Why You Shouldn't Get Hung Up On Organic Makeup Yet

Whether your fall lipstick is "organic" may not make a difference.
Betsie Van Der Meer via Getty Images

The number of beauty brands you’ll encounter in just one lap around a department store could make your head spin. And amid the usual confusing decisions you have to make, one is cropping up more and more often: Is it a good idea to lean toward organic or natural products?

Here’s the bottom line: Organic labels on makeup are confusing at best, misleading at worst. If they confuse you, you’re not alone: New research from the Federal Trade Commission shows that more than a third of American consumers do not understand what organic claims on cosmetics mean.

While the U.S Food and Drug Administration does regulate cosmetics (thanks Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act!), the agency doesn’t regulate its labels. And, it turns out, there is no federal standard for what the use of the term “organic” means when a product is derived from chemicals.

So when a lipstick or foundation has the label “organic” on its packaging, it could mean a few different things: It could be made of only food-grade products in which 95% of the ingredients meet the USDA definition of organic. In this case, it is likely you’ll see the USDA certified label on the packaging, like on this Badger Argan Oil for your hair. You could also see “made with organic ingredients” in which up to 30 percent of the product’s ingredients are not organic. Or it could mean absolutely nothing at all, because there is no regulation surrounding the labels of makeup made with chemicals. In addition to “organic,” you want to watch for other phrases like “all natural” and “eco-friendly” on the label.

A separate survey from earlier this year suggests roughly the same percentage of people are under the mistaken impression that ingredients must be proven safe by the government in order to hit the shelves. In reality, personal care products are mostly unregulated, according to the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.

EWG found that 20 percent of the products listed in its database of over 60,000 personal care products use the word “organic.” The organization rates specific products on a scale of 1 (more safe) to 10 (less safe), taking into account a number of health factors including the presence of toxic ingredients (it does not take into account a personal level of exposure to a product, which is a determining factor for something to be a true health hazard). Over 250 of the “organic”-labeled beauty products received a score of 5 or above, and four products received a score of 9 or 10.

In response to all the confusion about what “organic” means for personal care products, the Federal Trade Commission and USDA hosted a public roundtable yesterday, in which consumers’ interpretation of “organic” beauty products and potential deception was addressed.

The FTC engaged with the public through a live Twitter chat with the use of the hashtag #OrganicFTC during the roundtable, in which some urged the FDA to commit to clarity surrounding the use of the word “organic.”

Want to join the conversation? You can submit your thoughts to consumer research until December 1.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly explained EWG’s cosmetics scoring system. A lower score indicates the organization considers a product more safe.

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