Widespread ‘greenwashing’ by conventional and ‘natural’ cosmetic brands that do not have organic certification but whose brand name or packaging contains messages such as ‘organic’, made with ‘certified organic ingredients’ or fake organic certification logos have been a major competition issue for certified organic cosmetic makers in the UK, U.S., Asia and Australia over the last few years.

Greenwashed products are also a threat to consumer health due to harmful chemicals present in some of the products and may lead to a loss of consumer confidence in organics.

Speaking in June at the new Organic Natural Beauty Show launched in London, Peter Melchett, policy director of UK organic certifier and industry advocate the Soil Association, highlighted the number of harmful chemicals found in beauty products labelled as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ or ‘nature inspired’.

In the U.S. environmental health research and advocacy organisation Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently said, that U.S. legislators need to reform a broken cosmetics law. Scientific studies have shown that many common personal care products contain dangerous chemicals, such as mercury in mascara and lead in lipstick, EWG said. EWG pointed out that chemicals in cosmetics are largely untested and unregulated.

In Australia, consumer advocacy group CHOICE has referred major cosmetic brands to the consumer regulator, the ACCC, after an investigation at two Sydney department stores. While major cosmetic companies are purporting to be ‘cruelty-free’, a CHOICE investigation has found their websites, packaging and sales people are failing to inform Australian customers that their beauty products are tested on animals in China. In order to break into the booming Chinese cosmetic markets, many companies have gone back on their anti- animal testing policies without informing consumers.

“Cosmetic brands need to be upfront about their animal testing whether it be on their websites, packaging or via employees at cosmetic counters. They are bound by law to give consumers the correct information and we have found many of them are not,” says CHOICE researcher Zoya Sheftalovich.

The Soil Association believes consumers are being misled and is calling on the health and beauty industry to use terms like ‘organic and ‘natural’ accurately or not at all. Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director said: “It is wrong that people are putting chemicals found in antifreeze, paint, oven cleaner and floor cleaner on their skin, when they thought they were buying a product made from only natural or organic ingredients. This must stop.”

The Soil Association stated: “Strict EU laws ensure any food product labeled organic meets legal standards and is independently certified by a recognised body. Unfortunately, there are no EU regulations concerning the labelling of organic or natural beauty products. The
only way consumers can be sure they are buying a genuine organic beauty product is to look for an official certification label. Under Soil Association standards, to use the word organic in the product name, a product must contain over 95% organic ingredients, excluding water.

“In 2012 Boots was investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over the marketing of ‘Little Me Organics Oh So Gentle Hair and Body Wash’. The ASA ruled Boots’ advertising was misleading as the product contains less than 5% organic ingredients. The ASA found that a product should be defined as organic only if it contains a high proportion of organic ingredients.

“Unfortunately, Boots and others have not taken on board the implications of this ruling. For example a Boots facial oil currently on sale says it is 100% organic on the box, but it actually contains at least four non-organic ingredients. “The Soil Association also found a selection of other Boots ‘botanics’ products claiming to be organic and some which even use their own Boots logo to make this claim. While some of the individual ingredients in these products may be certified organic, the products themselves are not certified. The Soil Association believes this is misleading customers.

“Soil Association informal research also found a Nivea ‘Pure and Natural’ hand cream carrying an unofficial leaf stamp that claims the product is 95% natural. However this product contains Methylisothiazolinone, a preservative which some claim could be carcinogenic and is suspected of causing nerve damage. The research also found a range of hair and body products made by US cosmetics company Organix, whose coconut shampoo contains no organic ingredients, is not certified and contains potential carcinogens. Neither product would be permitted under Soil Association certification.”