Natural And Organic Are Two Underregulated Terms Often Misused In Skincare. Here’s What They Mean

Are you tired of feeling like you’re walking through a minefield when you’re shopping for natural and organic skincare products? Sadly, we are often misled by beauty brands that proclaim their products as organic and natural but are actually loaded with unforgiving chemicals. With confusing regulations left and right and a notoriously underregulated cosmetic industry, it’s no wonder that those committed to all-natural skincare are overwhelmed in the quest to find genuine products. To shed some light on this, we’ll cut through the confusion and help you understand the difference between organic and natural and what sets these labels apart from chemical-free and synthetic-free.

What is organic skincare?

In skincare, the term “organic” describes products made with organically-farmed ingredients that are grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or other harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, the situation is quite murky when it comes to labeling beauty products as “organic”. That is because the FDA does not oversee or enforce regulations for the use of this term. Yes, that means it’s up to us, the consumers, to confirm its authenticity.

But the good news is that we can easily spot organic products by seeking out the “USDA” seal on the package. USDA requires cosmetics to have at least 95% of the ingredients organically grown to be labeled “organic,” whereas the remaining 5% can be chemicals and other artificial ingredients such as preservatives and fragrances. According to the USDA’s labeling standards, a product can also be eligible for the “made with organic ingredients” seal if it has at least 70% organic ingredients. However, products with less than 70% cannot be labeled as “organic,” and therefore will not have the USDA seal.

What is natural skincare?

The term “natural” is often misconstrued as solely consisting of ingredients derived from nature. But even to this day, there isn’t a universally accepted or regulated definition of what constitutes a “natural” skincare product. In reality, the label “natural” is often employed to denote the absence of synthetic and artificial additives such as preservatives, fragrances, and colorants, rather than the presence of naturally-sourced ingredients.

Unlike “organic,” which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and requires that a product has at least 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water)[1], “natural” is a term not regulated at all. Even the FDA has no authority to define what is natural and what is not.

What does that mean? No minimum percentage of natural ingredients is required for a product to be marketed as natural, which leaves the door wide open for brands to pull the wool over our eyes with all sorts of false marketing claims. But despite the current ambiguity surrounding the term “natural” in the skincare industry, there remains a glimmer of hope.

In 2019, US Representative Sean P Maloney took a step towards addressing this issue by introducing the Natural Cosmetics Act. This bill seeks to bring clarity to the labeling of “natural” and “naturally-derived ingredients”. It defines “natural” as a product made up of at least 70% unprocessed natural substances, and “naturally-derived ingredient” as an ingredient originating from minerals, plants, animals, or plant-based materials.[2]

However, the journey for the Natural Cosmetics Act to become law is far from over. The bill should be approved by the committee, then scheduled for voting, discussion, and potential amendments. Only if it gains a simple majority of votes it will progress to the Senate for further consideration. Until then, since there’s no oversight to trust the “natural” label, it’s our duty to be diligent with reading the product ingredient list and confirm if it is indeed free of artificial ingredients.

Natural vs. organic

The terms “natural” and “organic” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. “Natural” typically refers to products made with ingredients derived from nature or that lack synthetic ingredients. “Organic” refers to products made with ingredients grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. In other words, “natural” focuses on the source of ingredients, while “organic” focuses on the farming process. So a product can be organic but not natural or natural but not organic.

Additionally, certifications from organizations like the Natural Products Association or USDA Organic can be a helpful indicator of a product’s natural and organic standards.

Are natural and organic products safer and better for your skin?

Just bear in mind that “natural” and “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safer or better for your skin. Yes, most natural ingredients are gentler and generally well tolerated. However, they can still cause irritation, clog your pores, and trigger allergic reactions—think of tea tree oil or coconut oil. So, it’s essential to know your alergies and skin type to ensure you get the best outcomes from your natural or organic skincare routine.

Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder of Women's Concepts and a certified skincare consultant. She has over five years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and over a decade as an acne sufferer. With a background in dermatological research, Ana brings a wealth of expertise to a diverse range of topics, from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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