Sunday, May 18, 2003 Is Organic Shampoo Chemistry or Botany? By JOHN LELAND When it comes to soaps and shampoos, The cleanser I used, selected at a lo- “almost every product out there labeled cal health food store, is made by Avalon T HE other night I served an organic organic isn’t,” said Ronnie Cummins, ex- Natural Products. Its components are pasta sauce and washed my face with ecutive director of the Organic Consumers used in a range of shampoos, conditioners, an organic cleanser. The sauce was Association. At meetings of organic manu- scrubs, lotions and lip balms labeled as or- made from tomatoes and other farm in- facturers and federal regulators in Austin, ganic by numerous manufacturers. gredients, all certified organic under strict Tex., last week, the consumer group com- Twenty years ago, an organic label federal guidelines. The facial cleanser fea- plained that companies are exploiting the might have been of interest to a few health tured a handful of synthetic and chemical term organic to sell products little different purists. But as organic foods have moved ingredients, including some that ecological from any others — and with little oversight from farm stands to major supermarkets, activists have questioned as possibly harm- from the government. the term “organic” has come to represent ful to users or the environment. The United States Department of not a set of farming guidelines but a life- Both products came from the same Agriculture, which regulates organic food style, accessorized with everything from store and promised the same organic qual- labeling, has neither standards nor the au- unbleached cotton sheets to hemp cloth- ity. But in each case the word organic de- thority to regulate labels on personal care ing, to beauty and body-care products. scribed a different set of standards. products. “These things are coming into super- markets on the back of organic foods,” said Peggy Northrop, editor in chief of Organic Style magazine, which comes off as Vogue GREEN APPEAL for vegetarians. For young women, she Despite their added, “organic doesn’t mean food, it leafy labels, means an attitude toward your life.” many personal The promise of organic, in foods or care products body lotions, is that natural ingredients, bearing the minimally processed, are healthier for word organic people and better for the ecosystem than contain ingredi- conventional products. Though this logic ents that do not doesn’t always hold up, consumers are exist in nature. willing to pay more for products bearing The federal an organic label. guidelines that When the Agriculture Department regulate organic issued the first standards for labeling or- food labeling ganic foods last October, after more than a do not apply to decade of wrangling, it closed a loophole in hair and skin- the food industry, putting strict limits on care products. how manufacturers and stores could use the label organic. An organic label on one company’s food products meant the same as on another’s. But for cosmetics and personal care products, consumer advocates say, “or- ganic” means whatever manufacturers say it does. Products made using petroleum- derived and other synthetic or chemical ingredients, prohibited in organic foods, can be found among the organic shampoos and lotions made by Avalon, Nature’s Gate, Illustration by Marivi Pulido-Brown; photographs by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times (foreground) Jason Natural Cosmetics, Kiss My Face and and Premium Stock/Corbis other brands, said Urvashi Rangan, an envi- medicine at the University of Illinois at ronmental health scientist. Chicago School of Public Health and chair- On a recent evening at Whole Foods man of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, has Market in Manhattan, Dr. Rangan, who led some of the most aggressive campaigns runs Eco-Labels.org at Consumers Union, against toxins in personal care products. the company that publishes Consumer Even natural-sounding ingredients, he said, Reports, examined the labels in an aisle of might break down to form carcinogens, or shampoos and conditioners. She shook her be contaminated by pesticides. head. But surveying the ingredients of a doz- “Even with a Ph.D. in toxicology, I en personal care products labeled organic, can’t tell whether these are any different Dr. Epstein saw few reasons for alarm. from what you’d find in a drug store,” she ‘’Good Lord, these are lower in carcinogens said. Dr. Rangan did not think the products than the average bottle,’’ he said. posed big health risks. But reading a list Even so, such products fall short of the of ingredients — “Zinc gluconate, methyl promises implied by the label organic, said FINE PRINT The back label of an Avalon Natural Products propyl paraben, olefin sulfonate, DEA, Diana Kaye, a partner in Terressentials, hair conditioner that claims to be 70 percent organic. A consumer group says the chief ingredient, a hydrosol, steareth-2” — she added, “You have to ask a small Maryland-based company that mainly water, is used to inflate the organic content. yourself, What are these doing in a product makes shampoos and