Turning Your Skin Green Cosmetic makers want in on the organic craze, but sorting out labels' claims isn't easy By CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN July 14, 2007; Page P7 It happened with milk, produce and clothing. Now the debate about organics is hitting cosmetics, too. Some of the biggest names in skin-care are jumping into the organic market, which until recently was a niche product for specialty stores. Estée Lauder, for instance, has nine products in its new Origins Organics line. L'Occitane en Provence and fashion designer Stella McCartney are also expanding into organics. But such products are already raising some questions. One is whether organic cosmetics provide health or beauty benefits compared to nonorganic products. And for consumers who decide they want to go green, shopping can be confusing since the labeling isn't consistent. Whole Foods Market and some environmental groups have formed a task force and are now pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt standards for organic skin care. Skin-care products calling themselves organic are now one of the fastest-growing categories in the U.S. beauty industry. Last year, sales of organic personal-care products rose almost 20% to $318 million -- about eight times the rate of increase in overall sales of cosmetics and toiletries, according to Euromonitor International. As sales take off, the debate over labeling, standards and health benefits that has roiled the food industry for several years is hitting the beauty sector. Consumers have long had to wrestle with terms like hypoallergenic and antiaging, which often aren't proven or fully explained on packaging. "I feel like I don't even know what to look for," says Samira Chung, 24, an assistant industrial designer who has been trying to eat more organic food lately and went to a Whole Foods store in Manhattan this week in search of organic skin-care products. After a half-hour of browsing, she remained confused by the varied labeling on packaging and left -- without buying anything organic. Organic products are generally defined as those made with ingredients grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. Some makers call products organic, even if only a few ingredients or a small percentage of ingredients are organic. Most cosmetics are a mixture of water, essential oils, fragrances, synthetic preservatives and, sometimes, chemicals to help create foaming or sudsing. While cosmetic brands have been moving away from using chemical preservatives such as parabens, companies say it can be difficult to formulate beauty products that are mostly organic but also effective. "If an organic olive oil is used in a skin cream, [the product] may not necessarily be organic," says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "It depends on what else is in the skin cream." Consumers began seeking out organic beauty products in 2003, as sales of organic food boomed, says Virginia Lee, senior research analyst at Euromonitor. "As consumers became more interested in what they're taking into their bodies, they've also become more interested in what they're applying topically to the body." Some makers tout health benefits, though so far there is little direct scientific support. Like environmentalists who argue that, by eating organic meat or produce, consumers can avoid consuming pesticides and other poisons, makers say that slathering on moisturizers that contain ingredients grown without pesticides reduces one's exposure to such substances. Other makers go further, saying organically grown ingredients are more potent and therefore more effective in say, reducing the appearance of wrinkles, than nonorganic ingredients. "There are studies that show that organic fruit has a much higher antioxidant level than nonorganic fruit," says Karen Behnke, CEO of Juice Beauty, an organic skin-care line sold in Sephora and high-end stores. But Susan Rabizadeh, clinical instructor at the Johns Hopkins University dermatology department, says there have been no scientific studies showing that organic skin-care products are better or worse for the skin than regular lines. Some companies also tout the fact that they grow their own ingredients, hoping to appeal to increasingly vigilant customers, including those who want to avoid contaminated products such as toothpaste and other items recently imported from China. To add to the confusion, there isn't one overall body that certifies organic products. A few operate in Europe, including BDIH, a German trade association, and Ecocert in France. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the labeling of organic crop and livestock products, began allowing beauty companies to use its organic seal on products that meet its requirements for food. (The USDA accredits official certifiers, who handle certification of these companies.) But beauty companies that don't meet the USDA criteria often also use the terms organic on packaging even though they have not been certified by the USDA or any independent agency. "It's frustrating because it's so wishy-washy," says Yael Alkalay, chief executive of Red Flower, a skin-care line containing organic ingredients sold in spas and Barneys New York stores.