Article by: Guest Author

This is a guest post by Dene Godfrey.  He was a recent guest on the Chemists Corner podcast and always has more to say about cosmetic formulation.


I understand the concept of “organic” farming (although I don’t especially approve of the hijacking of the word “organic”, but language evolves, so who am I to argue?), and I understand the desire of people who make a lifestyle choice to eat only, or mainly, “organic” produce. This is food. It is grown under the required conditions to meet the approval of those who determine what constitutes organic food, and there is broad agreement on these requirements because the concept is based on some logic. Apart from the cooking aspect, there is very little modification required between what springs from the earth (or from the female animal, in the case of meat), and what lies on the plate to be eaten.

Despite the absence of proof of any real health benefits from eating organic produce, I understand the concept. (Having said this, I am aware that there are those who maintain that ANY chemical change to natural materials means that they are no longer natural. So cooking is out, then, if you want to eat only natural foods!)

Organic Cosmetics

I just don’t get “organic” cosmetics.

I should, at this point, explain that I am not “anti-natural” or even “pro-synthetic”. I simply believe that cosmetic products should be effective and safe, irrespective of the origin of the ingredients.
I understand the desire for “natural” products, but only as a lifestyle choice (NOT as being more safe), but I don’t understand what “organic” adds to this. Despite the many and varied definitions of “natural”, there is some logic in the concept, despite the technical difficulties of actually achieving 100% natural. There is certainly no inherent safety benefit between natural and organic.

Illogical Organic Cosmetics

Organic cosmetics seems an illogical concept to me. In order to have any real use in cosmetics, natural ingredients usually have to go through some stages of processing and, in some cases, chemical modification. After the organic ingredient has been processed, the difference between the organic and its natural equivalent is surely irrelevant, if indeed there was any difference before processing!

In fact, I find the whole concept of organic cosmetics counter-intuitive. I think it reasonable to assume that most people who seek organic cosmetics are those who are more likely to believe the most passionately in protecting the environment and improving sustainability. Given that the yield of organic crops tends to be much less than “conventional” crops, more land is required to produce the same quantity of ingredient in organic farming, compared with conventional methods and, consequently, less land is available for food crops. Food prices are already affected by the huge land usage required to grow crops for bio-fuels — growing organic crops for cosmetic use exacerbates the situation (as an aside, this is also an argument against relying too heavily on natural ingredients themselves — some form of balance is required).

Non-science based standards

The lack of logic (and certainly the lack of science) behind the concept of organic cosmetics is amply demonstrated by the sheer number of different organic certification groups, each with different criteria, and even more well-exemplified by the unseemly and protracted wrangling between those few certification bodies who wish to produce a universal standard. (This is now complete, but at the expense of huge compromise and the continuation of the individual standards alongside the universal one!). If science and logic played any part in organic cosmetics, the agreeing of a universal standard would surely have been much more straightforward.

The acceptance of certain preservatives is a classic example of the woolly thinking behind the concept. Initially, some bodies did not intend approving ANY conventional preservatives! This would have been very interesting! When asked for the thinking behind those that ARE now accepted, I was told that it was based on those permitted in foods. Not organic foods — just foods. Food preservation has very different requirements to cosmetic preservation — there is some crossover, but not enough.

Organic or not?

Some chemical processes are deemed to be permissible without losing the “organic” tag. Some are not. Again, there seems to be very little logic applied to the decision on the permitted processes.
I have limited direct experience of working with the certification bodies but, from what I have seen, whilst they may use some form of scientific advice (in the form of an advisory committee), the real decisions are taken by non-scientists, and do not always conform to the scientific advice offered. I cannot claim that this is definitely the case for all these bodies, but given the decisions made on some certification criteria, it would seem to be a reasonable claim to apply to them all. Decisions seem to be made on the basis of expedience rather than logic.

Currently, there are growing numbers of self-appointed certification bodies, with no regulatory powers, who charge for certification to their standard on highly subjective criteria. They are commercial companies who rely on this income to exist, although many people seem to believe that they are altruistic institutions who exist purely for the benefit of the consumer (playing on the misconception that “organic” is safe)! Not so!

Reasonable cosmetic natural standards

There is no logic to the concept of organic cosmetics; there is no science behind the concept of organic cosmetics; it is entirely subjective. Why does no-one (to the best of my knowledge) certify “natural”? For the absolute purists, “natural” cosmetics should be virtually impossible, as it could be argued that even if one took two “natural” substances directly from nature and combined them, if they don’t exist together in nature, this combination is not natural. However, although there are also many different opinions as to what exactly constitutes “natural”, certification could be relatively easy, given a little pragmatism. I believe it should be possible to break down all cosmetic ingredients into 4 groups:
1) Totally natural — taken straight from nature with NO processing
2) Extracted from nature — taken from nature with minimal processing; i.e. nothing beyond extraction, with no chemical changes
3) Nature-identical — substances not taken directly from nature, but synthesized to give exactly the same chemical structure or composition (of mixtures) as that which exists in nature.
4) Nature-derived — this covers every other substance as, unless new matter is created, EVERYTHING is derived from nature in some way.

This classification system would be relatively straightforward for “natural” ingredients, but I repeat the original question:

Why organic?



