Natural and organic cosmetics started as a trend back in the 1970s. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, this was still a niche market only few consumers worldwide had access to. However, growing interest on wellbeing and more natural ingredients have boosted an unprecedented growth of this segment in the last ten years. Supported by the popularity of e-commerce and specialised eco and bio shops, natural and organic cosmetics have consolidated their presence in the cosmetics market. However, can all cosmetics that claim to be “natural” or “organic” really live up to consumers expectations? How can consumers verify such claims? Consumer organisations and public authorities in Europe have recently stepped in to provide guidance to consumers.
Verbraucherzentrale Hamburg (Germany)
The Verbraucherzentrale Hamburg (the consumer association in Hamburg) is part of the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband (VZBV), a non-governmental organization that is an umbrella for 41 consumer associations in Germany.
In the last months, the Verbraucherzentrale Hamburg has published a series of articles to give consumers tips to avoid “fake natural cosmetics” and misleading claims. In their article “Naturkosmetik unter falscher Flagge” (July 2019), they describe the tricks used by some cosmetic brands to depict their products as natural or organic without offering consumers guarantees to verify that these characteristics are true. Some of the red flags that the Verbraucherzentrale Hamburg hints at are:
1. “Bio” in the name of a product does not guarantee the product is organic
The use of words such as “green” or “bio” is not a guarantee that the product is natural or organic. A good way to know if the ingredients in the product formulation are organic is to check the list of ingredients, where producers may choose to indicate with an asterisk (*) than an ingredient comes from certified organic agriculture. Another point of reference are seals such as NATRUE’s one, which is a reliable indicator that strict criteria for natural and organic cosmetics have been controlled by a third-party, hence ensuring these qualities are verifiable in certified products carrying the NATRUE seal.
2. The difference between “nature inspired” and a natural or organic cosmetic
“Nature-inspired” cosmetics, which are a growing trend which can be prone to greenwashing, often rely on the use of ‘green’ marketing elements and certain qualities associated to natural and organic cosmetics without offering defined guarantees of natural and organic content at formulation level. This means that, while a certified natural or organic product carrying the NATRUE Label guarantees the absence of silicones, mineral oils, artificial preservatives and synthetic fragrances, such substances could be present in “nature-inspired” products, whose ingredient formulation is often composed of an undefined mix of natural or organic (normally in low concentrations) and conventional petrochemical ingredients.
3. “Natural water” equals a more natural product?
Some cosmetic brands count the contribution of water added during the production process as part of the total percentage of natural ingredients in the formulation. Since all cosmetics generally contain added water, the percentage contribution, particularly in rinse-off products such as gels or shampoos, will be high. In practice, a brand that counts water as a natural ingredient can claim that their gel is made of x% natural ingredients when, in reality, most of this percentage claim is represented by added water alone. This is not the case of products carrying the NATRUE Label because the NATRUE criteria establishes that added water does not contribute to the overall natural content, hence avoiding inflating the percentage of natural or organic content of a cosmetic product. For NATRUE, only water coming from a plant source is considered as natural substance in the formulation.
Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (France)
The Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (DGCCRF) ensures the proper functioning of the French market to protect both consumers and businesses. This French administration, which operates under the Ministry of Economy, also verifies the compliance of businesses with the rules of competition and promotes the economic protection of consumers.
In March 2020, the DGCCRF published the results of a study they carried out to detect misuses of the claims “natural” and “organic” in cosmetic products. After verifying the businesses and products of 614 French producers, retailers and distributors involved in the cosmetics sector, the DGCCRF concluded that there are some widely spread misleading claims in natural and organic cosmetics to be aware of:
1. “Free from”
The use of “free from” claims linked to banned substances that are prohibited according to EU Cosmetic Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 is a misleading claim because it could make the consumer believe it is possible to find these substances in cosmetics on the EU market, which is not the case. Similarly, some “free from” claims indiscriminately place a group of substances into a single category whether or not all the substances within that group are allowed or forbidden by law, as in the case of parabens. In such cases, these allegations can be considered denigrating. However, in certain cases these “free from” claims can be justified when they provide information to consumers sensitive to certain ingredients. For instance, according to the DGCCRF’s report, “free from alcohol” is an accepted claim as this is a common substance used in cosmetics that some consumers with sensitive skin problems look to avoid.
2. Animal testing and environmental protection
DGCCRF also warns about misleading claims concerning the absence of animal testing linked to a cosmetic. EU law is clear on the prohibition of animal testing for cosmetics products. Under Article 20(3) of EU law, products can only make such a claim if they can prove that none of the substances present in their formulation has been ever tested on animals, even before the animal testing ban came into force in the EU, back in March 2009. Other allegations that DGCCRF warns about are “ecologic”, “biodegradable” or “locally cultivated”, which sometimes are not properly qualified or explained.
The DGCCRF concludes in its report that more transparent and up-to-date product information is needed to ensure that consumers have all the necessary details to make an informed purchase decision. Cosmetic producers also need to ensure that their ingredients lists are updated and that allergens are properly listed on pack. On this point, NATRUE offers a public and freely accessible database where all certified products carrying the NATRUE Label are listed so that consumers can check their description, ingredients, application details and additional information.
👉 Read the DGCCRF’s report “ Cosmétiques : à la recherche du « naturel » ” (only available in French)
Article by Ana Ledesma, Communications Officer at NATRUE