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Is this product “certified” organic? Making sense of the labels

Written by Simone Froley


Posted on October 27 2017

It happens all the time. A customer will inform me about a new organic skincare product a friend seems to swear by. Or maybe I'll spot a bunch of soaps in the drug store with the word “organic” plastered liberally all over the label. On the surface the trend appears to be encouraging but the truth is that not every product that is labeled organic is, in fact, certified organic.

Without naming the company, I will say that a customer recently pointed me to an organic dog shampoo line with a request that I do something similar. In checking out the product, I realized that it couldn't have been more blatant that the company was breaking all the rules in its claims & labeling — even providing fake seals! I'm seeing more of this now than ever before and there doesn't appear to be enough resources within the Federal Trade Commission to monitor it all. 

Not only is this practice unfair to those of us who are pouring in the time and resources to ensure organic certification, but it is especially unfair to the consumer who may be paying organic prices for a product with a quality that is subpar.  So how do you find the genuine organic products among the pretenders? It's not difficult once you know what you're looking for. 

Soap can never be 100 percent organic

If you see any type of soap that claims to organic, that is a major red flag. Soap requires the use of nonorganic ingredients (in this case meaning non-living) in form of alkalis for its production. The NOP (National Organic Program) regulators require that at least 95% of a product's ingredients be certified organic to qualify for the USDA organic label. AND a 3rd party certifier must back this claim.  So, while all the plant-based ingredients can be organic, the Kosher food-grade sodium hydroxide I use — while approved by the National Organic Program — disqualifies it for that 100 percent organic label, even though none remains after saponification.  For this reason, my soaps carry a “made with organic ingredients” label. This is the highest organic classification any soap maker in the United States can achieve. Anything that makes claims above and beyond that should be met with suspicion. 

Label should be affiliated with a third-party organic certifier 

All my products have an “Oregon Tilth” stamp on them to signify that representatives from that certifying agent have physically been to my studio and, through a rigorous screening process of all formulas, have determined that my products meet the standards set by the National Organic Program.  I chose Oregon Tilth, which happens to be one of the largest certifiers in the country, but there are dozens of USDA-accredited agents out there.  Not sure if a product is truly organic? Every USDA-certified manufacturer should be listed on this Organic Integrity Database.

What about other claims? 

It's important to note that the Federal Drug Administration does not pre-approve labels on cosmetics which can often lead to misleading or erroneous claims. Cosmetic companies are famous for throwing around healthful sounding terms that really mean nothing. Statements such as “all natural” and “hypoallergenic” can really mean whatever the manufacturer wants them to mean. You can read more about cosmetic labeling claims here

So, what's the bottom line? 

If quality is important to you make sure to check in on organic claims and be wary of the kinds of statements that crop up on your cosmetic labels. Curious about the specific standards I'm required to meet for my organic certification? This organic labeling and composition guide is the one follow.

It’s also important to get to know the people behind your products whenever possible. Because of the involved and costly process required to become certified organic, some producers will grow or manufacture their wares in an organic fashion but will not be permitted to indicate as much on the labeling. When you visit your local farmer’s market you can always ask the vendors whether pesticides were used on the strawberries, for example, or if the eggs were produced by hens who were fed an organic diet. Get to know the source personally for your peace of mind.