naturals cosmetics

Natural cosmetics standards: can you really trust them?

By the 22 February 2020

Modifié le 17 March 2020

Hidden behind their obscure names, like Norm ISO 16128, there’s a respectable intention: to internationally standardise how we define organic and natural cosmetics. Something to bring more transparency to the cosmetics industry, so that the consumer is better informed and protected. Sounds too good to be true. And after 6 years of work in over 30 countries we’ve  conceived of a cosmetics standard that benefits… manufacturers. A prestigious award for their greenwashing, allowing them to boast about the naturalness of their petrochemical creams… We’ll tell you everything you need to know. 

What does this standard signify?


Reaching an agreement internationally on what we understand by natural cosmetics or organic cosmetics? All parties understanding each other? Now there’s an interesting idea! And an ambitious one, at that. The standard ISO 16128 is at least trying to provide a solution. 


It gives products a score:

  • A score of 1 for a natural/organic ingredient,
  • A score of 0 if the product is synthetic/ not organic,
  • And between these two extremes: original ingredients get intermediary scores according to the percentage of their principal components that are natural or organic.


So it’s possible to calculate the extent to which a product is natural or organic, according to the ‘score’ of each of its ingredients and the proportion of them in the finished product. A pretty intense process. 


For this reason, the first big warning signal was given pretty early, when the brands Cosmebio and Ecocert walked out on the organisation. They refused to opt into these product standards which might not portray them in a particularly ethical light. Leaving France with only big conventional labs, overwhelmingly represented due to the standards’ exorbitant entry fees. The German commission, as a whole, voted against all of the legislations. We’re very far from a consensus… What are we doing wrong?


The biggest problems: what is left unsaid


The list is long…


1. A non-restrictive product standard is impossible to control


We’re talking about a standard. Not a law, not a label, not even a product specification. It isn’t restrictive, it functions on a voluntary basis. For this reason, some ISO standards come with some terms and conditions. But this isn’t the case for the ISO 16128, which works based on the good conscience of suppliers and manufacturers (a nervous laugh escaped you? Us too!). Suffice to say that companies only apply these kinds of standards to products for publicity or brand-image purposes. 


2. A standard that doesn’t unite a lot of things 


Normally, product standards attempt to… unite. It’s really its raison d’être. In this way, ISO 16128 completely misses the mark: in order to satisfy all parties, the standard adapts itself according to the laws of each particular country. For instance, it only bans GMOs in countries that already ban them. And in terms of organic ingredients, it only refers to ingredients that are sourced in the country where the product is produced. In other words, this product standard means next to nothing!


3. No restriction on the terms ‘organic’ and ‘natural’


ISO 16128 has absolutely no restrictions concerning a business’ right to use the words ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ on its packaging or adverts. Regardless of the percentage of such ingredients, it can plaster a massive ORGANIC or NATURAL on its packaging, shadowing a tiny ‘x %’, all in accordance with the ISO 16128 standard – great, isn’t it? The standard admits it for itself, it puts absolutely no restriction on the branding of products. 


4. Reduced criteria on the naturalness of products


Let’s concentrate on the naturalness of products, concerning ingredients that come from plant, animal and mineral sources. Even water falls into this category, and is therefore taken into account for calculating how natural a product is. And what do you think the primary ingredient in the vast majority of cosmetics products? Exactly. Often, water will make up 60 to 90% of a single product! You don’t need to change much to end up with a product that’s largely natural, even if all of the other ingredients come from petrochemical sources. Don’t you feel like you’ve been played? 


5. No blacklist 


The ISO 16128 standard has no blacklist of ingredients. Not even those that are most controversial! In other words, a product can easily be full of parabens, silicones, solvents, phenoxyethanol… And still boast about how natural it is


And here’s the cherry on top of the cake, when it comes to ingredients that are sourced naturally, none are disqualified or penalised for their content of suspicious, toxic or polluting primary components. As long as an ingredient is made of more than 50% natural components, it’s a-ok as far as the product standards are concerned. But the other 49.9% are petrochemical? Who cares. Silicones are destroying the environment? Maybe, but if they’re made out of sand then they’re pretty natural… This can’t be real!


6. Looking shortsightedly at natural cosmetics


Finally, no production processes are out of the question when it comes to naturally sourced ingredients. A component could be obtained by the most environmentally and socially harmful process, but this poses no problem as far as the product standards are concerned. Not even a little knock to its final score. Neither is there a mention of environmental and social sustainability when it comes to the product’s main components. Packaging? Not a word. The traceability of ingredients? Nada. Ethics? Not even a whisper. We couldn’t disagree more: natural cosmetics aren’t about statistics and percentages, and disregarding everything else. They’re a set of values and beliefs. 


The result: regular cosmetics, but painted green


To put things clearly, be aware of dishonesty concerning the ISO 16128 standard. Your product might say ‘more than 65% natural ingredients that conform to the Natural Product Standards’ and not contain a single component that’s 100% natural. You could be snowed-under by endocrine disruptors, produced by a hyper-polluting process in factories that exploit entire local communities on the other side of the world. With, perhaps, a little exploitation of resources leading to the death of entire ecosystems. But the natural product standards, made by and for the cosmetics industry, reward this behaviour. 


But this product definitely won’t be able to be presented globally as natural. In France, the Authority on Professional and Public Regulation applies a cutoff at 95%, even though it refers to the categories established by the ISO 16128 standard. In the same way, a product that contains a mere 30% organic ingredients cannot claim that it is an organic product in France. Without conforming to the French legal requirements, the product won’t get the certification it needs to use the organic logo. 


But we put a lot of trust in the marketing of the products to make things clear to us, helped by the pseudo-official endorsement of the product standards. I mean really, it’s so kind of them to help out greenwashers with their serious and respected endorsement, isn’t it? We know that it’s not easy to navigate your way through the hundreds of different product components, and that a product standard – even a problematic one – can be reassuring. In short, it’s a nice little song-and-dance by the cosmetics industry. Their motivation? To get stuck in to the rapidly-growing natural cosmetics market, while the traditional market stagnates. Without complying with its beliefs, naturally, but by manipulating its rules – it’s a lot cheaper and simpler this way! Given all of this, it’s very easy to be suspicious of every single product that claims to be natural. Even the good ones. And this, this really annoys us… But, the problem remains. 
Yes, cosmetics that aggressively label themselves natural risk associating themselves with the pseudo-legal appearance of the product standards. But greenwashing is, in any case, widespread and hardly controlled. So what should you believe? Labels mean something, especially Nature & Progress, but they’re not everything. The best things you can do remain the same: go for products that are 100% natural, ideally organic, dissect ingredient lists where possible and be wary of false claims. And in short: be an active consumer. Ask questions, be disruptive, and do your research – just like you do while you read our BloOg.

This post is also available in french.


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