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Difference Between Organic and Certified Organic

I’m often asked:

To what extent are the ingredients of your skin and hair care lines organic? Some ask whether my products are “certified organic.” What is the difference between organic and certified organic? For those following the raw food diet, you should also be concerned about the composition of your cosmetics, so it is important to clarify these terms. The fact is: The use of the terms organic and certified organic in the industry and in everyday speech is often confusing and sometimes messy. People are referring to one thing when they really mean another.

What Does Organic Mean?

First, the term organic. The term goes back to first century AD when the theory of “vitalism” came into play—the notion that life (as distinct from non-life) is defined by some mysterious “vital force.” If it had that vital force, a given thing was called “organic.”

For chemists, and for industry broadly considered, the term organic refers (roughly) to any compound containing carbon. On that definition, most of the molecules you’ll find inside a human or a lizard are “organic.” But in the same way gasoline or propane contains “organic” compounds. You’ll find carbon and carbon compounds in anything that is living—you, me, your dog—and in anything that has ever been a living thing—coal and fossils, for example.

“Organic” contains carbon. “Inorganic” doesn’t. Basically, if it grows, it legitimately earns the label “organic.” Already, then, you see that organic isn’t all that useful a term for those of us concerned with the quality of products we apply inside or outside our bodies.

"Organic" in the Food Industry

As applied to food, the term organic loosely refers to living things produced in natural environments without the aid of man-made synthetic products. In the United States, to legally be branded “organic,” a food product must contain at least 95% organic products, not counting salt or water. Legal standards vary for other jurisdictions, of course. But there are no official government regulations at all for labeling “organic” personal care products. Any cosmetic product, then, can legally bear the label “organic.”

In many settings and for many purposes, “organic” is little more than a buzzword. Check labels in your supermarket or drugstore, and you’ll quickly come to recognize organic as a marketing term used to snag sales because of the term’s association in the mainstream imagination with health.

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Organic Doesn't Always Mean Healthful

When a plant food or plant food ingredient is “organically grown,” this essentially means that the plant has been grown, harvested and processed without using synthetic chemicals such as insecticides, fumigants, herbicides, and fungicides. Health food stores are full of such “organic” foods and other products: “Organic” flour and “organic” sugar simply denote that these crops were grown in accord with these specifications. Not every “organic” food is safe or desirable, let alone meets the standards for healthy eating. For example, I saw “organic” toaster pastries.

Lets not forget, by the way, that good honest water is not organic! Green clay and bentonite clay, which can be extremely beneficial for the body, are also not organic.

The term organic gets more undeserved mileage than it should when it comes to food labels—even more so when it comes to cosmetics and beauty products! The message: “Organic” should never again, by itself, mean “Buy me.”

Certified Organic Standards

The term Certified Organic, however, is different. As the word certified implies, a Certified Organic product comes from a supplier whose products have been pronounced upon by an independent third party that guarantees the integrity and purity of foods or ingredients. Certified Organic products must comply with strict international standards. These higher standards cover all aspects of the processing chain, ensuring that the organic integrity is maintained from the seed or primary state, through the growing, harvesting, storage, transporting and processing stages, all the way to the finished product. A key feature of these standards is the exclusion of genetically modified organisms.

In the USA, “Certified Organic” refers to agricultural products grown and processed in accord with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards, then certified by state and private agencies accredited by the USDA.

The right to the “Certified Organic” label is neither cheap nor easy to acquire. Government regulations prescribe detailed standards. Producers file extensive paperwork. Certifying agents review processes and products meticulously. Try to buy “Certified Organic” foods whenever you can.

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"Certified Organic" in the Cosmetic Industry

But in the cosmetics industry, it’s not so simple. Say you want to buy “Certified Organic” shampoo. If you want it to perform as a shampoo, that might be an impossible task. Some essential cleansing agents are simply not available organically grown. If the company tries—as I’ve tried—to make a shampoo without such an ingredient, you wouldn’t, if you used the resulting “shampoo,” actually be washing your hair. Omit this ingredient, and your hair will be left too sticky, too oily and impossible to brush, leaving you unhappy. If we want the product to act like a shampoo, we’ll have to compromise.

For example, we use Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, an ingredient derived from the fatty acid mixture in coconut oil. An exceptionally mild cleansing agent often used in baby products, it cleanses the scalp and hair, helping water mix with oil and grime so they can be rinsed away. If you want your shampoo to sit on your bathtub rim and not in a refrigerator, it will have to contain a preservative. Additions like these make it impossible to have a “Certified Organic” shampoo. But we do the best we can under the circumstances.

Currently the same guidelines used for certifying organic foods are also used for certifying some of the ingredients used in cosmetic products. But not all. Some ingredients allowed in food are not allowed in cosmetics. Wherever it’s possible to get an ingredient in Certified Organic state, such as oils and herbal extracts, I most certainly do. But when I can’t, I find the very best alternative and do my best not to add things that aren’t absolutely necessary. I stay away, for example, from fragrances and coloring agents. And all of our beauty products contain organic ingredients formulated and manufactured by a company which is a certified organic manufacturer.