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 cosmetic market in the last ten years. Supported by the popularity of e-commerce and specialized eco and bio shops, natural and organic cosmetics have consolidated their presence in the cosmetics market. Nevertheless, are all cosmetics that claim to be “natural” or “organic” really up to consumers expectations? And how can consumers verify that they are? Consumers organizations in Europe step up 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 doesn’t guarantee the organic qualities of its ingredients
The use of words such as “green” or “bio” are 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 often indicate the organic origin of an ingredient with an asterisk (*).
2. The difference between “nature inspired” and a natural or organic cosmetic
“Nature inspired” cosmetics, which are a growing trend linked to greenwashing, use elements and qualities of natural and organic cosmetics without offering their guarantees at formulation level. This means that, while a natural and 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 a mix of natural (in low concentrations) and petrochemical ingredients.
3. “Natural water” equals a more natural product?
Some cosmetic brands count added water in the total percentage of natural ingredients in the formulation of a cosmetic. However, all cosmetics contain added water, and the percentage of it in rinse-off products (such as gels, shampoos, etc.) is usually quite 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 is represented by added water. This isn’t the case of products carrying the NATRUE Label because the NATRUE criteria establishes that added water isn’t to be counted as a natural ingredient, hence avoiding inflating the percentage of natural or organic ingredients in a natural or organic cosmetic.
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 that consumers should be aware of:
1. “Free from”
The use of “free from” claims linked to substances that cannot be present in a cosmetic product according to Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 is a misleading claim because it makes the consumer believe it to be possible that this substance is present in a cosmetic, which isn’t the case. Similarly, some “free from” claims place at the same level substances allowed and substances forbidden for use in cosmetics (this is the case of the family of phthalates: while some are safe for use, others are prohibited). In such cases, these allegations can be considered denigrating. However, in certain cases these “free from” claims can be justified to provide information to consumers sensitive to certain ingredients (for instance, “free from alcohol” is an accepted claim as this is a common substance in cosmetics that some consumers with allergies or sensitive skin problems look to avoid).
2. Animal testing and environmental protection
DGCCRF also warns consumers about misleading claims concerning the absence of animal testing linked to a cosmetic. Since it’s prohibited in the EU to test finished cosmetic products and cosmetic ingredients on animals, cosmetic companies should only claim that their products haven’t been tested on animals if they can prove that none of the substances present in their formulation has been ever tested, even before the animal testing ban came into force in the EU, back in March 2009. Other allegations that DGCCRF warns consumers about are “ecologic”, “biodegradable” or “locally cultivated”, which sometimes aren’t 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 need to ensure that their ingredients lists are updated and that the 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, etc.
👉 Read the DGCCRF’s report “ Cosmétiques : à la recherche du « naturel » ” (only available in French)
Article written by Ana Ledesma, Communications Officer at NATRUE