Organics – Because we’re worth it?
Without a shadow of a doubt, the majority of people who I meet who are keen to enter the cosmetic industry want to enter with their very own organic brand. Organics is seen as the epitome of purity, freshness and authenticity in a world of fake news, fake looks and fake promises and I can understand why but I’m not entirely convinced that organics are always the right answer, well not yet anyway.
An aside/ context…..
I like to think of myself as ‘green’ minded, eco-friendly, sympathetically sustainable in my lifestyle choices but the reality is I could do better. Some days I might score a B+ and occasionally there might be an A- in my green living efforts but most days I’d be tracking along as a C – average. I don’t particularly feel good about that either by the way. So what happens? Well, sometimes it’s just my sheer lack of planning, I don’t leave myself enough time to take the train; at other times it is just habit, I happen to like the silicone-light oil-free touch I get from my regular foundation and it’s less than $20 a pop which is welcome; and lastly it is just a lack of head space that leads me to constantly forget my keep cup and recyclable shopping bags. Whatever I feel about this I know one thing is for sure, most people are either as bad as me or a little bit to either side. I am the majority, I am (sadly) normal and in business that is worth thinking about.
I want to delve into the cosmetic example I gave above and really think about this from a cosmetic brand perspective. I also want to say right here and now that there is no doubt in my mind that careful and environmentally considerate farming practices are a great basis upon which to build our consumption habits and organic farming is one way of achieving that. Mostly though, I want to delve into the backstage world of what it means to make an organic cosmetic brand to help illustrate why I feel that it isn’t always the right way to go. Yet.
Building an Organic Brand in Australia.
Here in Australia there is no legal definition of what an organic cosmetic brand should be, there are only private standards and guidelines to comply to and be certified by. Australian Certified Organics and the Organic Food Chain are two local ones and we also have the possibility of jumping into standards such as COSMOS or Ecocert, particularly good for brands looking to export or looking for certification standards that were set up specifically for the cosmetic industry rather than for food and then expanded to cosmetics.
Legal definitions are not the be-all-and-end-all of life but the absence of a legal definition for an organic cosmetic does mean that each standard is essentially free to come up with their own rules and interpretation. Again this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is ‘bad’ but what it does mean for a brand owner is that you will potentially enter into a market which has an uneven playing field. Let me give you some examples.
Organic Vs Made With Organics – ACO Rules.
While some cosmetic products can be made with 100% organically grown ingredients the practicalities of this are limited and as such all cosmetic products that contain 95% and above of Organic inputs can be classified as Certified Organic. Further, there is usually a second tier certification on offer for brands that contain between 70-94.9% of Organic Inputs – in fact this is the most common level for a cosmetic product to aim at.
So what’s the missing 5 – 30%?
This is usually made up of ingredients that meet strict manufacturing and processing requirements and are called ‘allowable inputs’ but that can’t be classified as organic as rather than being directly grown, they are constructed from grown materials. If you are familiar with cosmetic formulating these would typically be your preservatives, emulsifiers, solubilisers, surfactants, emulsion stabilisers, many of your ‘actives’, clays and iron oxide minerals. In short, this is the majority of the stuff that gives a product its functionality and longevity.
Are there any examples of what this 5-30% might look like on an INCI label?
Some ingredients that meet the definition of ‘allowable inputs’ but that might typically be classified by an industry outsider as ‘chemical’ are as follows:
Phenethyl Alcohol – a natural preservative that can be derived from rose and smells rose-like.
Decyl Glucoside – a sugar and palm derived surfactant that is used to cleanse the skin and can also be used as a solubiliser.
Polyglyceryl-3 Palmitate – an emulsifier/ solubiliser for water-in-oil products that is derived from mixed vegetable sources and helps turn oil into a milky consistency or hold honey into a balm.
Cetearyl Olivate – an emulsifier ingredient derived from Olive and Palm that holds a creamy product together.
AHA Fruit Acids -Vaccinium Myrtillus Fruit Extract, Saccharum Officinarum Extract, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Fruit Extract, Citrus Limon Fruit Extract, Water, Acer Saccharum Sap Extract. This is a pre-blended fruit extract with efficacy data for skin brightening and conditioning if you use this from 5-15% in your formula. It is not certified organic but is completely natural.
There are many, many more.
So an organic product can still contain chemicals?
As a chemist I would have to say trot out the line that ‘of course, everything is chemical, even you’ but rather than just leave it there I’ll answer it as the average person on the street wants to have it answered. It is most likely that a range of certified organic products will contain ingredients in it that are entirely plant derived but that don’t exist in nature. What that means in practice is that plant-based chemicals be they oils (triglycerides), alcohols, fatty acids or something else are extracted from a plant in some way and then reacted with other chemicals of plant origin to form ingredients that have a useful cosmetic function – cleansing, moisturising, protecting, solubilising, thickening etc. The certification body gets to decide what level of ‘chemical’ processing is allowed in the transformation of these chemical ingredients and which technology is allowed in their ‘allowable input’ ingredient list. Generally speaking only the cleanest and simplest chemical transformation reactions are allowed and reactions are usually limited to those that can be achieved with purely natural starting points so no silicones or petroleum derivatives.
