Learn about Certified Organic and Certified Natural

What's the difference between Certified Organic and Certified Natural? How can we be sure a product really is natural? What is 'greenwashing'? There is so much confusion surrounding the cosmetic industry that we put the hard questions to the experts. Leading industry group and most trusted authority, Australian Organic, explain the what's what in natural beauty so you can shop easier and smarter.

Who are Australian Organic and what do they do?

Australian Organic is the leading industry group for organics. It is a not-for-profit, member-owned body which owns Australian Certified Organic; the largest organic certification body in Australia with the most recognition amongst organic shoppers. The Australian Certified Organic logo appears on over 14,000 products on our shelf.

Why was Australia Organic established?

It was established 26 years ago as a group that supports organic farmers. It then developed a certification arm, Australian Certified Organic, when it realised Australia needed a way to distinguish between conventional and authentic organically produced products.

What does 'certified organic' mean?

Certified organic covers pretty much every attribute you would expect in an ethically produced product. It means free-range, pasture fed, cruelty-free, socially responsible and grown without GM, synthetic pesticides and herbicides, hormones and antibiotics.

What a peace of mind can we have when we see the Australian Organic Certification logo on a product?

When you see the Australian Certified Organic logo on a product, you know that the company is audited every year to make sure it complies with the strict requirements set out in the Australian Certified Organic Standard. It also undergoes spot checks. 

Each year, Australian Certified Organic also carries out tests for residues on products wearing the Australian Certified Organic logo in the marketplace, from rice and kiwi fruit at a supermarket to oats and apples at a fresh food market. This makes sure it is what it says it is.

When products are certified by Australian Organic, it also ensures that products cannot contain certain preservatives, such as phenoxyethanol, a common ingredient allowed in products that claim to be natural.

What is the difference between certified organic and certified natural?

COSMOS certification offers an ‘organic’ and a ‘natural’ certification scheme. The main difference is that certified organic requires most of the ingredients - which have an agricultural origin - to be certified organic (ie produced and processed without synthetic chemicals), whereas natural requires the ingredients to be of a natural, ie not synthetic, origin, but they don’t have to be grown free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides etc. COSMOS certified organic and natural prohibit animal testing and GM ingredients.

What is the difference between certified organic and 'contains organic ingredients'?

For a product to be called certified organic, 95% or more of the ingredients must be certified organic.
If the product is complying with standards and carries a recognised certification logo, it can use the terms ‘contains’ or ‘made with’ organic ingredients if it has between 70 – 94% certified organic ingredients. 

If the product doesn't fit within a certification scheme, it can use the words ‘made with’ and ‘contains’ loosely.
For example, a product could contain 20 ingredients and if just one of those is certified organic jojoba oil, the manufacturer can claim the product is ‘made with’ certified organic ingredients even if the rest of the ingredients are synthetic surfactants, fragrances and preservatives. Unlike the United States, the word ‘organic’ is not regulated in Australia, so it is used loosely and can be very misleading.

Best to look for a certification logo like Australian Certified Organic to make sure the claims have been audited and verified by a third party.

Are there different levels of 'certified organic'? What are they?

There is certified organic, which means 95% of the ingredients or more are certified organic. The remainder still need to meet strict sustainability requirements. These products can wear the Australian Certified Organic logo on the front of the packet. There is also ‘made with organic’ which has between 70 – 94% certified organic ingredients. These products will state on the packaging that it is ‘made with’ and the Australian Certified Organic logo will appear on the back of the product.
Water and salt are not included in the calculation of ingredients.

What is the difference between having the certification logo on the front of a product as opposed to the back of it?

A product can only wear a certification logo on the front of the product if it contains 95% or more certified organic ingredients.

When was the certification of beauty products brought to Australia?

Australian Certified Organic has been certifying cosmetic products ever since manufacturers sought out organic certification.

COSMOS has been available in Australia since 2013. COSMOS is a different standard, which was developed by five European organic certifying bodies specifically for cosmetics and skincare. It has strict environmental requirements, which apply to ingredients, processing and packaging. It was developed because organic standards were developed for agricultural products such as food and garden inputs; however, cosmetic and skincare products require ingredients that are not necessarily from agricultural origin.
COSMOS is internationally recognised.

Can you tell us about the Australian Organic Natural Ingredients for Cosmetics Scheme?

This is a database for formulators to use when sourcing ingredients that can be used in certified organic products. 

Whilst organic certified cosmetics contain a very high proportion of organic ingredients certified under several international organic standards, they also contain a small proportion of natural ingredients sourced from vegetable, mineral or marine renewable sources. Those natural ingredients are an important part of the product formula, usually acting as moisturisers, surfactants and preservatives.

Natural ingredients, like organic raw materials – such as minerals - are not certified by a third-party organisation, and due to this the lack of regulation, the term ‘natural’ has been applied to ingredients derived from GM materials or to ingredients that, although initially derived from natural sources, have lost any ‘naturalness’ after so many synthetic chemical treatments.

This database lists ingredients that are approved and can be used.

What prompted this scheme? Was it consumer demand?

It was prompted by the cosmetic industry, which needed a certification scheme that was more flexible than the organic certification schemes. Ingredients that meet the requirements of the certified organic regulations are very difficult to source and hence more costly.

Why is there such a lack of regulation in the beauty industry?

The sales and quantity of chemicals used on farms to produce food is not regulated in Australia, so it’s little wonder the beauty industry isn't regulated either. Pesticides (a category that includes herbicides, fungicides, insecticides) are only withdrawn from the marketplace when human or environmental health problems are recognised, they are not sufficiently assessed before they're permitted.

The same approach applies to the skincare and cosmetic industry and could be due to lack of awareness.

How is this changing?

To improve the situation, Australian Certified Organic is participating in a Standards Australia forum to develop an ISO standard for organic and natural cosmetics. This is a great development because it will provide countries with a basic benchmark on what organic and natural products and ingredients really are should they want to regulate the industry in their own country and stamp out misleading claims.

Australian Organic has also submitted a number of complaints to ACCC highlighting the prevalence of ‘greenwashing’ in the cosmetic and skincare industry. It is an issue that consumer watchdogs are aware of and interested in; however, they're still learning about it and tend to be more focused on food products. 

Meanwhile, it’s up to consumers to drive the change and be more discerning about what we buy and use.

If we want to buy something that’s really organic look for a recognised certification mark like Australian Certified Organic to check that it's been audited and checked by a third party and don't just believe that if a product calls itself ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘eco’ that it really is. Read the ingredients and labels.

Do you see the beauty industry ever being completely toxin free?

The beauty industry will continue to use toxins as long as consumers keep buying the products. Fortunately we do have a choice.

Manufacturers who go the extra mile to create certified organic products say it is more difficult for them because synthetic ingredients are much cheaper and more easily available. This is why the majority of manufacturers prefer them, they can make higher margins using cheap ingredients. Synthetic ingredients also behave more predictably, making it easier to formulate products.

We’d like to see more consumers read labels and choose products that aren't harmful to the environment, aren't tested on animals and don't pollute their bodies – after all, the skin easily absorbs what’s put on it because, unlike what we drink and eat, it isn't filtered.