Organic Cosmetics – Why?

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?

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