The Highs and Lows of Green Certifications


The need to differentiate one product from another predates the organic and natural movement in the beauty industry. However, during the last two decades, consumers have been inundated by an alphabet soup of green, organic and natural standards. Although the path to certification can be very different in dealing with multiple standards, the ultimate goal is the same—solidifying a brand as more natural than the rest. By learning more about green certification, you can help make the right choices for your spa and help your clients understand what’s best for their needs and wants when it comes to organic and natural products.

Setting standards

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (USDA NOP) is what many consider to be the pinnacle of any green/organic standard. This is likely due to it being the most heavily recognized and branded of any standard—and not because it is suited and designed for personal care. Using USDA-certified organic ingredients in place of conventional ingredients generally increases a product’s stature; however, in some cases, turning a product into a full USDA organic-certified product is a challenge, due to the many limitations of this standard and the difficulty in applying it to produce a quality, stable product meant for retail and professional use.

A product that is allowed to carry the USDA seal of an organic product has at least 95% of its solids derived from organic ingredients, excluding water and salt. The certification process also involves the product undergoing a detailed label and formula review, as well as ensuring it is manufactured in a USDA organic-certified facility. The certification process for a USDA facility involves many policies and procedures to comply with the complex tracking systems required by the USDA and, in many cases, manufacturers must weigh if certification is a viable equity to their facilities, because it can be very costly to upgrade to the necessary standards.

NSF International organic certification is another green certification standard that has seen recent success, and typically is more feasible for the production of a functional and stable product. This standard saw most of its success when, in 2010, Whole Foods enforced that personal care products sold on its shelves and making a “contains organic ingredients” claim must be certified to the NSF 305 ANSI Standard for Organic Personal Care products, a consensus-based industry standard accepted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and managed by NSF International. Whole Foods’ guidelines also state “all products making an ‘organic’ product claim must be certified to the USDA NOP standard, the same standard to which organic food must be certified under U.S. law.”

The fascinating part of the NSF International standard is its approval approach. Rather than having a fixed list of acceptable ingredients to work with, this standard has an acceptable list of processes of how these ingredients are made. For example, two ingredients may come from the same source and within the same end product, but one could be approved and the other not simply due to its allowable process.

With this standard, certain original ingredients, such as sulfate-based surfactants, became allowable, instead of newer, novel surfactants because the process to make the original surfactant was far more natural than some newer processes. However, the success of the NSF certification is not all in its originality. It is more marketed and recognized than many other standards of its caliber, thanks to its retail support.

The GMO debate

Another growing area of the green movement is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMO awareness has gained momentum in recent years, partially due to the narrow loss of California Proposition 37—a statute voted down in November 2012 that would have required labeling of genetically engineered food, with exceptions. It also would have disallowed the practice of labeling genetically engineered food with the word “natural.”

GMO verification in beauty products relies on simply not using feedstock from plants that have been genetically modified or crossbred with other species in the product’s ingredients. Although no clear difference has ever been substantiated between an ingredient derived from non-GMO ingredients versus ingredients derived from GMOs, this standard has become increasingly popular due to widespread awareness of GMO foods.

During the non-GMO verification process, beauty brand owners need to assess both the ingredients used in their products and the ingredients of an ingredient—leading all the way back to the source material—in order to do a proper audit. In some cases, this can be a difficult task, because source material suppliers can be closely guarded or can change often enough for them to be difficult to track.

Weighing your options

The use of green-certified standards has been an invaluable tool to verify and lend definition to natural products, but many barriers remain to certification. These barriers include cost, recognizability of the certification standard and the formulation constraints of using a green certification standard that may not have a wide selection of cosmetic ingredients or ingredient synthesis processes available yet. When choosing to align your spa with green products and practices, make sure you are well-informed about the differences in organic certifications, as well as natural, but not-necessarily-organic, options. By knowing the differences, you will better be able to carry the right products for your clients and your spa.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of GCI magazine ( and is being reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


Sundeep Gill, PhD, has been involved with the beauty and cosmetic industry for many years, first working for Carme Cosmetics in Novato, CA, in 1987. He soon worked his way up to a research chemist, and next opened Sun Deep Cosmetics in Hayward, CA. Gill is a registered pharmacist and practices as a clinical pharmacologist when he is not working as a personal care research chemist. An avid educator, Gill still preceptors to doctor of pharmacy candidates around the country.


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