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Hope and Hype in a Bottle
The Greenwashing of the Natural Care Consumer

by Larry Plesent

Larry Plesent is Founder and President of Vermont Soapworks manufacturing Natural Stuff That Foams. This article originally appeared on .

We wanted a title that said it all. One that would make you, the industry professional, stop and think. One that will make you realize that all is not green (that's clean green, not the other kind) on the personal care shelves of our nation's healthy living stores. Perhaps you already question, "What ARE all those chemicals doing in here anyway?". We balm our sore conscience with denial. Let's bust open a few myths.


How Personal Care Products are Formulated

It all starts with the base. This is typically the first four ingredients in the product, water usually being the main ingredient. Now, no consumer wants to pay $12 for 8oz of mostly water, so we may see a long list of herbs first in extract form. Wake up and smell the chamomile - we are talking tea here. You have base and fluff. Sometimes the fluff is actually good stuff. Sometimes it is nothing.

You can hide almost anything in the word "Extract". An extract is a concentrated preparation of an herbal ingredient to gather it's essential constituents. It used to be generally understood that this meant that the herbaceous material was boiled or soaked in alcohol (a tincture). The word may also mean an oil infusion (soaked for ideally a month in vegetable oil), or an herbal infusion (anything from a weak tea to a strong boiled infusion). Carbon dioxide, propylene glycol, hexane, are now used to extract herbal constituents. And you don't need to mention them on the label. You can use chemically preserved extracts to help preserve your product and the chemicals will be hidden.

The cosmetics/personal care industry is the dirtiest/ most disingenuous industry there is. OK, right behind national politics. It is built on fears, myths and hype, exploiting near universal insecurities about aging, body image, social mobility and sex appeal. Idealized perfect bodies are thrust into our view creating image expectations 99.99% of us will never achieve.

Anything - any hook - is utilized. "Magic ingredients" abound. Everything from vitamins, herbs, minerals, auric energy, to movie stars and novel packaging concepts. Ad agencies know there are many discernible consumer types. The same products can be repackaged (scented, colored, thickened) to attract each type. Some examples: The Young Recycler, The Sporto, The Princess, The Rebel Without a Cause, The Cynic, The Hero, The Femme Fatale, The WannaBeNatural ( over 50% in the US), The Natural True Believers (4-7% US). At different points in our lives our identities assume these archetypal aspects (helped along with a generous dose of corporate culture). That which we surround ourselves becomes and reflects our sense of identity.

About 25 years ago it was found that putting the word Natural on a package basically doubled sales. For reference, a clear package or product is worth about 10% higher sales.

Since no definition of Natural exists for personal care, we are basically in the Wild West of marketing. There are almost no rules. If a product is, or claims to be "soap", as one lawyer said, "You can drive a truck through the regs". In the early '80s the FTC came up with a great definition for Natural - never adopted. They said that an ingredient may be called "natural" only if it contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients and has had no more processing than something which could be made in a household kitchen.


And Then Came "Organic Personal Care"

We now have a chance to redefine the personal care portion of the LOHAS industry through the use of Organic, as it pertains to personal care products. The important thing here is that guidelines follow those for food.

The majority of American consumers, when they see the word "organic," interpret that to mean "all natural, no synthetics or pesticides." The media is already beginning to report, incorrectly, that as of this October, the word will have the same meaning across all product categories. The New York Times wrote "according to a recent survey, 60 percent of Americans are interested in buying organic products, which in their eyes are better for the environment and also healthier because they are not made with synthetic substances." This is what people believe.

For this reason, synthetics, as defined in the NOP regulations should not be permitted in any care products labeled "certified organic," "organic," or bearing a trade name which includes the word "organic" or "organics." To do so is misleading. Any legally allowable synthetics should be taken only from the 2002 National List for foods, because body care products can be absorbed by the skin and taken into the body, just as foods are.

There has been amazingly little public input or commentary on the current OTA recommended regulations governing personal care products. OTA has kept us all in the dark. The "O Mama Report" on the OTA web site does not mention body care at all!


