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Organic skincare is a term so open to abuse and misrepresentation that in many cases it is a meaningless description.
I should start off by writing that if you saw the image and thought, “Oh wow, they have organic cigarettes, I’m so down. I’m totally vegan and organic all the way”, then I don’t know whether to ask that you don’t bother reading the rest of this article, and rest my head in my hands in disbelief, or alternatively, insist that you not only read it, but encourage you to give up smoking as step one in your skincare regime, prior to, during, and after cleansing.
Yes, organic cigarettes do already exist, and yes people think they’re better for you than non-organic cigarettes. However, neither is quite as healthy as pretend smoking a concealer brush while trying to re-enact an Audrey Hepburn scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Before we arrive at the parallels that can be drawn from this seemingly outlandish comparison between organic cigarettes and organic skincare, we will have to take a few steps back to see where the good intentions of organic started to fall apart. It began in very sensible place. With consumer demand for ‘cleaner’ food products, organic non-GMO produce was and still is, seen as the healthy option comparing to GMO and pesticide laden non-organic produce. The theory is of course that you’re eating ‘cleaner food’ as it is not grown or processed in the same way. This was a perfectly reasonable start to the quest for logical, sensible, healthier consumer choices.
By the time the word organic reached the skincare market, it must surely have been shared via ‘Chinese whispers’ as ‘organic’ skincare gets its very own set of rules that don’t apply to logically defining anything else that exists in the world. In simple terms, organic in skincare doesn’t always have to mean organic. Contrary to popular belief, the FDA does not legally define organic as it applies to skincare. That’s left to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who are arguably better suited to qualify such claims.
The USDA, conveniently, or confusingly, depending on how you view it, have different interpretations of ‘organic,’ with the only legitimate one, in my opinion, being 100% organic. I applaud all 100% organic skincare companies for their commitment to steadfast choices that they commit to, giving consumers very clearly defined choices. The rest of the so-called ‘organic’ bunch (containing less that 100% ingredients but with big “organic” labels on the other hand) get a very slow clap indeed.
The USDA states that skincare named simply ‘organic,’ but with no ‘100%’ can be as little as 95% organic. Skincare that is allowed to say ‘made with organic ingredients,’ must only contain 70% organic ingredients (source: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Cosmetics-Body%20Care%20Products.pdf) . Now these distinctions are fine for hardcore organic addicts, who can recite all known pesticides in a rhyming poem, but for the amateur organic enthusiasts setting out on their maiden voyage of organic life, they would be forgiven for interpreting “contains organic ingredients” as a good thing, and smart people will be making misinformed choices based on such information.
Undoubtedly the trend for organic skincare has stemmed from an explosion in interest in organic food over the past decade where sales of organic produce have at least tripled (Source: Organic Trade Association, 2017). Parallels should easily be drawn between organic food and skincare, but the opposite is true. What exists instead is confusion to the point where consumers, understandably, don’t even know they’re confused.
It would be fair to assume that if you go into a supermarket and buy an organic mixed salad, that all of the ingredients in that salad were indeed organic. The USDA has done a relatively good job of ensuring this to be the case, to an extent. What if that salad contained organic tomatoes, cucumbers, and spinach, but non-organic carrots and a non-organic dressing. You wouldn’t be happy if they still called that organic would you? Personally, I even find the USDA allowing companies to list separate organic ingredients (in products with less than 70% organic ingredients) as being misleading as it could just as well read, “may contain GMO food and traces of pesticides, but don’t worry, three of the seven ingredients are organic,” with a green ‘thumbs up’ emoji beside it. It would be a bit like ordering a beef burger that had a label “contains organic vegan ingredients,” referring to the lettuce and tomato accompanying the carnivorous feast. It’s beyond ridiculous.
I would hope that most would agree that calling something organic should mean its organic, period. Allowing the word organic to appear in products with mixed ingredients, some of which are not organic, just simply shouldn’t be allowed, but unfortunately, it is.
Only consumers, in numbers, have the power to drive any consumer-centric change in this industry. The skincare industry will always work within the boundaries of legality, with those boundaries being muddied by the lobbyists who favor the corporates that pay their salaries. Consumers do have the power to act and change things though, but only in numbers.
Wouldn’t a sensible, transparent approach be to have just two definitions? 1. “100% organic” for all products that are 100% organic, and 2, “Contains non-organic ingredients” for products that have some organic ingredients (for any other product there is no reference to organic). This concept of slightly misleading “organic” (when its 5% non-organic) and “contains organic ingredients” (leaving the consumer to decipher exactly what that means) is just not clear enough. It is irrelevant if a product contains 1% or 99% organic ingredients. It’s either organic or its not. If a salad sandwich contains 10% ham, you can’t call it a vegetarian sandwich. If Jello contains 2% animal gelatin, you can’t call it vegetarian. So how can it be that in skincare you can make a very suggestive statement like “contains organic ingredients” when it is only 70% organic?