Any brand looking to make water-containing products must consider the micro-stability of their creation and that means they will either have to add a known preservative or use strategies to make the product self-preserving (sometimes possible). There are no certified organic preservatives so any that are used in an organic product will eat into that 5% of ‘allowable’ space. There are also very few (possibly only lecithin) certified organic emulsifiers so again, if you want to have oil and water combined safely you will need to use something that will a) look a bit chemical on your ingredient listing and b) eat into your 5% of non-organic space. The same dilemma applies to skin or hair cleansing products as there are very few bubbling/ cleaning/ surfactants that are certified organics and those that are not necessarily that effective (soapnuts, natural saponins).
So what if my organic product contains some ‘chemicals’ as long as they are ‘natural’.
So what indeed…..
One of the words that I hear quite a lot by people wanting to enter the cosmetic market as brand owners is ‘authenticity’. I don’t know what it is exactly about the world right now but people feel they have been or are being ripped off and there is a huge appetite for Authentic and when it comes to cosmetics that means ingredients you can pronounce or eat or (hopefully) both.
Where there is doubt there is fear.
If a prospective brand owner or their target customers have to ‘research’ the ingredient list in order to understand it fear creeps in. We have all seen or heard people lamenting the fact that students reference Wikipedia in their degree dissertations these days (and everyone in academia knows that Wikipedia is not a primary source), we might have fallen for the teachings of people like Belle Gibson, purchased her books and headed her every healing word only to find out she lied to us. Even those that missed out on Belle will appreciate how we all now laugh about the rubbish that comes up when you do our google ‘research’ but we still do it. Why? Because for many of us we have no idea what those snobby people laughing at our inability to discern the wheat from the chaff (good from bad) are on about. In short, we feel vulnerable.
There is no easy or quick way to fix this but there is a way to make it worse and that’s to be a brand owner that jumps onto the band wagon and does exactly the same as everyone else.
Science Literacy – A question of trust? Authenticity gap?
I wonder if this is where the desire for Authenticity comes in? If my newbie brand developers read these weird sounding chemical ingredients on their organic/ natural/ regular cosmetics and think ‘I don’t know what these things are, don’t know where to go to find out and I’m worried by that’? I think this is possible and I think this is understandable for a consumer but for a brand owner? I feel this knowledge gap has to be tackled head-on instead of avoided.
While I don’t expect every brand owner to spend 3 years at Uni doing a Chemistry degree before selling their first lipstick I do think that it is essential they challenge their perceptions before joining in the noise. While there are good and bad courses out there, these days there are plenty of good resources available to the newbie brand owner and these include online learning, face-to-face short courses, insider blogs and resources like the cosmetic help desk that I help to run at New Directions. At the very least a new brand owner should understand whether glycerin is oil or water-soluble, what a polyglyeryl ester is and why the best preservative for their product isn’t necessarily the one that sounds like a fruit salad on the label.
OK so that’s the ‘chemical’ side, what about performance of Organics?
When I started out on my journey of Cosmetic Science organic certified cosmetics were not a thing. We had the Body Shop and Lush (I was in the UK at the time) and they were seen as pretty revolutionary even though these days neither of those brands would be seen to be leading the ‘Certified Organic’ charge.
Things have come a long way in terms of performance of organic brands but there are still limits and one of them is the practical limit that the requirement for meeting the 70 or 95% input benchmark sets.
The numbers game.
As a cosmetic formulator I like to focus on how a product feels and performs rather than on what percentage of the ingredient will get me certified. With organics my focus is obsessively on the numbers.
Take making an organically certified shampoo – 70% organic input – as an example.
I’ve only got 30% of space in which to make my shampoo do shampoo-type stuff like cleanse the hair and make it comb-able.
Surfactants are the ingredients that clean stuff and usually a decent shampoo requires an activity level of 10-15% to work well and perform as the average person expects.
Great! So that still leaves us 15-20%, what am I worried about?
The problem with surfactants is that most of them are not sold as 100% active. When you buy your amino-acid derived glutamates or your coco betaine or glucosides they can range from 50% active to 25% active. That means to get 10% of activity I’m typically having to add somewhere in the region of 30-50% surfactant as supplied and none of that is certified organic. So before I even get in the lab I’m reducing the efficacy of my formula so the numbers fit. The best surfactants for hair are the anionic ones such as the glutamates, succinates and sulfates but these are also among those sold in the 25-30% active mark. The most active surfactants are the glucosides sold typically as 50% active but these are hideous on the hair leaving it a tangled messy mess. See my issue? My preferred blend of an anionic primary surfactant, an amphoteric secondary then a non-ionic glucoside tertiary surfactant can only reach an activity of 9% (input 28.7%) before I blow my budget and that’s with no regard to how well this blend actually performs.
But things are getting better, we are making progress but we aren’t there yet.