  1. valentin nenov

    Hello, I am not sure how old is the post but decided to give an opinion. I have medical education with experience on global technical position in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies for the last 15 years. I am not a cosmetic chemist but I really like Chemist Corner as I make, as a side business skin care products (I can be fired for that).
    So on the topic if the skin absorbs like a sponge, pure scientifically – NO. The skin is a strong barrier and is created not to absorb like a sponge. BUT the skin can absorbs different substances. Hair follicles and sweat glands canals are a way for rapid absorption but they represent less than 1% of the skin’s surface. Everything else needs to pass through the epidermis.
    The epidermis is the main (impenetrable) barrier and everything reaching the dermis (below) is easily absorbed INTO the blood stream.
    But what can cross the epidermis? Stratum corneum, the outer layer of the dermis is made of free fatty acids, cholesterol and ceramides. This means that only some lipophilic or lipid soluble substances with rather low molecular weight will readily penetrate the skin but not any water based substances.
    So, the skin is not a sponge and does not absorb water based products but absorbs lipids soluble substances readily into the blood.
    Non- organic cosmetics coming from conventional farming may contain certain chemicals as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers but due to the international regulations the level should be so low that they will be virtually not present in the cosmetic product and not absorbed into the skin. most of the pesticides are water soluble – no skin penetration.
    Another point is if you put any thing on irritated or damaged skin it will be faster absorbed.
    Cosmetics, either natural or synthetic contain a lipophilic part so they can be absorbed and if they have a toxic, lipid soluble substance with low molecular weight it will be absorbed into the blood.
    For conclusion: Skin absorbs many substances into the blood and especially from cosmetic products. Skin is not a sponge and will not absorb water based products. There is no advantage of the organic cosmetic vs natural as no pesticides and chemical from the natural cosmetics will be absorbed or even present in the products.
    Oops, my post went rather long.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Thanks for your comments! I still get comments no matter how old the post is and the information here is still relevant today as much as it was a couple years ago when I wrote it.

  2. moyra

    You lost me when you started talking about farming and how organic farming uses more land…not true. What about all the pesticides, chemicals used in conventional farming? Same as cosmetics…our skin absorbs a lot of what we put on it. With the world we live in, I would like to be able to make the choices where I can.

    1. Perry

      Thanks for your comments. Canadian & US researchers would disagree with you as they demonstrate that organic farming requires more land use. And as far as cosmetics being absorbed into your body through your skin…scientific research would dispute that.

  3. Pingback:Saving Your Face with Natural Cosmetics - GALO Magazine

  4. Ilona

    You cannot consider the whole market as there are many quite stable consumer groups. The high-end and multi-level marketing product consumers are usually not interested in trying other products because of the branding. The mass product consumers don’t try anything more because of the price. I wrote about the left. These want organics and/or “feeding” products. This group is growing. And in my country it’s already big.

    Your main argument is good, but you didn’t understand me. People don’t think organics are more effective. They think these are more safe and more kind to a nature. This is only because of companies that use the word “natural” with products that contain harsh chemicals.

  5. Dene

    Ilona, I am not sure quite how you manage to be able to state authoritatively that “a lot” of consumers want to “feed their skin”, but I doubt that the “traditional” cosmetics companies, given their >95% market share, would see this as much of a problem. The top layers of our skin consist of dead cells, feeding our skin is best done from the inside – this is how we evolved. We are moving away from my main argument, which was that “organic cosmetics” is almost pure marketing, with virtually no science.

  6. Ilona

    Actually a lot of consumers want cosmetics that feed their skin, so it is traditional’s cosmetic industry’s problem that their products are not designed for it. I hope you understand me.
    And yes, only “feeding” kind of personal care products make the skin very bright and beautiful without using optic light-diffusing ingredients.

  7. Dr Shah, Eladevi

    Thank you. I can agree to the sentence and particular word ” different route of exposure”
    the plant Cissus quadrangularis on the skin forms blister but can be taken orally not creating blister in g.i.tract so I would say other way round for something you could not put on skin can take orally. How to prevent chemical hazards created by cosmetics? If you identify the problem due to plant-pesticides would you like to go for that formulation?
    I would say little science behind it not major.

  8. Dene

    Cosmetics are not generally designed to “feed” the skin, and there is no toxicological connection between different routes of exposure, in most cases. There is certainly no scientific evidence to support the belief that you should only put on your skin substances that you can eat – the metabolic processes are entirely different. There is no science behind organic cosmetics.

  9. Dr Shah, Eladevi

    I do agree on toxicological point there is no difference in between skin, hair and All our body organs are equal and why the skin is not worth the same quality “food” as stomach?
    It is a pity that sales of organic cosmetics in the UK dropped by 27% in 2010, compared with 2009. In 2009 those are successful in telling people what to buy and in 2010 they failed. It shows failure of the game player market push not the science. It is pity science has to suffer. Scientist do not know the language of communication if they knew never fail I am sure.

  10. Dene

    @ Ilona – I am not sure who the people are to whom you refer, but the vast majority of cosmetics use some of the ingredients that you claim are not wanted. Application to the skin is totally different to ingestion and there is no toxicological connection between the two. It may surprise you to know that The Soil Association recently announced that sales of organic cosmetics in the UK dropped by 27% in 2010, compared with 2009. To me, that does not seem to be strong evidence of consumer popularity.

    @ SL Meyer – many thanks 🙂

  11. Ilona

    It’s very simple. People don’t want to use all these PEGs, mineral oils etc. and are fed up will these “natural” cosmetics with parabens, formaldehyde releasers and other chemicals. Only the word “organic” can make them confident that no harsh chemicals and GMOs are in their products. As I know, for many people organically grown plants (their oils and extracts) are not that important, but if they are in a product, it’s anyway nice as organically grown plants contain more vitamins and beneficial compounds with no insecti/pesticides. Even in a plain food store you can see a difference between organic and nonorganic fruits and vegetables. All our body organs are equal and why the skin is not worth the same quality “food” as stomach?
    And last but not least, for a normal person it’s kind a scary to read that there are a half less palm and coconut trees in southern countries because of cosmetic and other industries. And every normal person wants to minimize the harm. And even by paying more money.

  12. SL Meyer

    Sanity, they name is Dene! Well said, well wrote.

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