An employee stocks a Whole Foods Market's 'Whole Body' beauty section. Courtesy Photo

Just because your favorite shampoo's label tells you it's full of "all natural ingredients" or uses the word "organics" in its name, does not mean it's more natural than anything else in your beauty cabinet.

In fact, it may be just as loaded with chemicals as that bright blue hair gel on the shelf of your local drugstore.

Whole Foods Market is aiming to change that. The company recently made a controversial decision to self-regulate the personal care products that use the term "organic" on their label, a move which will significantly alter the natural beauty market, experts say.

Beginning next June, beauty products sold by the green supermarket must meet the standards set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (USDA NOP) in order to claim that it's organic on its label. It's the same standard for organic food certification under U.S. law, which means at least 95% of the ingredients in the formulation must be organically-sourced.

Products that say "made with organic ingredients," must also be certified under the NOP standard, while a "contains organic ingredients" claim must meet the NSF 305 ANSI Standard for Organic Personal Care products, which is an industry consensus managed by the public health and safety organization NSF International.

While the year-long deadline may seem sudden to manufacturers who often churn out product months in advance, Whole Foods says it has been considering the controversy surrounding organic beauty for a long time.

"We've been working on this issue for the past six years. We created these guidelines to support the integrity of the term "organic" by giving it a strong meaning and to ensure that products making organic claims contain substantial amounts of organically grown plant-based ingredients," Whole Foods Market Quality Standards Coordinator Joe Dickson tells StyleList.

Critics complain that requiring personal products to pass the same certification required of organic foods is unfair, as ingredients like preservative salts can be entirely natural and organically-grown, yet not safe for ingestion. Whole Foods counters that their customer doesn't differentiate between food and beauty standards.

"The term 'organic' refers to a very specific type of agricultural product, which embraces earth-friendly practices and does not use toxic or persistent pesticides. The term 'organic' should only be used on products that are a result of this kind of agriculture, regardless of whether they can be eaten or not. Our shoppers don't expect a different definition of 'organic' for personal care products," says Dickson.

Whole Foods Market. Courtesy Photo



To that point, Whole Foods emphasizes that all organic-marked items must meet the USDA terms, as they specifically govern standards for ingestible food. However, certain strict international organic standards such as EcoCert can also certify to the USDA standard. A full list of all domestic and international standards eligible for USDA certification can be found on the USDA.gov website.

Whole Foods also points to the phrases "made with organic ingredients" and "contains organic ingredients" as options for brands who don't quite meet the strict requirements of the USDA organic label, yet still use over 70% of organic ingredients in their products, with other ingredients considered gentle and safe by the industry.

"That standard -- the NSF 305 -- took about five years to develop, through a very collaborative process involving consumer groups, manufacturers, certifiers, retailers and other stakeholders. The timing of our announcement is a result of the launch of the NSF standard this year, along with the substantial increase in products making organic claims over the past few years," adds Dickson.

The Whole Foods ruling is so stringent, that the new rule will also apply to brand names.

"Brands with 'organic' in the brand name must become certified to either the USDA or NSF standards. Uncertified products with 'organic' anywhere outside the ingredient listing, including in the brand name, will no longer be sold," says Dickson.

Horst Rechelbacher's Intelligent Nutrients line. Courtesy Photo


Aveda and Intelligent Nutrients founder Horst Rechelbacher has spent a career creating organically-sourced products, and has even personally sued brands like Nature's Gate Organics and Jasön Pure and Natural for misusing the term "organic" on their labels. Rechelbacher is ecstatic about the Whole Foods regulation, and says it's a turning point for the industry.

"I think it's a blessing from God! Finally, Whole Foods is taking a stand, as should any retailer who is in support of the organic industry. This is the best thing that could happen to American organic farmers. I've personally been fighting the greenwash manufacturers who didn't want to live up to the commitment and get organic certification because they don't want to reformulate the products. We don't need more organic labels, we already have one organic label -- and it's by the USDA!" Rechelbacher tells StyleList.

Rechelbacher is also vocal about his thoughts on the state of the organic beauty industry today.

