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Organics Because We Are Worth It?

posted on Mar 29, 2017
Is a certified organic brand the only authentic way to offer a good, safe and clean product?

Without a shadow of a doubt, the majority of people who we meet here at New Directions are keen to enter the cosmetic industry with their very own organic brand. Organics is seen as the epitome of purity, freshness and authenticity in a world of fake news, fake looks and fake promises but is developing or owning a certified organic brand the answer?

Is a certified organic brand the only authentic way to offer a good, safe and clean product?

Building an Organic Brand in Australia:

Here in Australia there is no legal definition of what an organic cosmetic brand should be, there are only private standards and guidelines to comply to and be certified by. Australian Certified Organics and the Organic Food Chain are two local ones and we also have the possibility of jumping into standards such as COSMOS or Ecocert, particularly good for brands looking to export or looking for certification standards that were set up specifically for the cosmetic industry rather than for food and then expanded to cosmetics.
Legal definitions are not the be-all-and-end-all of life but the absence of a legal definition for an organic cosmetic does mean that each standard is essentially free to come up with their own rules and interpretation. Again this doesn't necessarily mean that this is 'bad' but what it does mean for a brand owner is that you will potentially enter into a market, which has an uneven playing field. Let me give you some examples.

Organic Vs Made With Organics - ACO Rules:

While some cosmetic products can be made with 100% organically grown ingredients the practicalities of this are limited and as such all cosmetic products that contain 95% and above of Organic inputs can be classified as Certified Organic. Further, there is usually a second tier certification on offer for brands that contain between 70-94.9% of Organic Inputs - in fact this is the most common level for a cosmetic product to aim at.

So what's the missing 5 - 30%?

This is usually made up of ingredients that meet strict manufacturing and processing requirements and are called 'allowable inputs' but that can't be classified as organic as rather than being directly grown, they are constructed from grown materials. If you are familiar with cosmetic formulating these would typically be your preservatives, emulsifiers, solubilisers, surfactants, emulsion stabilisers, many of your 'actives', clays and iron oxide minerals. In short, this is the majority of the stuff that gives a product its functionality and longevity.

Are there any examples of what this 5-30% might look like on an INCI label?

Some ingredients that meet the definition of 'allowable inputs' but that might typically be classified by an industry outsider as 'chemical' are as follows:

Phenethyl Alcohol - a natural preservative that can be derived from rose and smells rose-like.

Decyl Glucoside - a sugar and palm derived surfactant that is used to cleanse the skin and can also be used as a solubiliser.

Polyglyceryl-3 Palmitate - an emulsifier/ solubiliser for water-in-oil products that is derived from mixed vegetable sources and helps turn oil into a milky consistency or hold honey into a balm.

Cetearyl Olivate - an emulsifier ingredient derived from Olive and Palm that holds a creamy product together.

AHA Fruit Acids -Vaccinium Myrtillus Fruit Extract, Saccharum Officinarum Extract, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Fruit Extract, Citrus Limon Fruit Extract, Water, Acer Saccharum Sap Extract. This is a pre-blended fruit extract with efficacy data for skin brightening and conditioning if you use this from 5-15% in your formula. It is not certified organic but is completely natural.

There are many, many more.

So an organic product can still contain 'chemicals'?

It is most likely that a range of certified organic products will contain ingredients in it that are entirely plant derived but that don't exist in nature. What that means in practice is that plant-based chemicals be they oils (triglycerides), alcohols, fatty acids or something else are extracted from a plant in some way and then reacted with other chemicals of plant origin to form ingredients that have a useful cosmetic function - cleansing, moisturising, protecting, solubilising, thickening etc. The certification body gets to decide what level of 'chemical' processing is allowed in the transformation of these chemical ingredients and which technology is allowed in their 'allowable input' ingredient list. Generally speaking only the cleanest and simplest chemical transformation reactions are allowed and reactions are usually limited to those that can be achieved with purely natural starting points so no silicones or petroleum derivatives.

Any brand looking to make water-containing products must consider the micro-stability of their creation and that means they will either have to add a known preservative or use strategies to make the product self-preserving (sometimes possible). There are no certified organic preservatives so any that are used in an organic product will eat into that 5% of 'allowable' space. There are also very few (possibly only lecithin) certified organic emulsifiers so again, if you want to have oil and water combined safely you will need to use something that will a) look a bit chemical on your ingredient listing and b) eat into your 5% of non-organic space. The same dilemma applies to skin or hair cleansing products as there are very few bubbling/ cleaning/ surfactants that are certified organics and those that are not necessarily that effective (soapnuts, natural saponins).

So what if my organic product contains some 'chemicals' as long as they are 'natural':

So what indeed...

One of the words that we hear quite a lot by people wanting to enter the cosmetic market as brand owners is 'authenticity'.

Where there is doubt there is fear:

If a prospective brand owner or their target customers have to 'research' the ingredient list in order to understand it fear creeps in. There is no easy or quick way to fix this but there is a way to make it worse and that's to be a brand owner that jumps onto the band wagon and does exactly the same as everyone else without really understanding the what's and why's behind their decision.

Science Literacy - A question of trust? Authenticity gap?

While we don't expect every brand owner to spend 3 years at University doing a Chemistry degree before selling their first lipstick it is essential they new brand owners challenge their perceptions before joining in the noise. While there are good and bad courses out there, these days there are plenty of good resources available to the newbie brand owner and these include online learning, face-to-face short courses, insider blogs and resources like the cosmetic help desk that we run here. At the very least a new brand owner should understand whether glycerine is oil or water-soluble, what a polyglyeryl ester is and why the best preservative for their product isn't necessarily the one that sounds like a fruit salad on the label.

