Misleading 'Organic' Claims Found in Thousands of Beauty Products

By Scott Faber

Cosmetics and other personal care product companies make questionable organic claims on thousands of products, a new Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis shows.

More than 5,000 products in EWG's Skin Deep database—about 20 percent of current product formulations rated on the site—use "organic" in the brand name, product name, product label or list of ingredients. But many of these products contained risky or hidden ingredients and received poor Skin Deep scores.

Skin Deep rates a product on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best score and 10 the worst score. Of the products that used the term organic, more than 250 received a score of 5 or above. Four products that used the term organic received a score of 9 or 10.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the use of "organic" when the claim is made on farm products. Cosmetics made primarily of farm products are allowed to carry the USDA Organic seal if 95 percent or more of the ingredients meet federal organic standards, and the remaining ingredients are on an approved ingredient list and were not produced using prohibited methods. Products labeled "made with organic ingredients" can have up to 30 percent non-organic ingredients but cannot use certain ingredients.

But there is no federal standard for "organic" cosmetics products derived from chemicals. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has primary authority over regulating cosmetics, makes little effort to police misleading "organic" cosmetics claims. Some private standards for "organic" cosmetics may allow the use of chemicals that are linked to health problems and restricted in other nations.

The proliferation of misleading claims and the absence of meaningful oversight has fueled enormous consumer confusion.

A new survey conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the USDA found that many consumers mistakenly believe personal care products with organic claims meet government standards, even though most do not. A large number of consumers also mistakenly believe personal care products with organic claims contain only organic ingredients.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly seeking and buying "organic" personal care products. Over the past decade, annual sales of "organic" non-food products, including personal care products, have soared from less than $1 billion to $3.6 billion. So far this year, consumers have searched Skin Deep for the word organic 150,000 times, an average of 538 searches per day.

Compounding the confusion is the fact that most consumers mistakenly believe cosmetics chemicals are reviewed and regulated by the FDA. A recent poll found that two-thirds of consumers believe cosmetics chemicals must be proven safe before they can be placed on the market. In fact, the FDA does not review cosmetics chemicals and has only banned nine chemicals for safety reasons.

Many other misleading claims are also made on personal care products, including "natural," "unscented" and "hypo-allergenic" claims. EWG found 21 products in Skin Deep that make "unscented" claims but also list "fragrance" in the ingredients.

The misuse of the term organic on cosmetics and other personal care products not only deceives consumers, but also undermines public trust in the USDA's organic standard. Unlike private standards, the USDA organic standard for food and farm products is set and enforced by the federal government, so it guarantees that a product was produced without dangerous chemicals.

What should be done? Today, the FTC and USDA will host a meeting to discuss whether consumer confusion about organic claims on cosmetics, cleaners and other non-food products warrants greater oversight of misleading claims, including greater attention from the FTC.

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