Greenwash of the Month: Does My Hair Look “Organic”? Mislabeled Organic Personal Care Products

When you buy shampoo, lotions, toothpastes or other personal care items and you see the word “organic” on the package, you probably expect the product is made with mostly organic ingredients. After all, that’s why you buy these products, which are safer for you, your family, and for the farm workers and rural communities where the organic ingredients are produced.

So you might be disappointed to learn that some organic companies, including several major brands available at leading retailers like Target, Walgreens, Whole Foods and others, are using the word “organic” on products that contain few, or in some cases, no organic ingredients. Even worse, some of the products contain chemicals linked to potential health risks, including cancer, hormone disruption, allergies and more.

A recent investigation by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) found many mislabeled “organic” personal care products. Some of the products are made by leading national brands, including Kiss My Face and Jason (a brand made by the natural foods giant Hain Celestial).

Several other products are  hair and body care products marketed to African American and Latino consumers. Some of these products are marketed as “organic” products for young girls, yet they contain no organic ingredients. One product, a “Kids Organics by Africa’s Best Hair Softening System” contains chemical ingredients linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and asthma. A warning label on this “organic” product reads, “Keep away from eyes. Can cause blindness.”

Blindness?  I’m guessing that’s not among the benefits most consumers are after when they shell out the extra cash for organic products.

Organic food labeling is strictly regulated: multi-ingredient foods labeled “made with organic” ingredients on the front of the package must contain at least 70% organic ingredients (95% if they are simply labeled as “organic”), and are prohibited to include most synthetic ingredients. But regulators have not enforced this common sense law for cosmetics and personal care products, even though California has had a similar law for these products since 2003.

CEH is taking legal action under California law to end this organic mislabeling. We believe that consumers deserve truthful organic labels, and that companies who are doing the right thing by using organic ingredients should not have the trust in their labeling undermined by organic phonies.

You can take action and help end organic mislabeling: tell Hain CEO Irwin Simon to stop mislabeling the company’s personal care products, and abide by California law. Organic on a label should be a claim that consumers can understand and trust – take action today!

And, you can see the full list of companies using improper organic labels here; if you have purchased products from these companies that you believe were mislabeled and want more information on your potential legal rights, contact charles@ceh.org.

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15 Comments

  1. Posted June 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    There is a MLM company called Essante that is claiming that their body care products are 100% certified organic and that they are the first in the world to do this. This statement is false on both accounts. The Essante products contain a mydrid of synthetic ingredients and while many ingredients are noted as certified organic on the label no where does the label contain a certification seal. The labels claim correctly either the products contain no toxic chemicals or no animal testing. I have had several conversations with the company president who when even presented with evidence of synthtic ingredinest sitll insisted there were on chemicals in the line.
    As far as the claim of the first in the world – an Austalian company MiEssence(www.blissfullyorganic.com) has been producing a a line with USDA certified organic and organic skin & body care since 2003

  2. Posted June 16, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    There is a MLM company called Essante that is claiming that their body care products are 100% certified organic and that they are the first in the world to do this. This statement is false on both accounts. The Essante products contain a mydrid of synthetic ingredients and while many ingredients are noted as certified organic on the label no where does the label contain a certification seal. The labels claim correctly either the products contain no toxic chemicals or no animal testing. I have had several conversations with the company president who when even presented with evidence of synthtic ingredinest sitll insisted there were on chemicals in the line.
    As far as the claim of the first in the world – an Austalian company MiEssence has been producing a a line with USDA certified organic and organic skin & body care since 2003

  3. Diana
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I have spent the last 45 minutes scouring new sources to get the names of all the companies named in the suit. Do you have that information? Because, I pay alot of money for my organic products and if I am missing something I will be on the phone first thing with these manufacturers. Thank you

  4. Moriah Cohen
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Hi Diana -
    The full list of companies and their mislabeled products that CEH identified in the lawsuit are listed (the products listed are just examples; CEH has identified multiple mislabeled products from the companies) at http://www.ceh.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=529

  5. Paula Spurlock
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I try to avoid toxics in my personal products and have used the Skindeep database to help find those with the least harm, and unfortunately my favorite (Aubrey) was on your list. However, many people do not realize that organic doesn’t always mean free of toxins. In fact, as someone with Parkinson’s Disease, I have read that studies indicate that rotenone, a pesticide allowed in organic farming, has shown a strong association with PD. Therefore, do you have any suggestions for how to find “least harmful” (not most organic) products? Many thanks.

