Cosmetic Chemists Guide to Natural and Organic Cosmetic Standards

Listen to a podcast about cosmetic organic standards

If you work as a cosmetic formulator for any amount of time you will likely be asked by a marketer or customer to develop a “natural or “organic cosmetic formulation. It would be nice if you could just go look up a list of ingredients that fall under these categories but unfortunately, you can’t. The reason is that the terms natural and organic have no definition under the FD&C Act which is the law that defines how cosmetics are regulated. Similarly, the EU has no definition for “natural or “organic cosmetics either.

Since there isn’t a standard various groups have come out with their own guidelines for what they think these words should mean when applied to cosmetics. If you are trying to formulate a natural or organic cosmetic, any of the following standards could be adopted.

US Laws - USDA National Organic Program (NOP)

In the United States, there is already a government regulation for organically grown food. This standard has been set by the USDA National Organic Program. These represent the toughest of all standards and it isn’t surprising most cosmetic companies aren’t able to meet them. To get certified you can only use surfactants derived from organic sources (no petrochemicals) and you can’t have any ingredients that are processed via hydrogenation or sulfation. Additionally, no synthetic preservatives are allowed.

After you get certified, you can make claims like “100 percent organic” or “Organic” and you may put the USDA Organic Seal on your products. You can get lesser certifications with 95% or 70% organic materials, however, these do not get to use the organic seal.  There are some legal implications when using the word “organic” for any agriculturally derived ingredient (like oils, sugar, beeswax, etc).

A tough standard which typically leads to inferior functioning products

California Organic Products Act of 2003

This Act regulates the use of organic claims on cosmetics in the State of California only. In order to make either an “Organic” or a “Made with Organic” claim in Calif. you must have a minimum of 70% organic content calculated as described in the Act. You must also register with the California Department of Health Organic Program if you are a California based business.

Private Certification

NSF Organic Certification

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that created standards for products that can be labeled organic. The standards are a bit easier for cosmetic companies to meet while still creating a useable cosmetic product. For example, they allow many ingredients that are banned in the USDA’s standards including some synthetic preservatives and biodegradable surfactants. You’re still not allowed to use petrochemicals however. This organization is attempting to set world-wide standards. NSF is an ANSI Standard that only pertains to the US and is predicated on US law.

QAI Int’l, a for profit certification company, offers certification to the NSF 305 and they are owned by NSF. The standard is available at the NSF web site for purchase. This standard is open to amendment and is rather costly to get certified to.

Soil Association (UK)

The Soil Association is a UK based organization that requires 95% organic material to make an “organic claim. If you wanted to make a “made with organics claim, you only need 70% organic materials. The standards are even easier than the NSF as they allow synthetic preservatives and some petroleum based ingredients. But they do prohibit sulfation and hydrogenation of ingredients.

BDIH (EU, Germany)

The BDIH is a group out of Germany who endeavors to set standards for cosmetics throughout the EU.
Their standards are on the same level as the Soil Association however, they are a bit tougher on preservatives because they limit most synthetic ones. They also don’t allow petrochemicals. However, they also do not restrict the processes of hydrogenation and sulfation.


Ecocert is a set of organic standards established by a French company which was originally designed to apply to organic farming but has been also adopted by some in the cosmetic industry. Their standards are fairly easy to meet for most cosmetic companies which is why they are so popular with many cosmetic ingredient makers. Go here for a listing of their organic cosmetic standards.


Cosmebio is a French association who’s members are committed to using natural and organic cosmetics and have been certified by an independent control organization. Interestingly, they keep a list of specific product brands that have been certified by the group. They are members of Cosmos and primarily use the EcoCert Org. Cosmetic which was took into account both French cosmetic laws and EU Cosmetic Directives.


The Ethical and Environmental Certification Institute (ICEA) is an organization out of Italy that provides certification of organic products. Their requirements for being an environmentally friendly brand can be found here.


This is a set of standards by a company out of Belgium. The Ecogarantie applies to products that are environmentally-friendly and meet their requirements of quality and sustainability. They focus primarily on using natural ingredients. No synthetics allowed.


Once most of these groups started coming up with their own standards, someone sat back and thought it might be a good idea to get everyone on the same page. So the various groups (BDIH, Ecocert, Soil Association, Cosmebio, Ecogarantie and ICEA) got together and set up Cosmos. In January or 2010 they issued their Cosmetic organic and natural standards. Not all of them have made the change to the common standard but they have each committed to do so.

Natural Products Association

Not to miss out on the natural standards setting business, the Natural Products Association created their own standards. They give guidelines on natural ingredients, safety, social responsibility, and sustainability. To this end they offer raw material suppliers the ability to certify their raw materials and they keep a list of certified raw materials. This could be helpful to cosmetic chemists.


NaTrue is attempting to set the International standard on natural and organic products. This group is based out of Brussels and is focusing on creating a natural standard for consumers of cosmetic products. They focus on only allowing plant-based ingredients.

Whole Foods Premium Standard

Whole Foods (an all-natural grocery store chain in the US) has created a Premium Body Care Quality Standard for personal care products. The purpose of the standard is to identify natural products sold in their stores. This is a tough and somewhat arbitrary standard but here is a list of the Acceptable and Unacceptable ingredients. Of course, if you can’t qualify for their Premium Body Care Quality, they still allow you to sell in their store.


OASIS is an association set up in the United States who came up with their own standards. You can see them here and decide whether you can meet them or not. This seems to be a work in progress.

QAI/NSF NSF/ANSI Standard 305

NSF is a non-governmental, not for profit company who aims to create standards for all kinds of things in the world. They have come up with their organic standards for cosmetics. They don’t really publicize exactly how to get certified so you’ll have to check with them (probably after paying them some money).

Cosmetic Chemist and organic certification

There you have it, all the natural and organic standards that we could find. Which one should you use? Excellent question. At the moment no one has come out as the clear leader in this standards-setting business. Your best bet if you want to be certified, is to pick a set of standards that your company can live by and use them. Just be sure that you can still produce functional cosmetic products! With some of these standards you can’t.

Do you know any certification programs that we missed? Leave a comment below.

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How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist

The job of a cosmetic chemist, or as they call it in the UK a cosmetic scientist, requires you to do a wide variety of things both in and out of the lab. Your main responsibility will be that of a formulator. This means you mix raw materials together to create cosmetic products like lipstick, nail polish, skin lotions, shampoos, toothpaste and any other type of personal care product.

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