rangan, an environmental health scientist.

On a recent evening at Whole Foods Market in Manhattan, Dr. Rangan, who runs
Eco-Labels.org at Consumers Union, the company that publishes Consumer
Reports, examined the labels in an aisle of shampoos and conditioners. She
shook her head.

"Even with a Ph.D. in toxicology, I can't tell whether these are any
different from what you'd find in a drug store," she said. Dr. Rangan did
not think the products posed big health risks. But reading a list of
ingredients ‹ "Zinc gluconate, methyl propyl paraben, olefin sulfonate, DEA,
steareth-2" ‹ she added, "You have to ask yourself, What are these doing in
a product that's called organic?"

Allyn Jones, who runs the Whole Body division of Whole Foods Markets, said
the company carefully chooses only products with no petroleum-based colors
or oils, and avoids brands "that were just using organic as a marketing
gimmick." She added that since personal care products are mostly water and
may be stored for long periods, they need preservatives not found in organic
foods. Even so, she said, "it's really confusing for consumers." Standards
that apply on one side of the store do not apply on the other, Mrs. Jones
said.

Because the word organic is used to mean different things, it is difficult
to tally the sales of products using the name. The Natural Marketing
Institute, which analyzes the sales of products positioned as natural,
estimated that personal care products for this broader group accounted for
$2.8 billion last year.

Most people don't monitor their hair products as vigorously as they do their
pasta sauce, of course, for the obvious reason that they don't eat their
styling gel. But the skin, scalp and hair are remarkably efficient at
absorbing toxins and carcinogens. A group of researchers at Stanford
University in 1999 found they could deliver a DNA vaccine to laboratory mice
as effectively by rubbing it on their skin as injecting it into muscle.

In fact, some toxins can do more harm absorbed through the skin than through
the digestive system because they lodge directly in fat cells, bypassing the
liver, said Dr. Rangan.

Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, an emeritus professor of environmental and
occupational medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of
Public Health and chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, has led some
of the most aggressive campaigns against toxins in personal care products.
Even natural-sounding ingredients, he said, might break down to form
carcinogens, or be contaminated by pesticides.

But surveying the ingredients of a dozen personal care products labeled
organic, Dr. Epstein saw few reasons for alarm. "Good Lord, these are lower
in carcinogens than the average bottle," he said.

Even so, such products fall short of the promises implied by the label
organic, said Diana Kaye, a partner in Terressentials, a small
Maryland-based company that makes shampoos and lotions without artificial
ingredients or processes. Ms. Kaye, a former architect, started the company
after chemotherapy treatments for cancer left her sensitive to the chemicals
in many products, even those labeled organic. Such products merit careful
scrutiny, she said, because people use them daily over long periods of time..

The organic industry has formed a task force to develop voluntary guidelines
for cosmetics and personal care products, said Katherine DiMatteo, executive
director of the Organic Trade Association, which represents many of the
major manufacturers. "We feel we should protect the integrity of the organic
claim," she said. "It's quite an unregulated business." Past attempts to get
manufacturers to agree on standards had broken down, she said.

As first steps toward voluntary standards, Ms. DiMatteo cited broad
consensus about banning petrochemicals, genetically modified crops,
irradiated ingredients and certain synthetics or chemicals that are
prohibited in organic foods.

Manufacturers are divided, however, on what to do about water. Under the
guidelines for organic food, products labeled "certified organic" must
include at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients; those with at
least 70 percent organic ingredients may be labeled as "containing organic
ingredients." Food manufacturers cannot count water toward these
percentages. The main ingredient in many personal care products is water ‹
with a little herbal extract dissolved in it, like a tea ‹ and manufacturers
often count the weight of water in their organic claims.

This herbal "tea" is sometimes listed on labels as hydrosol, and refers to
water that has been used to extract essential oils for other use. A shampoo
calling itself 80 percent organic may be 80 percent water or hydrosol, with
a hint of rosemary or other herb throughout. The remaining 20 percent of the
bottle may contain synthetic detergents and preservatives.

California, the first state to pass its own guidelines for organic personal
care products, allows manufacturers to include hydrosols in their
percentages of organic ingredients. Earlier this month, the Organic
Consumers Association lodged a complaint with state agencies in California,
singling out Avalon Natural Products for claiming that hydrosols were
organic, which the association said was deceptive.

Mr. Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said this practice allows
products with very small traces of organic oils or herbs to be labeled
organic. "We're afraid of the degradation of the entire organic label," he
said.

Emma Mann, the brand manager for Avalon's organic line, said the company's
use of hydrosols, as well as synthetic detergents and preservatives,
complied with California law. "We'd like to see those synthetics replaced by
organic ingredients," she said, but she added that such replacements were
not available.

Along with Consumers Union, Mr. Cummins's group called for manufacturers and
government agencies to hold open meetings on standards, inviting the public
to watch and comment. "If it gets out there that we've got this
multibillion-dollar industry that's a hoax," he said, "it's going to
undermine people's support across the board."

As for my own experience, the organic cleanser was gentle and nonirritating,
but left my skin dryer than my usual synthetic soap. The pasta sauce was
from Muir Glen. To my taste it needed salt.


 

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