Switching to a more organic lifestyle may look so simple on the outset. Many people believe that anything with the word “natural” on its label is fine. Why should they believe otherwise? After all, governmental departments and programs would surely stop these companies and manufacturers from misleading marketing and labeling.
Unfortunately, the regulations over such claims for products contain plenty of loopholes. Producers of all kinds of items can, will, and have already exploited them. Far too many of the allegedly organic products that you see on store shelves boast of being better than they truly are.
Consumers who just want to make better choices for their health and the environment deserve better treatment. Until advocates succeed in sealing those loopholes, though, fans of organic products must learn how to discern the real from the fake. Here are a few tips specifically for identifying organic soap that lives up to its name.
Know the Legal Background
As we said before, the United States government has rules over what kinds of products can legally use the word “organic” in their marketing. Specifically, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers four distinct terms with their own conditions for use:
- 100% Organic — for products that do, indeed, consist entirely of “certified organic ingredients and processing aids.” These products are eligible for a USDA Organic certification.
- Organic — for products in which “certified organic ingredients and processing aids” make up 95% of their composition. Despite the difference, these products are also eligible for a USDA Organic certification.
- Made with Organic — for products that are between 70% and 95% organic. These products cannot use the USDA Organic label in its packaging or marketing.
- Organic Ingredients — for products that fall short of 70%. In the eyes of the USDA, these products may happen to contain some organic additives rather than being truly organic.
Just for clarity: the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) does not use the dictionary definition of organic in the Organic Foods Production Act. Instead, it legally defines “organic” as “an agricultural product produced in accordance with the Act and the regulations” of the NOP.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration does not have its own definition of “organic” instead deferring to the NOP. They do note that cosmetic products, such as organic soap, are still subject to both the NOP’s standards for the term “organic” and the FDA’s consumer safety regulations.
Recognize the Impossibility of 100% Organic Soap
After reading about the different NOP labels, you may believe that you should stick with anything calling itself “100% organic soap.” This seemingly safe bet is, in fact, a contradiction. Soap cannot be 100% organic for one simple reason: lye, also known as sodium hydroxide.
Lye is an essential ingredient for making soap. You will rarely find it, or its chemical name, in the list of ingredients because of its negative reputation. However, when it is mixed with oils, a chemical reaction known as saponification combines molecules of the two substances into glycerin and soap. To be completely clear: without this nonorganic component, you would not have soap.
There is one more wrinkle to this story: lye is only present during the process of making the soap. Due to saponification, the final product’s chemical composition will not contain any lye, meaning it may actually be close to 100% organic. European regulations do not factor lye into their assessment for this reason, which means soaps made on the continent can be labeled 100% organic. The United States, on the other hand, considers it as part of the percentage, hence the lack of such labeling.
Learn the Difference Between “Organic” and “Natural”
Some companies cannot attain the coveted “organic” label for their products. Others simply will not put in the effort, for one reason or another — usually cost-related. Still, they recognize the money they can make from the growing number of consumers who demand healthier products. Instead of changing their ways, they find ways to trick people into believing that their goods are organic.
One common descriptor used for these purposes is “natural.” Neither the USDA, the NOP, nor the FDA have a set, legal definition for the term. As a result, many manufacturers use the term to net the audience demanding organic products without changing their formulas and practices.
We should note that plenty of products that make this claim are, indeed, created with ingredients derived from nature. We should also note that the FDA has taken manufacturers to task for advertising items with synthetic ingredients as “100% natural.” Still, if you are strict about using organic products, keep in mind that “natural” is not a synonym in this context.
Look for Harmful Ingredients
The law requires that manufacturers must disclose the ingredients they use in the packaging of their products. However, it does not require them to include definitions that help customers identify these ingredients. Some manufacturers count on the ignorance of the average consumer and include additives that can be far from organic. They can even harmful to one’s health.
As a consumer dedicated to more organic living, you have a responsibility to educate yourself and others about what exactly they are putting on their bodies. Below you will find a partial list of ingredients and terms that are more than meets the eye. If you see them, avoid them. At the very least, be careful and be aware:
- Parabens — artificial preservatives capable of hormone disruption
- Sodium lauryl sulfate — surfactant capable of skin irritation and damage
- Phthalates — chemicals capable of damaging reproductive organs, lungs, kidneys and more
- “Fragrance” — catch-all euphemism that has been known to conceal allergens
- Triclosan — preservative capable of setting off asthma symptoms, causing allergic reactions, and weakening the immune system (banned from antibacterial soaps, but not from other kinds)
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