  6. Moriah Cohen
    Posted June 20, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Rotenone is rarely (if ever these days) used by organic farmers, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1247644/ (the Organic Materials Review Institute reported in 2005 that no products including rotenone were available and approved for organic farms)

  7. Rose
    Posted June 20, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    It would be helpful to know which offending items have been found in the products. I thought I did my research with the Environmental Working Group skin deep database and still ended up trusting one of these products for my 2 year old and I am BUMMED.

  8. Moriah Cohen
    Posted June 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    All of the products we identified are misusing the organic label, and some contain questionable ingredients. The EWG skindeep database and other sources are useful in assessing potentially hazardous ingredients. If you have questions about a specific product, let us know.

  9. Danielle
    Posted June 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Is a full list of products ever going to be available? I have used some of the brands mentioned, but not the products mentioned. It would be great to see a full list. Using the EWG’s list doesn’t seem to be as foolproof as I thought.

  10. Moriah Cohen
    Posted June 20, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    It’s not possible to create a full list – some of the brands make literally dozens of products, some of which are difficult to find. The best bet is to check labels closely: products labeled as “organic” (anywhere other than on the ingrdients list) must be made with at least 70% organic materials. That means that the first ingredient in a product labeled organic (excluding water and salt) must be identified as organic on the ingredients – if it’s not, then it’s not properly labeled.

  11. Ali Geering-Kline
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Yes Danielle, the full list of companies and their mislabeled products that CEH identified in the lawsuit are listed on our (the products listed are just examples; CEH has identified multiple mislabeled products from the companies) here: http://www.ceh.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=529

    The complete press release about the lawsuit is posted here.

  12. Kristina
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, CEH!
    Exactly how it was discovered that these purchased products were not organic is not mentioned. Why?
    Was it as simple as reading the labels with the listed ingredients on the back to determine that these products were not “organic” or was each product chemically tested?
    I have also read that the FDA does not require companies to list all of the ingredients used in a product on their labels. I would like to know for my own benefit as a consumer if protecting myself from false “organic” claims is as easy as reading the ingredient labels

  13. Moriah Cohen
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Yes, ingredient lists show the ingredients in order of prominence (from the major intgredients to lesser ones). It’s therefore simple to identify whether products contain 70% or more organic ingredients – the first ingredient (not including water and salt) must be organic. What’s more challenging is to identify any questionable ingredients – which we found even in some products labeled as organic. For that we relied on many government agencies and scientific bodies that have assessed some (though not all) cosmetic ingredients for their health risks. Consumers can also use the EWG “skindeep” database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) to identify potentially problematic ingredients.

  14. Mandy
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Overall, sadly, I find the more commercial, and the cheaper the brand, the more synthetic crap you find in it, even the ones labeled natural and/or organic.

    I use Dr. Bronner’s soaps for most things related to cleansing my body, though I only really do hand (a bit in the bottom of a foaming dispenser and fill the rest with water) and body washing with it, a few drops makes lots of suds… it makes my hair greasy with all its oils.

    Many other things can be accomplished using everyday or at least common things, deodorant can be made out of baking soda, cornstarch, beeswax if you like, and coconut oil (EV organic coconut oil is great for many things, inside your body and out). Plus there are essential oils that have an antiperspirant effect.

    I do have to wonder if Rejuva Minerals, one of my favourite make up companies, that are full EWG members, are implicated here. I doubt it, though; generally, I think, it’s like everything else, if it’s mass produced on a larger scale, it’s probably going to have synthetic stuff in it.

  15. cl
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    as someone who works in the beauty industry (manufacturing/marketing) i applaud your brilliance in taking on this suit. it brings attention to the issue and forces companies to rethink their marketing and labelling. Too many offenders all the time! there are rules but NO ONE follows them b/c there is no one to enforce it (no resources) and consumers aren’t immediately injured by the products short term so they dont pursue any lawsuits either. Please continue with these suits so that in the future state law must enact a fine upon offenders. think of all the money from these fines that could support green activity!

    I do think you need more widespread PR coverage to make this suit nationally known — pls work with your publicity and PR to spread it–otherwise no one will know.

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