In the beauty industry, the term “organic” means that some or all of the ingredients in a product come from organic sources. For example, aloe vera in a moisturizer might come from an organic aloe farm.

Organic ingredients are ones that farmers have grown without using artificial substances, such as chemical pesticides or fertilizers. The exact definition varies around the world.

In the United States, products with a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal contain at least 95% organic ingredients. There is no evidence these products are more effective, but they may be more environmentally friendly.

In this article, we look more closely at organic skin care, including what it is, and what the benefits are. We also look at how organic skin care differs from “green” or “clean” skin care.

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Organic skin care refers to products that include organically-farmed ingredients. The standards of organic farming vary globally, but typically, organic farms do not use laboratory-made substances.

This may include:

  • chemical fertilizers
  • chemical pesticides
  • antibiotics
  • hormones
  • parabens
  • sulphates
  • GMOs

Instead, organic farms keep their produce healthy using natural substances. The idea behind this is that organic farming is less harmful to the environment.

For a skin care product to be organic, it must consist of organically farmed and processed plant-derived ingredients. Some examples of these include:

  • plant extracts
  • plant oils or butters
  • essential oils
  • resins

In the U.S., organic products must also:

  • enable resource cycling
  • maintain or improve air and soil quality
  • conserve biodiversity
  • minimize the use of synthetics

The exact percentage of organic ingredients in a product with “organic” on the label can vary depending on local laws. In the U.S., the use of the term “organic” is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but states set their own thresholds for the proportion of organic ingredients they need to contain.

If a product has a USDA organic seal, it contains at least 95% organic ingredients.

No — these terms mean different things.

“Natural” may mean that some or all of the ingredients in a product come from plants or animals. This is not the same thing as “organic.” Natural ingredients can come from organic or nonorganic farms.

“Natural” also does not necessarily mean all the ingredients are safe or environmentally friendly. For example, some manufacturers source squalane, which is a hydrating substance, from sharks. This contributes to shark hunting.

“Green” is a term companies use to convey that their products are not harmful to the environment. Again, though, this is subjective. A company may use this to refer to their ingredients, their packaging, their business practices, or a combination. It does not guarantee that the product is truly harmless.

“Clean” has a looser definition still. This describes products that contain safe, nontoxic ingredients. Clean beauty products would generally not contain ingredients that may be harmful, such as parabens and fragrance.

None of these three terms are regulated by the FDA. While companies in the U.S. have to meet certain standards before they can use “organic” on their products, any company can use these other terms, regardless of the ingredients they use.

Organic skin care is not necessarily any more or less effective than nonorganic skin care. However, it does have some key benefits. Organic skin care products are:

  • Regulated. Because the term “organic” is regulated in the U.S., people can tell that the product contains what it says it does.
  • Better for biodiversity. Organic farms do not use chemical pesticides, which can harm wildlife and reduce biodiversity.
  • Less polluting. To use the term “organic,” products must either maintain or improve the health of the soil or air where they grow.
  • Biodegradable. Organic ingredients also tend to be biodegradable, which means they break down quickly and do not accumulate in the environment.

There are a few downsides to organic skin care. However, people should be aware that a product being organic does not always mean the company that makes it is environmentally responsible.

Some brands highlight their organic ingredients to practice “greenwashing,” which is an attempt to mislead people into believing that a company is more environmentally friendly than it really is.

For example, a company might emphasize their organic ingredients, but they can still:

  • use some nonorganic ingredients
  • use some synthetic ingredients
  • have a high carbon footprint
  • use nonbiodegradable packaging, such as plastic

Organic status is just one thing to think about when looking for sustainable skin care. Other factors can tell people how high quality, ethical, and environmentally friendly a product is overall.

Depending on someone’s concerns, they may also want to look for information about:

  • Purity. The term “third party testing” means that a company has asked an independent laboratory to test the safety and purity of their products. This ensures that products contain what the company says.
  • Effectiveness. Some companies perform clinical trials of their products to prove that they work. This can indicate a product is effective.
  • Sourcing. The farming or harvesting of some organic ingredients may still have a negative effect on the environment, or on the communities who live nearby. For example, certain crops require a lot of land or water to grow. Some brands support practices that minimize negative effects and uplift communities.
  • Location. Shipping products around the world requires more fuel than shipping them locally. People may want to consider brands that operate within their region or country.
  • Animal welfare. Although animal testing is banned in many places, some countries still require brands to test products on animals before they are allowed to sell them in that region. Some skin care products also contain ingredients that come from animals. People who want to avoid such products can look for cruelty-free or vegan brands.

The United Kingdom organization, Ethical Consumer, provides free advice on how to choose environmentally conscious products.

The term “organic” means that a product contains organically-farmed ingredients. Organic farmers do not use artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals to grow their produce. The idea behind this is that it reduces harm to wildlife.

The exact definition of “organic,” and the criteria brands need to meet to list skin care products as such, varies depending on location. It is not the same as natural, green, or clean skin care. The FDA does not regulate these terms.

People who want to ensure their skin care products are healthy for themselves, the environment, and communities that farm the ingredients can look for information about what is important to them online.

Read this article in Spanish.

Learn more about the environment and health at MNT’s Environment and Sustainability hub.