OK so that's the 'chemical' side, what about performance of Organics?

Things have come a long way in terms of performance of organic brands but there are still limits and one of them is the practical limit that the requirement for meeting the 70 or 95% input benchmark sets.

The numbers game:

To illustrate how hard it can be to achieve the kind of performance with organics that you can achieve with non-certified products we will look at a certified shampoo.

If we set off aiming for a 70% organic input we recognise that we only have 30% of space in which to make the shampoo do shampoo-type stuff like cleanse the hair and make it comb-able.

Surfactants are the ingredients that clean stuff and usually a decent shampoo requires an activity level of 10-15% to work well and perform as the average person expects.

Great! So that still leaves us 15-20%, what am I worried about?

The problem with surfactants is that most of them are not sold as 100% active. When you buy your amino-acid derived glutamates or your coco betaine or glucosides they can range from 50% active to 25% active. That means to get 10% of activity I'm typically having to add somewhere in the region of 30-50% surfactant as supplied and none of that is certified organic. So before I even get in the lab I'm reducing the efficacy of my formula so the numbers fit. The best surfactants for hair are the anionic ones such as the glutamates, succinates and sulfates but these are also among those sold in the 25-30% active mark. The most active surfactants are the glucosides sold typically as 50% active but these are hideous on the hair leaving it a tangled messy mess. See my issue? My preferred blend of an anionic primary surfactant, an amphoteric secondary then a non-ionic glucoside tertiary surfactant can only reach an activity of 9% (input 28.7%) before I blow my budget and that's with no regard to how well this blend actually performs.

But things are getting better, we are making progress but we aren't there yet.

The shampoo example above is just one example that can be repeated across a whole range of products and circumstances. This doesn't mean that the organic brand owner can't create a good brand but more that the organic brand creative chemist has to make compromises in order to fit the formula into the system. This may or may not be to the products detriment.

As the years go on problems like the lack of 100% active allowed-in-organics surfactants get solved, products get better and everyone wonders why everyone else isn't doing what they are doing and this is a good thing. Understanding this and pushing suppliers for real solutions to real problems is good, tying suppliers up in requests for 'chemical free' ingredients or to make preservatives with nice INCI names is ultimately not as productive in the end as we trade functionality and problem-solving for sheer vanity.

And finally, what about the price? How much does it cost to go organic?

It's fair to say that there is the cost of something in dollars and cents and there is the real cost in terms of environmental impact, resource valuing and value-add. Both definitions are applicable in the organic product development life cycle. I am one of those people who feels we should value our primary resources very highly and that should be reflected in the price we pay throughout the supply chain. As such whatever we do buy has to fill the role it is intended to and fill it well - add value to the formula. Sometimes I personally do not see the value in spending 10 times more on a cosmetic preservative that is natural but that you have to use 4 times more of and then back up with one or two other chemicals in order for it to work. Further, I don't see the value in adding something that is certified organic just to get the numbers up - add it if it adds value and if it doesn't, leave it out. At the end of the day I see a lot of potential for certified organic formulations to cost more in dollars and even in environmental impact but deliver nothing more than their natural, non-certified cousins. The bottom line for me in this regard is that I do not see Certified Organic as a guarantee that the product has made the best use of natural resources and is representing the best value for money.

So what does being certified organic mean and is it the best (or only) pathway to an Authentic cosmetic for newbies or existing brand owners?

Certification alone says nothing of the value the product delivers or even whether it represents a better environmental choice. The individual brand owner needs to determine that with evidence and in a way that would satisfy a legal challenge if mounted. While it makes sense at least on one level to provide the market with 95-100% certified organic input facial oil blends, fresh hydrosols or lip balms, it makes less sense at the moment to spend years trying to achieve that level of certification for a multi-purpose anti-ageing cream, a salon-quality shampoo / conditioner combo or a liquid foundation. This is where the 70-95% organic input come in and for many, the cognitive journey to get to being comfortable with a 70% made-with-organic product that ultimately gets its efficacy and safety from 'chemicals' albeit naturally derived ones, is going to be the same as for a 100% natural but not 'certified organic' product and this, for me is where the real possibilities currently sit.

Authentic Choices that deliver results:

There is no that organic farming has a big role to play in a sustainable and caring future. When it comes to cosmetics and cosmetic brand creation there is indeed a market for certified organic and we now have the technology to deliver reasonable to very good products using this philosophy but to do so requires the input of naturally derived 'chemicals' that look a bit confusing on the ingredient label. This puts the organic 70% product in the same boat as a natural-but-not-certified product but for the formulator or brand owner the benefit is more freedom from calculating inputs and percentages, more emphasis on how much ingredient is needed for a result and more room to adjust supply chain costs. For that reason and because the natural but not organic certified brand can still contain a high percentage of organics it is reasonable to conclude that certified organics is not the only way to achieve an authentic and 'clean' product.

The true quest for authenticity is more about first understanding and then delivering on that knowledge and to do that requires an investment in education and being part of the movement to build scientific literacy across the industry and its customers. Why not make that first educational step here at New Directions. We look forward to welcoming you to our courses.

Amanda Foxon-Hill
Australian Made

ABN :78 052 973 743
Australian Certified Organic - ISO 9001:2008 Certified - Animal Cruelty Free, USDA, COSMOS Organic, Cosmos Natural Certified