Let's look at some areas of concern

For starters: Water, salt, clay, and other naturally occurring minerals and truly natural non agricultural products must be excluded from percentage calculations. Many personal care products are about 70% water (lotions, shampoos, conditioners, liquid soap etc). If an Organically certified herb is made into a tea, , or the hydrosol (watery by product of the distillation process of making essential oils) is used, I now have Organically Certified water! Without even doing anything, and at virtually no cost, the product is now 70% Organic! Let's close this loophole immediately, or the current proposed guidelines are truly a sham. Organic food standards do not allow water to be used in the calculation.

Detergent chemicals should not be labeled as "soap". Big business wants you to be confused here. A detergent is engineered in a sulfonation plant. This is a huge, polluting, energy intensive process. Chains of carbon atoms are isolated from oil, and turned into other new products (SLS, ALS, Coco Betaine, Olefin Sulfonate, etc). Other artificial foaming boosters include MEA, DEA and TEA ( mono, di and triethanolalamine); all of which have no business in a product labeled Organic - let alone natural. If the carbon atoms came from a plant (coconut is common), it is labeled as Natural. If it comes from petroleum it is not. This assumes of course that the actual sources are scrupulously kept separate. Many industry professionals question the wisdom of allowing these products to bear the Organic label. According to one estimate 10% of us are considered detergent sensitive. Flaking scalp, eczema and dry skin may indicate this common malady.

Soap is made by mixing water and alkali with oils to produce soap and glycerin. Clear soaps are made using alcohol, sugars, heat and pressure. Melt and pour (often called 100% glycerin soaps) are usually made from propylene glycol, glycerin and use TEA as a foaming agent.

Extruded (milled, triple milled, etc) are made with salt. The salt sets up a second reaction that drives out the glycerin and water, helping the soap to set up quickly. Unfortunately, this traps the free alkali into the bar. About 25% of us may get dry skin (or worse) from the free alkali, fragrances, colors, alcohol, detergents (disguised as soap), propylene glycol and preservatives found in most soap products.

Handmade (or poured) soaps contain all of the glycerin produced by the soap process, and properly made, contain no measurable Free Alkali, an irritating by product of the soap making. Handmade soap also contains some Free Oils which along with glycerin and vegetable waxes, creates a soothing "hand lotion in soap" effect.

Castile Soap (bar, liquid or gel) should be defined as a whole vegetable oil soap containing coconut and olive oils, and made without artificial foaming boosters, alcohol or sodium chloride. In the US, there is no legal definition of what Castile Soap means. Chemical soups may be labeled as Natural Castile Soap in the USA (Europe already has guidelines for this).

No synthetic preservatives be allowed in products labeled Organic. Many preservatives contain a danger inherent in their job, which is to kill and discourage mold, fungus and bacteria that may consider your product a meal. They are anti-life, and we are life. This said, I am acutely aware of the health risk potential of improperly preserved products. We must call for zero tolerance on the synthetic preservative issue when a product is labeled Organic. They are not allowed in Organic Food, and have no place in Organic Body Care.

Evolving consumer expectations of how long a product should last would greatly reduce our preservative dependency. Refrigerate your lotions and use fresh soap - then we can eliminate at least a portion of our daily chemical load. Back home we refrigerate our beer - why not our cosmetics?

Propyl, butyl and methylene glycol should be excluded from products labeled Organic. Come on guys, does antifreeze belong in a Natural or Organic product?

Coal tar derived FD&C or Lake Colors be excluded from products labeled Organic.

Yes, some of us believe that fake colors, found in our food, drugs, and cosmetics are unhealthy. Products labeled Nontoxic contain them. I don't believe it - and neither should you. They may be fine for mass market, but they do not belong in an Organic or Natural labeled product.

Products containing artificial fragrances, fragrant oils and perfumes be excluded from using the Organic claim. We have wonderful steam distilled essential oils. Let mass market sell fruity scented gels. This includes the so-called "nature identicals".

And finally, that synthetic anti-microbial agents not be allowed in Organically labeled products.

A product is either Organic - synthetic, pesticide, petroleum and GMO free, or it is not.


What You Can Do to Participate in the Process

Let OTA and USDA that you support a strict definition of Organic for personal care products? If enough people comment they will HAVE to listen. Even better: write your representatives in Congress and send Letters to the Editors of national, local and trade publications.

The Green Products Alliance has a petition you can sign. This is the same kind of hanky panky we saw when debating Organic Food guidelines. Only an overwhelming grass roots response will bring change. A lot is at stake here - and time is short. How do YOU want the word Organic defined?


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