Body-Care Brawl

Tensions Mount Over Organic Labeling of "Hydrosol"

In 1988, when she was just 29, Diana Kaye was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The aggressive disease is one of the fastest-growing forms of cancer and has been linked in various studies to exposure to toxic chemicals. Kaye enrolled in an experimental chemotherapy program and eventually recovered, although the ordeal severely weakened her body and left it highly sensitive to a wide range of chemicals.

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Kaye’s health subsequently improved, she says, thanks to a diet of organic food, exercise, a move to the country and a switch to all-natural furnishings and cleaning products. "But as I began to research personal-care products, I realized that there were very few items I could safely use because of their synthetic ingredients, including those found in natural health stores," says Kaye. "So I formed my own company [Maryland-based Terressentials] with the goal of offering 100 percent natural body-care products that are as close to all-organic as possible."

Kaye has joined a few other natural products companies (notably Vermont Soapworks and counterculture icon Dr. Bronner"s) as well as the relatively new Green Products Alliance and the advocacy network Organic Consumers Association (OCA) in vocally criticizing products that are labeled organic but still contain some synthetic ingredients. Executive Director Ronnie Cummins of the OCA has accused some companies of "label fraud" and an "organic scam," and his group’s "Coming Clean" campaign has run full-page ads in several magazines, including this one. The tension came to a head when the OCA filed a complaint against Avalon Natural Products with the state of California, which has a unique law requiring any personal-care product labeled organic to contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

Heated over Hydrosol

At the epicenter of this controversy is a water-based solution called "hydrosol." It is made by passing steam through botanical matter and cooling the vapor, and it contains essential oils and other plant material. Hydrosol can be certified organic as an agricultural product under the federal rules for food, and was found to be covered under California’s labeling law in the Avalon case. Hydrosol is the first ingredient in many products, especially shampoos, now offered by such health store mainstays as Avalon, Kiss My Face and Nature’s Gate. It is also known as "authentic floral water," which is not the same as the "floral water" some companies make by simple infusion. (To confuse matters even more, hydrosol is sometimes identified simply as "floral water" on packaging.)

"While hydrosols have been used in aromatherapy for hundreds of years, they did not exist in body-care formulations until companies started adding them to largely existing formulas specifically so they could call them organic," says Cummins. The OCA claims hydrosols are mostly water and are not active ingredients in most products. But Tim Schaeffer, brand manager of Avalon, replies, "That is not why we started using hydrosol. We chose it because we wanted a way to more fully harvest the benefits of lavender. Far from being "mostly water", properly made hydrosol gives you an exact representation of what’s inside the plant, and it has therapeutic benefits for the skin."

Schaeffer adds that the use of hydrosol supports organic agriculture, a claim that is dismissed by Kaye, who says the unregulated material can be made as dilute as anyone wants, meaning very little organic ingredients are actually needed. Kaye and the OCA fear a co-opting of hydrosol by mainstream industry, and a broad collapse of trust in anything organic. Schaeffer insists his company uses only full-strength, certified hydrosol, which he points out is actually rather expensive.

Industry observers say hydrosol itself isn’t really the issue. "Many products labeled 70 percent organic because of hydrosol actually contain the same synthetic cleansers, conditioners and preservatives found in mainstream brands," argues Kaye. But Schaeffer disagrees. "None of our products include any synthetic dyes or fragrances, and they are much more natural than conventional cosmetics," he says. Avalon claims to use as natural ingredients as possible, and man-made components are sourced directly from vegetables, not petroleum.

To Kaye, taking coconut oil and processing it into molecules not directly found in nature shouldn’t be considered an "organic" procedure. After all, she argues, the popular Dr. Bronner’s soap is made out of entirely natural, simple ingredients. Schaeffer says the issue is more complex with shampoos and a few other products, such as foaming face creams, because the active ingredients the vast majority of Americans expect haven’t been found in nature.

The debate boils down to a growing philosophical rift in the industry. Kaye insists synthetic chemicals do not belong on our bodies or in the environment. "Because surfactants don’t exist in nature, unlike, say, soap, no living cells have evolved to deal with them," she argues. Cummins adds, "Until more natural formulations can be found, many of us will choose to wash our hair with vinegar." Terressentials" shampoo doesn’t lather, even though it cleans perfectly well.

"That may be fine for some people, but show me that philosophy getting to the masses," argues founder and chairperson of Jason Natural Products Jeffrey Light. He hopes to help as many people as possible avoid petrochemical-based mass-market cosmetics, which he says often contain carcinogenic ingredients, by offering more natural alternatives that perform up to consumer expectations, even if they contain a few select synthetic components. Cummins insists that strategy will backfire, since he believes such products are not a true-enough alternative.

Regulation to the Rescue

Light believes what’s needed are rules that all companies can play by. The OCA has called for the personal-care industry to essentially adopt the standards that were established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for organic food, and are asking for the rules to be interpreted to exclude hydrosol (since they claim it is not strictly agriculturally derived) as well as many other common ingredients.

Schaeffer argues that hydrosol is covered already by the food laws because it can be certified, and he says it should be defined as agriculturally derived. He also believes some of the other food rules wouldn’t be appropriate. "Personal-care products tend to be kept longer than foods," he says, "and are often stored in warm, moist places, where they are at serious risk of attack from microorganisms." Critics say they would rather refrigerate their cosmetics than use synthetic preservatives, especially since a strong case can be made that our skin actually absorbs chemicals quite readily, especially when wet and warmed by a bath or shower.

Since the federal government currently has no plans to regulate the organic content of personal-care products, the torch has been taken up by the industry, a point that irks some detractors. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, says a diverse task force has formed to develop voluntary guidelines. She says genetic engineering, petrochemicals and irradiation clearly won&#

39;t be allowed, and fair rules for hydrosol will be established. "Depending on the climate in Washington and the industry, we"ll then make a decision about whether the standards should be legislated," says DiMatteo.

Schaeffer and Light strongly support labeling guidelines, even, they say, if it means they will no longer be able to advertise certain products as organic. Schaeffer says regulations will help stimulate much-needed research into natural alternatives to synthetic ingredients, since "companies are now afraid to invest too much in a process that might get excluded from future rules."

Until more specific regulations are in place, consumers will have to continue to read labels carefully and do their own homework.

BRIAN HOWARD is managing editor of E. JAIME deBLANC-KNOWLES contributed research.