lotions without ar- that’s called organic?” tificial ingredients or processes. Ms. Kaye, Allyn Jones, who runs the Whole Body a former architect, started the company hydrosol, with a hint of rosemary or other division of Whole Foods Markets, said the after chemotherapy treatments for cancer herb throughout. The remaining 20 percent company carefully chooses only products left her sensitive to the chemicals in many of the bottle may contain synthetic deter- with no petroleum-based colors or oils, and products, even those labeled organic. Such gents and preservatives. avoids brands “that were just using organic products merit careful scrutiny, she said, California, the first state to pass its as a marketing gimmick.” She added that because people use them daily over long own guidelines for organic personal care since personal care products are mostly wa- periods of time. products, allows manufacturers to include ter and may be stored for long periods, they The organic industry has formed a task hydrosols in their percentages of organic need preservatives not found in organic force to develop voluntary guidelines for ingredients. Earlier this month, the Organic foods. Even so, she said, “it’s really confus- cosmetics and personal care products, said Consumers Association lodged a complaint ing for consumers.” Standards that apply Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of with state agencies in California, singling on one side of the store do not apply on the the Organic Trade Association, which rep- out Avalon Natural Products for claiming other, Mrs. Jones said. resents many of the major manufacturers. that hydrosols were organic, which the as- ‘’We feel we should protect the integrity of sociation said was deceptive. Hair and skin can absorb the organic claim,’’ she said. ‘’It’s quite an Mr. Cummins of the Organic toxins quite efficiently. unregulated business.’’ Past attempts to get Consumers Association said this practice manufacturers to agree on standards had allows products with very small traces of Because the word organic is used to broken down, she said. organic oils or herbs to be labeled organic. mean different things, it is difficult to tally As first steps toward voluntary stan- ‘’We’re afraid of the degradation of the en- the sales of products using the name. The dards, Ms. DiMatteo cited broad consensus tire organic label,’’ he said. Natural Marketing Institute, which analyz- about banning petrochemicals, genetically Emma Mann, the brand manager for es the sales of products positioned as natu- modified crops, irradiated ingredients and Avalon’s organic line, said the company’s ral, estimated that personal care products certain synthetics or chemicals that are pro- use of hydrosols, as well as synthetic de- for this broader group accounted for $2.8 hibited in organic foods. tergents and preservatives, complied with billion last year. Manufacturers are divided, however, on California law. ‘’We’d like to see those syn- Most people don’t monitor their hair what to do about water. Under the guidelines thetics replaced by organic ingredients,’’ she products as vigorously as they do their pasta for organic food, products labeled ‘’certified said, but she added that such replacements sauce, of course, for the obvious reason that organic’’ must include at least 95 percent were not available. they don’t eat their styling gel. But the skin, certified organic ingredients; those with at Along with Consumers Union, Mr. scalp and hair are remarkably efficient at least 70 percent organic ingredients may be Cummins’s group called for manufactur- absorbing toxins and carcinogens. A group labeled as ‘’containing organic ingredients.’’ ers and government agencies to hold open of researchers at Stanford University in 1999 Food manufacturers cannot count water to- meetings on standards, inviting the public found they could deliver a DNA vaccine to ward these percentages. The main ingredi- to watch and comment. ‘’If it gets out there laboratory mice as effectively by rubbing it ent in many personal care products is water that we’ve got this multibillion-dollar in- on their skin as injecting it into muscle. — with a little herbal extract dissolved in it, dustry that’s a hoax,’’ he said, ‘’it’s going In fact, some toxins can do more harm like a tea -- and manufacturers often count to undermine people’s support across the absorbed through the skin than through the weight of water in their organic claims. board.’’ the digestive system because they lodge This herbal ‘’tea’’ is sometimes listed As for my own experience, the organic directly in fat cells, bypassing the liver, said on labels as hydrosol, and refers to water cleanser was gentle and nonirritating, but Dr. Rangan. that has been used to extract essential oils left my skin dryer than my usual synthetic Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, an emeritus pro- for other use. A shampoo calling itself 80 soap. The pasta sauce was from Muir Glen. fessor of environmental and occupational percent organic may be 80 percent water or To my taste it needed salt.
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