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Natural vs. Organic

By: Carl Thornfeldt, MD
Posted: January 30, 2009, from the February 2009 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

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With this background information, it is now possible to look at what makes natural products different from organic products. The FDA does not have an official, enforceable definition for “natural” or “organic” products, and any references to natural through the FDA are in direct relation to food, not cosmetics. Additionally, there is no certification or regulation for using the term “natural.”4

However, the National Organic Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees and certifies organic production and handling operations. According to the National Organic Program, “Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.”5 Thus, organic skin care products must fall under the USDA guidelines in order to be considered organic, and extensive documentation must be maintained by all parties, including ingredient suppliers and product manufacturers.

There are three levels of organic as defined by the USDA:

  • 100% organic. Products containing 100% organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt.
  • Organic. Products that are at least 95% organic.
  • Made with organic ingredients. These products contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The organic seal cannot be used on these packages.

Continuous questioning

To help distinguish true, scientifically based botanical cosmeceuticals from those that are not before making a decision on retailing or recommending any particular brand of products, skin care practitioners should be asking several questions. If the answers to any of the following questions are negative, it’s possible the products in question will have no therapeutic effect on the skin, and could even be potentially harmful. Make sure you are running through this or a similar checklist when you screen new products to use in your spa.

  • Is the herb being used in other living, breathing organisms, such as a veterinary or dental medicine; as a part of traditional Asian or homeopathic medicines; or in food technology for mammalian exposure?
  • Is the biologically active or therapeutic concentration range known and used inthe cosmeceutical?
  • Is the formulation chemically and physically stable? The development of the formulation should include chemical, physical and photostability to ensure efficacy and that toxic metabolites are not formed. Stability with other interacting actives must also be achieved as with other ingredients necessary to product a cosmetically acceptable product.
  • Does the botanical penetrate the stratum corneum permeability barrier in its active state at a high enough concentration to manipulate its target cell, organelle, enzyme, receptor or compound?
  • When was the finished product manufactured? Freshness matters with herbal products. Active ingredients cannot defy the laws of chemistry. They begin auto-oxidation to some degree when manufactured, so they require chemical stabilization.
  • Does the product really work in the skin? One of the only true ways a skin care practitioner can confidently recommend and sell botanical cosmeceuticals that are not based on a marketing ploy or voodoo science is by going through, or ensuring the product has gone through, prospective double-blind controlled clinical trials designated for the treatment of any or all parameters of photoaging compared to a placebo or an approved prescription product.
  • Has the skin care practitioner thoroughly evaluated the product? When consulting with a skin care professional, clients assume any product has undergone the practitioner’s evaluation for efficacy and safety. They expect the practitioner to be a clearinghouse for accurate information for all skin products, prescriptions and treatments, so you need to have the knowledge to back this up.

Ready to rumble

With all the advertising and marketing dollars being spent on convincing you that an organic or natural product line is an imperative addition to your business, keep in mind your clients will assume you use similar criteria to establish which products are offered as is used to determine which cosmeceuticals to recommend and sell. An organic line may not always be a better option than a natural line. Knowing what to look for and what questions to ask will help you provide a safe and effective product regimen for your clients.