How the USDA defines organic.
(and what this means for soap and skin care products)
Companies nationwide are trying to “catch the wave” by offering their own “organic” products for sale – so many that it can become unclear what the word “organic” means when it’s used.
Sales of organic products are on the rise, with growth rates averaging over 20% per year.
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) provides the benchmark, global standard for defining organic. Within the NOP, there are three levels of certification. A product’s classification is based on the total percentage of its organic ingredients (without counting water or salt). Here’s what they mean, and then we’ll discuss how the standards apply to soap and skin care.
This means just what the name implies.
The term “organic” applies to products that contain a minimum of 95% organic contents by weight. Usually, these are products that contain a small amount of a natural preservative or processing aid that prevents them from reaching the 100% mark. For example, many fixed oils (such as palm and coconut oil) contain a trace amount of citric acid to increase their shelf life. Importantly, these trace ingredients must conform to the USDA’s list of approved ingredients that can be used in organic products.
“Made with Organic…”
How do organic standards apply to soap and skin care products?
Because of their chemistry, bar soaps can never reach the 95% level of organic content. Organic soap and skin care products are among the most misrepresented organic products. This has to do with formulation issues, labeling requirements, and a misrepresentation of the standards. All bar soaps, and most skin care products, fall short of the 95% organic mark. Bar soaps require sodium hydroxide (NaOH, or lye) for their production. Sodium hydroxide is on the allowed list of non-organic ingredients that can be used in making organic products, and it accounts for approximately 10-15% of the ingredients, by weight (not including water or salt and depending on the recipe). Even if every other ingredient in a bar soap were certified organic, the soap would never have an organic content of more than 90%, as this is the maximum level of organic content in a bar soap.
Sometimes, manufacturers “cheat” a bit to reach higher organic content levels. Take lotion for example. A typical lotion has water among its ingredients, which does not count in any way toward organic content levels. However, by steeping organic herbs in this water first, some manufacturers claim their water is “organic,” thus counting it as an organic ingredient and raising their products’ organic content levels. As always, it is crucial to understand the standards and read the labels.
It is also important to verify whether or not a company’s products are certified according to organic standards. Many companies claim to use organic ingredients or call their products organic; however, few have actual certification, which is the only proof for the claim. Part of the certification process includes proving an audit trail and showing the ability to trace any organic product sold back to its original organic ingredients.
Nature Sings, maintains a minimum organic content level of 85% in all our bar soaps. Our ingredients are certified under the USDA National Organic Program. Our supplier’s certifying agency is the Montana Department of Agriculture.