More of us than ever are choosing to pack products that are labeled ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in our travel wash bags, trusting that they will be good for us and the environment. But should we?
Over the last decade there’s been a massive boom in personal care brands that are supposedly free of nasty chemicals, yet in reality, and unlike organic foods, there is no set international standard for the organic personal care industry, and it remains largely unregulated.
Just like the many different sustainability certification schemes that allow hotels to greenwash, there are certifying organisations across the globe which guarantee a certain percentage of organic ingredients in a product, but these can be confusing and misleading.
It’s often the case, for example, that a product can refer to itself as ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ if only a few of its ingredients fall into either of these categories, with the rest being man-made. This means that a tiny sprig of herb can be dipped in 3000 gallons of production batch water to transform it into a ‘natural’ formula even if the rest of the ingredients are synthetic.
When companies use the ‘organic’ label falsely to cash in on its marketing caché, consumers feel cynical and deceived, and business owners who make genuine organic products are cheated out of eco-conscious customers who want organic products but actually buy cheap ones that are labeled falsely.
The general consensus is that the most reliable standard is the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board ‘USDA’ Organic seal, which demands that no synthetic preservatives or petrochemicals are used. Many USDA certified products are sold outside the US, and many non-US products are USDA certified for sale in the US. When it comes to making the whole industry less of a lucky dip for consumers everywhere, the system is leading the way.
Why should we avoid the synthetic preservatives, detergents, colours, fragrances, microbeads and petroleum-derived ingredients that are used in mainstream toiletries anyway? The skin is a living, breathing organ that absorbs up to 60% of the stuff we put onto it. While one product may contain very small amounts of some of these ingredients, it is the cumulative effect of applying various products regularly that causes concern for our health and wellbeing.
Studies have shown that products that use them can be allergenic, dehydrating and irritating to the skin, that they clog the pores, preventing the skin from breathing properly, and more seriously, that they can have an adverse effect on cell renewal and genetic make-up, making them carcinogenic, damaging to fertility and detrimental to the immune system.
Such chemicals also damage our environment and upset the delicate balance of our eco systems. The microplastics used as scrubbing and emulsifying agents or just cheap fillers in toothpaste and cleansers, for example, have a damaging effect on marine life, since marine animals often mistake them for food. They are passed along the marine food chain and, as humans are at the top of this chain, it is likely that we also eat them. Plastic particles are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove, so they contribute to the plastic islands swirling around the world’s oceans too.
Beat The Microbead (www.beatthemicrobead.org) is also brilliant, continually updated resource that lists products produced by different countries that use micro plastics and those that do not.
So while the personal care industry gets its act together, how do we as travellers ensure we’re packing bona fide organic and natural products in our bags?
The Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org), which has been campaigning for consumers to boycott ‘organic cheater’ brands as part of its Coming Clean campaign since 2004, advises that you first look for the USDA organic seal on personal care products that claim to be organic. If it doesn’t have the seal, read the ingredients label.
Look out especially for the word ‘parfum’, which can hide up to 100 allergenic chemicals. Phthalates is a chemical used to make vinyl flexible which also gives lotions the right consistency, while Parabens are synthetic chemical preservatives. All Lauryl Sulfates and Laureth Sulfates are potentially harmful, especially Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), a detergent used to create foam in shampoos and shower gels that is also used to de-grease car engines. DEA, MEA or TEA, Formaldehyde, Lanolin, Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and Mineral oils are also on the list of ingredients to avoid – and it goes on.
To see for yourself the huge gap between some companies’ ‘organic’ claims and the reality, take a peek at Skin Deep (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com), the Environmental Working Group cosmetic safety database in the US.
Genuine ‘organic’ companies will list organically certified ingredients and their percentages on the label. They will also usually have a ‘use by’ date, sometimes a production date, and be packaged in UV-resistant glass bottles so that sunlight doesn’t affect them. Bear in mind that not everything can always be 100% organic. Himalayan salt, for example, which is used in some spa products, is over 250 million years old, but because it is not derived from a plant it cannot be certified organic – nor can mineral clay. This is where the word ‘natural’ can be used – with care, of course.
Some companies whose products are natural and organic still fly them half way round the world to expensive spas and package them in unsustainable packaging – even if it’s not plastic, it can be expensive card loaded with heavy inks. As expectations from ‘conscious’ consumers increase, all organic and natural producers will need to get their act together so they are accountable and transparent, certified from a rigorous company, and addressing the waste of packaging and the carbon footprint of production and delivery.