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Green, Natural and Organic: What's the Difference?


Green, Natural and Organic: What's the Difference?

Read your labels: A product can be considered organic even without the USDA seal.

Image © USDA
We apply an average of 126 unique ingredients to our skin daily through our cosmetics and personal care products, according to the Environmental Working Group. Of the more than 10,000 ingredients the Food and Drug Administration tallies in such products sold in the U.S., nearly 90% have not been evaluated for safety.

According to dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center, green products can be equally as effective as traditional ones. On the other hand, a product can be green, natural and organic, and even so, not necessarily good for you. "Some natural or organic products can actually be harmful to the skin, as even these ingredients can cause skin allergies in some people," Zeichner says.

What's in a Name?

We're a generation of eco-conscious consumers who want to do good by the planet without compromising our looks or health in the process - and nobody's keener to this fact than makeup marketers. There are plenty of products out there touting botanical ingredients, with alluring phrases like "inspired by nature," "100% natural," "cruelty-free" and "non-toxic." The consensus among green beauty gurus is unanimous: Don't believe the hype.

"Anybody can put anything in a bottle and call it natural, and they do," explains Annie Leonard in The Story of Cosmetics.


In the Green Beauty Guide, author Julie Gabriel defines green beauty products as those that are free of toxic chemical ingredients and utilize environmentally-conscious packaging materials and shipping methods. Although they need not be completely plant derived, green beauty products should ideally include some organic ingredients.

As a green makeup artist and creator of the Green Beauty Team, celebrity beauty pro Kristen Arnett says if she wouldn't put a product in her body, she won't put it on it either. She cautions to be skeptical about product promises and vigilant about reading labels. She also recommends using EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database - a searchable library maintained by researchers in Washington, D.C., indicating the hazard levels of cosmetic and personal care products on a scale of 1 to 10.


The Natural Products Association offers NPA Natural Seal certification on nearly 800 products in the U.S. To earn the NPA natural seal, products must be composed of at least 95% ingredients (not including water) made from petroleum-free, renewable flora, fauna and mineral resources. When used, approved synthetic ingredients must be considered people-safe and earth-friendly. Products must have environmentally-conscious packaging and never be tested on animals.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program gives its seal of approval for organically-produced ingredients (not including salt or water) which are handled, processed and labeled according to the government's standards.

There are four categories of USDA organic certification:

100% Organic: Composed completely of organically-produced ingredients.

Organic: Composed of at least 95% organically-produced ingredients.

Made with Organic Ingredients: Composed of at least 70% organically-produced ingredients. There is no USDA seal allowed on the product, but up to three organic ingredients may be highlighted on the product's front packaging and all organic ingredients are indicated on the ingredient list.

Organic Ingredients: Products with at least one but less than 70% organically-produced ingredients cannot be prominently labeled "organic," but can be highlighted on the product's list of ingredients, sans the seal of the USDA and certifying agent.

Some points to consider on organic certification:

USDA certification only applies to the farm-raised ingredients it has jurisdiction over. Organic products are not necessarily safer, according to the EWG.

There's a red tape factor involved in getting USDA certification that includes a high cost. Don't rule out a natural beauty product producer for lacking a label - just do your homework before you buy.

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