Natural vs. Organic Products

What's the difference--and how can you tell?

Now, more than ever, people are questioning what is being put into the skin care products they use. With terms such as "natural" and "organic" being used on all kinds of packaging, it's important to know not only what these terms really mean, but how they affect the way a product is labeled, the way ingredients are listed on the packaging, and the overall effectiveness of the product.


Terms Defined
What exactly does it mean when a product is labeled "natural" or "organic"? In the broadest sense, a natural product is something that originated from a plant or animal source, and an organic product is a natural product that was grown without the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Many ingredients used in beauty, makeup, and skin care products are already derived from plant sources, but exact definitions vary. 

In the world of skin care, the biggest difference between products labeled "natural" and "organic" is the amount of regulation imposed by the government. The US government does not regulate natural skin care products, which means anything can be labeled or described as natural, regardless of what it contains or how it was produced. Organic products, however, are heavily regulated by the government.


Organic Isn't Easy
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets strict regulations for organic products: how ingredients must be grown and processed; where the word organic can appear on the product label; and how the label may be presented on the actual product. Growers must adhere to a special system of farming that maintains and replenishes the soil fertility without the use of toxic materials such as pesticides or fertilizers. Third-party certifiers appointed by the USDA enforce these regulations with annual inspections of organic farms and processing facilities. 

The National Organic Program (NOP) is a government agency that works with the USDA to help regulate the use of organic ingredients in skin care products, and to make sure these types of products are correctly labeled. There are four labeling categories for certified organic products: 

- 100 Percent Organic
Products that have been certified by the government as containing 100 percent organic ingredients. The product is permitted to display the USDA Organic label on the front of the packaging. 

- Organic
Products that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. They are also permitted to bear the USDA Organic label on the front of their packaging.

- Made With Organic Ingredients
Only 70 percent of ingredients need to be organic for a product to be certified in this category. These products cannot use the USDA Organic label, but are allowed to have descriptive text on the product label to say it is made with organic ingredients. 

- Less Than 70 Percent Organic Ingredients
These products cannot use the USDA Organic label, and the only place where the word "organic" can be used on the product's packaging is in the ingredient list on the back of the product.


What's Natural?

The main reason why the federal government doesn't regulate natural skin care products is because there is no formal definition of what natural means within the beauty industry. Different brands may use the word in completely different ways. This creates confusion and frustration for the consumer. 

In May 2008, the Natural Products Association (NPA), along with brands such as Burt's Bees, JR Watkins, and Yes To Carrots, created the Natural Standard for Personal Care Products. This voluntary standard is the closest thing the beauty industry has to a formal definition of natural. It consists of the following four components:

- Natural. At least 95 percent of the ingredients in the product must be formulated without any artificial ingredients, and minimally processed.
- Safety. The product must be completely void of any ingredients deemed harmful to human health by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Responsibility. The product cannot have been used in any sort of animal testing.
- Sustainability. The product, its ingredients, and its packaging must be environmentally friendly. Ingredients should be biodegradable, if possible. The product's packaging should be made up of recycled materials, or at least be easy for the consumer to recycle.

To use the NPA Natural Seal on its label, a product must meet all four components, and its manufacturer must disclose all ingredient information, fully and accurately. The NPA Natural Seal is the closest equivalent for natural products to the USDA Organic label for organic products, but it is a voluntary standard that is neither required, nor endorsed, by the federal government.

While it's important to know the difference between natural and organic, it's no less important to make sure you're using the most suitable product. Just because a product is labeled "natural" or "organic" doesn't necessarily mean that it will be the best choice for your skin type, concerns, and conditions.

Kathleen Neves
Kathleen Neves is a licensed esthetician, makeup artist, and beauty blogger based in San Francisco.