Decoding Cosmetic Ingredients Lists – What’s Beneath The Lid?

Many brands make natural and organic claims nowadays, but what constitutes a natural or organic beauty product? Speaking at The Natural and Organic Products Europe 2014 exhibition in April, Judi Beerling, Technical Research Manager at Organic Monitor, gave an overview of cosmetic ingredients, especially synthetics, that could be lurking in ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ beauty products. Alex Gazzola listened in.

Judi Beerling began with some ‘home truths’ about natural and organic cosmetics:

* there is no formal definition of ‘natural cosmetics’;
* there is no legal protection for the terms ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in the cosmetic world;
* cosmetic ingredients often need chemical modification: even many of the oils and waxes, which are usually ‘straight out of the plant’, may sometimes be modified;
* there are virtually no regulations globally – save a bit of regulation in California concerning what can be marketed as ‘organic’, but essentially the industry relies on self-regulation.

So how can retailers or consumers know what is genuinely natural or organic?

There are and have been many products in supermarkets and chemists with the word natural in their title – Johnson’s Naturals, Palmolive Naturals and Jergens Naturals (recently withdrawn from the UK market), for instance. But scrutinising the ingredients listing often reveals that these products are not as high on the ‘scale of naturalness’ as you may expect. With customers bombarded with such terms, how can we expect them to understand what they mean?

Some brands, said Beerling, either deliberately or ignorantly give out the wrong message to consumers, and occasionally the regulators or advertising standards authorities pull them up on it.

She gave an example of a story covered by of a brand called Organix, which included a small amount of organic material, but not enough to meet the stricter standards in California, where 70% organic materials – excluding salt and water – are required in products going under any organic name or banner. Its solution? To change its name in California to Ogx.

Many brands marketed as organic or natural wouldn’t adhere to a strict interpretation of those terms, and many contain synthetics. To those in the know, ingredients will tell you a fair bit of the real story. Consumers now have access to information on the web, and they are wising up; discussion forums often question the green credentials of ingredients. While it’s still a small percentage of consumers who analyse in this way, this figure is growing.

What can we glean from product label?

* All ingredients can be seen – or there should be a reference to a website made where they can be found.

* If it is certified to a recognised organic or natural standard, this will be shown. (That said, there are cases of brands ‘making up’ their own certification, and designing their own logo … Beware!)

* The ingredients will be in descending order of quantity: but after 1%, ingredients can be randomised in any order, so an indication of content may not be fathomable towards the lower end of the ingredients list.

What doesn’t label tell us?

* The ‘naturalness’ of an ingredient may not always be obvious. INCI names, which are compulsory in ingredients lists, are allocated to materials. But some can both occur in nature and be made synthetically. Tocopherol (vitamin E) is one example.

* An ingredient may be naturally derived but not certified by any of the standards.

* A lot of ingredients are water-based. We may not be able to tell whether these ingredients are preserved with materials non-permitted by natural standards.

* How much of an ingredient is present.

Synthetic Ingredients

Which ingredients would we not expect to see in a product marketed as natural or organic? There is a whole host, but here are some which the industry is deciding definitely do not belong in a natural cosmetic.

* Many preservatives, but parabens being the most infamous. There are many arguments for and against parabens, but there are safety concerns, and Beerling said she would advise new brands starting out to avoid them.

* Quaternium-15 – a formaldehyde releasing agent, used as a preservative. (Diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea are also viewed as formaldehyde releasers. They are thought to react with other chemicals in a product to form formaldehyde, a toxic – carcinogenic and neurotoxic – substance.)

* Methylisothiazolinone (MI/MIT) – a preservative which will soon be banned in leave-on cosmetics in the EU. Many formulators who looked to exclude parabens from their products moved to MI, and now are looking to alternative preservatives again.

* Solvents which are used to extract plant extracts or to use as a humectant – propylene glycol is one, but other glycols too. They are generally petrochemically derived. With propylene glycol there are some known irritation issues.

* Tetrasodium EDTA. This is a chelating agent, which gets rid of heavy metal ions, and helps the preservation system. (Other sources say it helps prevent discolouration and other characteristic changes in a product, such as aroma and texture.) The main issue seems to be one of biodegradability – which is poor. There are more natural alternatives.

* Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) (it is ethoxylated). The petrochemical ethylene oxide is used to produce this material, which is a little milder than sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), but tends to be avoided by the industry due to the process of ethoxylation, which is not deemed appropriate in natural cosmetics.

* Sodium Olefin Sulphonate. A detergent made through a process called sulphonation, which is not ‘liked’ by the natural industry, and which involves petrochemicals.

* Cocomide DEA. Another detergent, sometimes perceived as natural because it is derived from coconut oil, but diethanol is involved in production, and it is a nitrosamine precursor (interacting with other chemicals to produce nitrosamine, which is carcinogenic). It also has potential irritating issues.

* Behentrimonium chloride / stearalkonium chloride – found in hair conditioners. These are quaternaries, but also very toxic to the environment, and not considered suitable for natural cosmetics.

* A range of emulsifiers: PEG groups, PPG groups, silicones and petrochemicals combined.

* Ceteareth-20 – this is ethoxylated.

There are also various processes that the different standards around the world tend not to like in ingredients used in a product whose manufacturers are looking for certification. These include:

* Irradiation, about which there are mixed views.
* Chlorine bleaching.
* GM.
* Certain reaction catalysts – even at tiny levels.
* Harsh chemical processing.

Which bodies will offer certification to a certain standard?

The following offer high level organic standards, requiring a lot of organic content:

* USDA NOP – This, some say, is the highest level, but it is very difficult to formulate to, unless you’re producing an oil or balm;
* Soil Association, UK;
* Australian Certified Organic;
* NATRUE (based in Belgium);
* COSMOS (the harmonisation of a number of European standards, which has an organic level standard).

The following offer moderate level organic standards, of roughly 70% organic ingredients, not counting water, and typically for wash-off products, but it varies.

* Ecocert and Cosmebio based in France;
* ICEA in Italy;
* NSF ANSI 305 in the US;
* NATRUE (‘with organic portion’ is their ‘middle level’ standard).

Then there are natural standards:

* Ecocert Greenlife (a small amount of organic material is required);
* BDIH (Germany) (doesn’t require organic material);
* COSMOS has a natural level (doesn’t require organic material);
* NATRUE has a natural level too;
* Natural Products Association in US;
* Whole Foods Premium Body Care Standards – essentially a list of materials excluded from products they will stock in their stores.


There is still a long way to go before we reach a universal definition of natural or organic.

There is a lack of regulation – and this is unlikely to change in near future. This leaves the potential for companies to stretch boundaries.

However, Beerling says she has seen a lot of industry norms start to develop in the industry. Now, most people would avoid certain ingredients, and there is a mood to try to come up with a standard for ‘natural’. Many new natural ingredients are available, so formulating should become easier.

She also feels the GM issue needs to be reconsidered: propandiol, derived from North American GM corn, has no trace of GMO in it, but is not allowed by some standards because of its derivation and source.

Irradiation may be preferable in some ingredients, another issue which perhaps should be reconsidered. Some materials are very difficult to sterilise – for instance, clays – and perhaps this needs revision.

Scientists, formulators and officials from the standards bodies need to work together to move forward, concluded Beerling. “My aim is to bring natural cosmetics to the masses, not just to a small wealthy minority,” she added.

For further information about Organic Monitor’s work, see

May 2014


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