The shampoo example above is just one example that can be repeated across a whole range of products and circumstances. This doesn’t mean that the organic brand owner can’t create a good brand but more that the organic brand creative chemist has to make compromises in order to fit the formula into the system. This may or may not be to the products detriment.
As the years go on problems like the lack of 100% active allowed-in-organics surfactants get solved, products get better and everyone wonders why everyone else isn’t doing what they are doing and this is a good thing. Understanding this and pushing suppliers for real solutions to real problems is good, tying suppliers up in requests for ‘chemical free’ ingredients or to make preservatives with nice INCI names is ultimately not as productive in the end as we trade functionality and problem-solving for sheer vanity.
And finally what about the price? How much does it cost to go organic?
It’s fair to say that there is the cost of something in dollars and cents and there is the real cost in terms of environmental impact, resource valuing and value-add. Both definitions are applicable in the organic product development life cycle. I am one of those people who feels we should value our primary resources very highly and that should be reflected in the price we pay throughout the supply chain. As such whatever we do buy has to fill the role it is intended to and fill it well – add value to the formula. Sometimes I personally do not see the value in spending 10 times more on a cosmetic preservative that is natural but that you have to use 4 times more of and then back up with one or two other chemicals in order for it to work. Further, I don’t see the value in adding something that is certified organic just to get the numbers up – add it if it adds value and if it doesn’t, leave it out. At the end of the day I see a lot of potential for certified organic formulations to cost more in dollars and even in environmental impact but deliver nothing more than their natural, non-certified cousins. The bottom line for me in this regard is that I do not see Certified Organic as a guarantee that the product has made the best use of natural resources and is representing the best value for money.
So what does being certified organic mean and is it the best (or only) pathway to an Authentic cosmetic for newbies or existing brand owners?
Looking at what is available and what can be created today I see ‘Certified Organic’ as simply meaning that the product contains a certifiable amount of organic ingredients – 70% or more. The certification alone says nothing of the value the product delivers or even whether it represents a better environmental choice. The individual brand owner needs to determine that with evidence and in a way that would satisfy a legal challenge if mounted.
So, achieving an organic certification is not the only and maybe not even the most important way to deliver authentic cosmetic products to the market and I think that is worth mulling over.
While it makes sense at least on one level to provide the market with 95-100% certified organic input facial oil blends, fresh hydrosols or lip balms, it makes less sense at the moment to spend years trying to achieve that level of certification for a multi-purpose anti-ageing cream, a salon-quality shampoo / conditioner combo or a liquid foundation. This is where the 70-95% organic input come in and for many, the cognitive journey to get to being comfortable with a 70% made-with-organic product that ultimately gets its efficacy and safety from ‘chemicals’ albeit naturally derived ones, is going to be the same as for a 100% natural but not ‘certified organic’ product and this, for me is where the real possibilities currently sit.
Authentic Choices that deliver results.
There is no doubt in my mind that organic farming has a big role to play in a sustainable and caring future. When it comes to cosmetics and cosmetic brand creation there is indeed a market for certified organic and we now have the technology to deliver reasonable to very good products using this philosophy but to do so requires the input of naturally derived ‘chemicals’ that look a bit confusing on the ingredient label. This puts the organic 70% product in the same boat as a natural-but-not-certified product but for the formulator or brand owner the benefit is more freedom from calculating inputs and percentages, more emphasis on how much ingredient is needed for a result and more room to adjust supply chain costs. For that reason and because the natural but not organic certified brand can still contain a high percentage of organics I feel that Organic Certification is a valid way to go but is not the only option for those looking to produce or purchase an environmentally ‘cleaner’ product. Indeed people looking to talk to that niche should really work on comparing the fore’s and against’s of certified vs other.
For me, the quest for authenticity is more about first understanding and then delivering on that knowledge than on outsourcing that thinking to one or another third-party certification. Part of the reason why there is no legal definition for organic cosmetics here in Australia is because of the difficulty in agreeing to what the 5-30% ‘allowable inputs’ should be made up of, when does a chemical become a chemical? What reactions are and aren’t allowed? Does biodegradability or toxicity come into it? Oh, on that note, just because an ingredient is allowed or often used in organics does not mean it is the mildest choice either and neither does it mean the ingredient readily and completely biodegrades – as I said all it tells you is how the ingredients feedstock has been farmed.
The bottom line in all of this is chemical literacy and comfort level. I believe it is the brand owners responsibility to educate their target market about the brands ingredient philosophy and to do that they first need to educate themselves using credible sources and by challenging their own thinking. Finally I believe that if we all step-up and explain the ingredients we use, why we use them and what they bring to our formulations we will actually be contributing to what we all want anyway and that’s a progressive, more creative, safer and more truly sustainable cosmetic industry that we can all be proud of.
So, to finish I do want to remind everyone that I am not bagging out Certified Organic but that I am saying that just jumping through those partially made-up hoops without fully understanding why is potentially costly to your sanity and your brand. You can change the world and create an authentic brand but there is more than one way to do that today and long may that choice and variety continue.
PS: Sorry for the ultra-long essay but there was a lot to get through.