"The new standard is going to save the organic industry, and give it some muscle to grow. The cosmetic industry has really been polluting the organic labels, causing consumer confusion and committing consumer fraud in my opinion. If you have some organic ingredients, that's great! Say it on the back of the bottle. But it doesn't belong on the front unless you're certified organic," says Rechelbacher.

How the dizzying array of brands in Whole Foods will handle the new regulation is a huge question, says Jennifer Taggart, a consumer product and environmental attorney who is the author of the Smart Mama's Green Guide.

"This is going to make a huge difference. The bulk of products sold at Whole Foods cannot and don't comply with this standard -- and Whole Foods is forcing a tidal shift in the beauty industry. For most companies, they are going to have to decide whether they want to sell at Whole Foods as organic, or change their labeling for a single -- albeit important -- store," Taggart tells StyleList.

Yet some industry insiders say what is often a cantankerous certification process may bode too costly for smaller yet genuinely organic businesses, and take longer than the short one-year deadline mandated by Whole Foods. Rex Rombach, co-founder and organic product developer of Ajne organic fragrances, is one such source.

"We produce many certified organic products and believe the process of organic certification for beauty products should be simplified into an affordable and understandable process for small businesses to create a fair and safe organic playing field. The current process is costly and time-consuming," Rombach tells StyleList.

Co-founder and self-proclaimed "cosmetic chef" David Parker of The Body Deli, who personally mixes products made of raw fruits and vegetables that are often sourced from local farms, agrees.

"As a small business owner, getting certified by the USDA is an expensive process just to be able to have a USDA sticker on your product. Many small companies use certified organic ingredients from certified growers and blend the final product themselves. As the industry moves more toward third party certification, it can create a more standardized 'organic world' for the consumer, but this also limits innovation and truly organic and natural products from entering into the market," Parker tells StyleList.

Rombach also adds that while he's happy to see Whole Foods regulate, the standard isn't entirely kosher, as the USDA certification process requires that 95% of the product be organic, yet the other 5% doesn't have to be. He contends that 1% could for example contain synthetic fragrance, yet still slip in under the certified organic label.

Another common criticism is that fully organic products can't be effectively formulated for topical use, as evidenced by the public's tepid interest in products like all-natural deodorants that many believe don't hold up to chemically-formulated versions. Rechelbacher disagrees.

A typical Whole Foods Market's 'Whole Body' beauty section. Courtesy Photo



"I have proven to myself, to the consumer and to the retailer that yes, we can make organic products that people can use topically. It is absolutely possible," says Rechelbacher of his Intelligent Nutrients line of complete personal care products that you can actually ingest -- although it's not recommended you do.

Other big industry players like Drugstore.com and Target do not yet have specific organic standards in place, though industry experts say the fallout from the Whole Foods regulation could push other retailers to follow suit due to consumer pressure. The natural division of Drugstore.com -- thenaturalstore.com -- does have green sustainability standards listed that govern the products it sells.

While not an organic regulation, Sephora offers a "Naturally Sephora" green seal on products that meet certain natural standards. "Because the term 'natural' is not fully regulated and every brand has its own definition, we created an internal logo to help you spot the products carried at Sephora that have been formulated with and without certain ingredients," states the retailer on their website.

Sephora products bearing the seal contain a minimum 90 percent formulation of natural ingredients like essential oils and antioxidants, as well as the exclusion of at least six of eight of the following: parabens, petrochemicals, phthalates, sulfates, triclosan, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and synthetic fragrances and dyes.

Natural and organic guidelines from other retailers are nearly non-existent.

Until the new Whole Foods regulations take effect next June 11th, 2011, natural beauty consumer advocate and expert Jolene Hart has advice on choosing nontoxic and organic products now.

"I advise consumers to do their homework on ingredients using the many resources that are out there, including the Cosmetic Safety Database and Organic Consumers Association to find out what's really in the beauty products they purchase. While shopping, keep an eye out for the organic and natural certifications from the USDA, NPA, EcoCert, and other widely recognized organizations that ensure a product has met a particular standard," Hart tells StyleList.

And don't forget to take the time to flip bottles over and read those small-print ingredient labels -- it's the one area where the truth cannot be disguised.