While the natural and organic certifications in cosmetics often go hand in hand, they are distinct and certifications differentiate them. Simply put, an organic cosmetic product is one that contains ingredients originating from organic farming practices (such as crop rotation or the use of compost instead of chemical fertilizers). This concept is thus tightly connected to food and agricultural standards.
Meanwhile, the “natural” concept relates to a product’s formulation that contains a majority of ingredients coming from natural resources and that it has been manufactured using allowed green processes. Some common natural ingredients include water, minerals, and physically processed agro-ingredients (such as plant extracts vegetable oils, or purified phytoactives). While an organic product is always natural, a natural product isn’t always organic.
The diverse certifications make sure to itemize examples of natural ingredients, as well as those ingredients that are not permitted for a product to be considered natural. Meanwhile, organic certifications ensure products meet transnational organic farming standards. Here, we list and explain some of the available organic and natural certifications in cosmetics.
The key organic and natural certifications in cosmetics
The COSMOS-standard has been applied to over 30,000 cosmetic products and ingredients in 60 countries, making it one of the most popular certifications in natural and organic cosmetics around the world.
This standard offers both cosmetics certification and raw material certifications/approvals. It is concerned not only with natural and organic ingredients but also with sustainability and the use of ingredients that are safe both for the environment and for humans.
It defines five categories of ingredients for cosmetic products: water, mineral ingredients, physically processed agro-ingredients, chemically processed agro-ingredients, and other ingredients.
There are four signatures provided by Cosmos:
- Cosmetic products under organic certification, for which at least 95% of the physically processed agro-ingredients must be organic, while also providing guidelines for alcohol and soap-based products. Water cannot be included as organic.
- Cosmetic products under natural certification, which doesn’t require any percentage of organic products.
- COSMOS certified for cosmetic ingredients with organic and natural content according to the COSMOS standard.
- COSMOS approved for cosmetic ingredients with no organic content that is approved by the COSMOS standard.
The requirements for cosmetic products with a COSMOS certification are also related to health and environmental risks, sustainability, and the origin and processing of ingredients. It forbids the use of genetically modified biotechnology (GMO ingredients) and synthetic raw materials (with some exceptions). It also regulates palm oil, palm kernel oil, and their derivatives, which must be certified as sustainable (CSPO).
This certification is widely recognized in countries such as Germany and provides one of the highest quality standards in the industry. Available for both raw and finished products, this certification divides the permitted ingredients into three categories: natural substances, natural-identical substances, and derived natural substances, all of which must be non-GMO (non-genetically modified organisms).
The standard then provides different product categories, none of which allow added water to be included in the percentages. In either case, water is only considered as natural substance if it derives directly from a vegetable source (e.g. directly obtained vegetable juices):
- Natural cosmetics must contain a certain minimum content of natural substances and the maximum content of derived natural substances for different types of products (oils for skin care, perfume, shampoo, etc.).
- Natural cosmetics with organic portions, where 70% of natural and naturally-derived substances come from controlled organic processes.
- Organic cosmetics, where this percentage goes up to 95%.
This standard provides worldwide unified criteria to define what an organic and natural ingredient is. ISO is an independent, non-governmental organization derived from the World Trade Organization that generates quality standards for many industries, including the cosmetic industry.
This standard was created in order to provide an international definition for organic and natural products, as opposed to the wide variety and quantity of private certifications that were valid only within national borders.
Nowadays, the ISO 16128 standard is used simultaneously with the rest of the certifications. Thus, it provides brands with a measuring tool, but it doesn’t work as a marketing claim for cosmetics. It defines criteria for ingredients to be considered:
- Natural and derived from nature.
- Organic and derived from organic.
- Water, which is only always considered as a natural ingredient but it is only considered organic if it’s constitutive water or reconstituted water.
- Non-natural ingredients.
- In some regions, ingredients derived from genetically modified plants can be considered as natural ingredients.
The standard provides both definitions for these ingredients and the necessary formulas to calculate the natural, organic, and derived indices for the ingredients and the computation of their content in the cosmetic. According to this standard, there is no particular value that constitutes a natural or organic product.
Ecolabel is a label for environmental excellence developed by the European Union, valid also in Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. The EU Ecolabel focuses on issues related to raw material extraction, production, distribution, and disposal and works in accordance with the ISO 14024 standard. The Ecolabel is not exclusive to cosmetics but it also encompasses other products such as textiles, paintings, or detergents.
EU Ecolabel guarantees that certified products reduce their impact on aquatic ecosystems, that the product fulfills strict biodegradability requirements, and that there is limited packaging waste.
Regarding cosmetic and personal care products, the Ecolabel focuses on rinse-off products. These present seven requirements to obtain the Ecolabel guided by the Commission Decision of 9 December 2014: Toxicity to aquatic organisms, Biodegradability, Excluded or limited substances and mixtures, Packaging, Sustainable sourcing of palm oil, palm kernel oil, and their derivatives, Fitness for use and Information appearing on the EU Ecolabel. There are limits according to product types (such as shampoo, solid soaps, etc.).
In the US, ‘natural’ is not a regulated term in cosmetics. It is unlike ‘organic’, which is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This certification states the requirements for products to be considered organic under the National Organic Product Certification (NOPC). Cosmetics, personal care products, and body care products are eligible for four organic labeling categories as:
- “100% organic”: Product must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients.
- “Organic”: Product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). The remaining product ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form, also on the National List.
- “Made with organic ingredients”: Products contain at least 70% organic ingredients and the product label can list up to three of the organic ingredients on the principal display panel.
- Less than 70% organic ingredients: Products cannot use the term “organic” anywhere on the principal display panel. However, they may identify the specific ingredients that are USDA-certified as being organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel.
Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability
The classic concepts of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ are evolving rapidly. Today, the current market has expanded these concepts as part of the effort to create a more sustainable cosmetics industry. As a result, clean, natural, sustainable, cruelty-free practices are becoming the new industry standards. From organic ingredient sourcing to social responsibility projects, brands are entirely reconsidering their supply chains. Organic and natural certifications in cosmetics are a hallmark of this tendency, which translates into further transparency. These marks clearly convey a commitment to sustainability and safety to consumers, meeting industry, and consumer demand for tangible climate action.