Unfortunately, it’s up to you as consumers to be much more vigilant and not take anything you see at face value. This is part of the reason I started Skinega. My background wasn’t in skincare. I worked for 20 years in executive search and consulting with global banks and other companies. When you interview senior Board level executives, they’re beyond being asked “what’s your strengths and weaknesses,” but you do have to get to the truth, and be able to make instinctive judgments about what you’re being told. These judgments have to be informed, and being informed requires taking nothing at face value. Do your research, and cross referencing what you’ve learned.
Before starting Skinega, when I read the small print ingredients on skincare packaging (not the ingredients marketed on the front of packaging or the websites, but the small print listed, by law, on the external packaging) I was just shocked to see 40-99 ingredients in a one ounce bottle. My curiosity led me to create Skinega because all skincare products, except those labeled 100% organic, can still contain synthetic thickeners, colors, fragrance, shimmer or other aesthetic modifiers. Forget the star ingredients that are marketed on the front of the packaging. Look at the small print on the back. Some of these products could just as well say:
“Contains a synthetic carcinogenic ingredient that makes it go on so smoothly. Contains three synthetic ingredients used to bulk up and thicken the product. With a beautiful shiny glimmer provided by a mineral mined by underage kids in a remote part of India, and finally, 37 ingredients later, our product also contains hyaluronic acid and organic jojoba seed oil which is great for your skin.”
I just didn’t believe products should contain more than the ingredients that benefit your skin, as they’re just all diluting each other at best, and at worst, increasing the chances of skin reactions by the sheer number of ingredients in there, let alone the completely useless ingredients that do nothing for your skin.
At Skinega we don’t claim to be organic. We’re not organic, just for the record. It’s our belief through all of the research we’ve done that organic only (100% organic) is not an effective holistic skincare strategy. We certainly believe there is a place for organic ingredients and products, but we believe more in safe effective ingredients that are either naturally derived, or ingredients that identically mimic the skins own natural processes. Safety, efficacy, and transparency are way more important because ‘organic’ unfortunately doesn’t mean anything without “100%” as its very close neighbor.
The continued growth in demand for organic skincare is a consumer choice that has to be respected with much more transparency. Consumers that wish to buy organic skincare should be getting organic skincare every time and not some convoluted interpretation of ‘organic’ that loosely falls within the government’s largely unenforceable definition of what organic is. Organic has to be more organic, and everything else, well it just isn’t organic.
And like with cigarettes, just because its organic it does not mean it’s safer. We certainly agree that organic cigarettes are much better for you than the non-organic ones, but only if you don’t smoke them and choose instead to use the packet to write some healthy life goals on. As for skincare, if you’re looking for organic, then read the small print on the packaging and stick to 100% organic, otherwise, well, it’s just not organic.
So what are your thoughts on this? Are you reading the small print? Do you care about all the ingredients that go on your skin, or do you just care that some of them may be organic or natural? Please feel free to share your views below.
Skinega (‘skin’ and ‘age’ reversed) are redefining natural with four strict but simple criteria. Firstly, except for preservatives (for safety), their ingredients will always be naturally derived from nature, or molecules naturally found in your skin (bio-identical). Secondly, natural in that there are no synthetic thickeners, colors, fragrances, or ingredients linked to health concerns. Thirdly, a natural number of ingredients per product, all at maximum concentration, and finally, our products are 100% vegan and never tested on animals.
In summary, we are passionate about simplifying skincare, with fewer products, using higher concentrations of fewer ingredients found naturally in skin or nature.
Written By Fraser Hill, Founder, and CEO, Skinega Inc.
Fraser is the Founder and CEO of Skinega, Inc. He grew up and was educated in Scotland before going on to forge an 18-year career in executive consulting and research, living and working in London, Hong Kong, Poland, Canada, and in the US, working for companies including J.P. Morgan, as well as starting Consulting firms in Canada in 2008, and London in 2012. With his background in research and technology, Fraser embarked on a consumer-driven journey to seek out cleaner, vegan, more effective luxury skincare. He sought a “free from” list that went beyond just harmful ingredients to include ingredients that serve no purpose to skin’s wellbeing like synthetic thickeners, colors, fragrance, and other texture modifiers. His search was unsuccessful, so Skinega was developed over a two-year period, then formally established in 2017.