What it is, benefits, myths and more


In the beauty industry, the term “organic” means that some or all of the ingredients in a product come from organic sources. For example, the aloe vera in a moisturizer may come from an organic aloe farm.

Organic ingredients are those that farmers have grown without using artificial substances, such as chemical pesticides or fertilizers. The exact definition varies around the world.

In the United States, products bearing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal contain at least 95% organic ingredients. There is no evidence that these products are more effective, but they may be more environmentally friendly.

In this article, we take a closer look at organic skin care, including what it is and what the benefits are. We also look at how organic skincare differs from “green” or “clean” skincare.

Organic skin care refers to products that contain organically grown ingredients. Standards for organic farming vary globally, but generally organic farms do not use lab-made substances.

This may include:

  • chemical fertilizers
  • chemical pesticides
  • antibiotics
  • hormones
  • parabens
  • sulphates
  • GMO

Instead, organic farms keep their produce safe by using natural substances. The underlying idea is that organic farming is less harmful to the environment.

For a skincare product to be organic, it must be made from plant-derived ingredients that are organically grown and processed. Here are some examples :

  • plant extracts
  • vegetable oils or butters
  • essential oils
  • resins

In the United States, organic products must also:

  • enable resource cycling
  • maintain or improve air and soil quality
  • conserve biodiversity
  • minimize the use of synthetic materials

The exact percentage of organic ingredients in a product that says “organic” on the label may vary depending on local laws. In the United States, the use of the term “organic” is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but states set their own thresholds for the proportion of organic ingredients they must contain.

If a product has a USDA organic seal, it contains at least 95% organic ingredients.

No, these terms mean different things.

“Natural” can mean that some or all of a product’s ingredients come from plants or animals. It is not the same as “organic”. Natural ingredients can come from organic or non-organic farms.

“Natural” also doesn’t necessarily mean all the ingredients are sure or environmentally friendly. For example, some manufacturers source squalane, which is a moisturizing substance, from sharks. This contributes to shark hunting.

“Green” is a term used by companies to signify that their products are not harmful to the environment. Again, however, this is subjective. A company can use it to refer to its ingredients, packaging, business practices, or a combination. This does not guarantee that the product is truly harmless.

“Clean” has an even looser definition. This describes products that contain safe and non-toxic ingredients. Clean beauty products generally do not contain ingredients that can be harmfulsuch as parabens and fragrances.

Any of these three terms are regulated by the FDA. While companies in the United States must meet certain standards before they can use the term “organic” on their products, any company can use these other terms, regardless of the ingredients they use.

Organic skin care is not necessarily more or less effective than non-organic skin care. However, it has some key advantages. Organic skin care products are:

  • Regulated. Because the term “organic” is regulated in the United States, people can tell the product contains what it says it contains.
  • Better for biodiversity. Organic farms do not use chemical pesticides, which can harm wildlife and reduce biodiversity.
  • Less polluting. To use the term “organic,” products must either maintain or improve the health of the soil or air where they grow.
  • Biodegradable. Organic ingredients also tend to be biodegradable, meaning they break down quickly and don’t build up in the environment.

There are a few downsides to organic skin care. However, people should be aware that an organic product does not always mean that the company making it is environmentally friendly.

Some brands highlight their organic ingredients to practice “greenwashing”, which is an attempt to mislead people into believing that a company is more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

For example, a company may emphasize its organic ingredients, but it can still:

  • use non-organic ingredients
  • use synthetic ingredients
  • have a high carbon footprint
  • use non-biodegradable packaging, such as plastic

Biological status is just one thing to think about when looking for sustainable skin care. Other factors can tell people how high-quality, ethical, and environmentally friendly a product is overall.

Depending on a person’s concerns, they may also wish to seek information about:

  • Purity. The term “third-party testing” means that a company has asked an independent laboratory to test the safety and purity of its products. This ensures that the products contain what the company says.
  • Efficiency. Some companies conduct clinical trials of their products to prove that they work. This can indicate that a product is effective.
  • Supply. The cultivation or harvesting of certain organic ingredients can still have a negative effect on the environment or on the communities that live nearby. For example, some crops require a lot of soil or water to grow. Some brands support practices that minimize negative effects and uplift communities.
  • Location. Shipping products around the world requires more fuel than shipping them locally. People can consider brands that operate in their region or country.
  • Animal wellbeing. Although animal testing is banned in many places, some countries still require brands to test their products on animals before they are allowed to sell them in that region. Some skin care products also contain ingredients from animals. People who want to avoid such products can look for cruelty-free or vegan brands.

The British organization Ethical Consumer provides free advice on how to choose environmentally friendly products.

The term “organic” means that a product contains ingredients from organic farming. Organic farmers do not use artificial fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals to grow their produce. The idea behind this is that it reduces damage to wildlife.

The exact definition of “organic” and the criteria brands must meet to list skincare products as such vary by location. It is not the same as natural, green or clean skin care. The FDA does not regulate these terms.

People who want to make sure their skincare products are healthy for themselves, the environment, and the communities that grow the ingredients can find information about what’s important to them online.

Learn more about environment and health at MNT’s Environment and Sustainability Center.

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