Naturals and organics get standards boost

An overview of the upturn in performance of naturals and organics with the latest developments in certification and product formulation

After suffering the effects of the economic downturn, the natural and organic beauty sector is bouncing back. Judi Beerling looks at the latest developments in certification and product formulation

Consumers are increasingly showing interest again in purchasing green, sustainable, ethical and natural or organic personal care products, or those with the absence of certain chemicals of concern to them. It is not the intention of this article to debate the merits of natural versus synthetic raw materials, but rather to focus on the current state of play in the natural and organic cosmetics market. Product sales in this category were increasing at double digit rates in the UK, as they were in the rest of Europe, before 2009 and high growth rates are envisaged again as the economy starts to recover from the recession. The market share of natural and organic products is predicted to reach 5% of the total personal care product sales in the coming years1, and increasing penetration of these products in different types of retail outlets is expected to drive market growth.

Consumer confusion

Consumers have an enormous choice of products and face considerable problems when selecting ‘authentic’ natural and organic cosmetic products. There are no laws regulating what can or cannot be marketed as a ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ cosmetic product; indeed, many products are often marketed as such but contain relatively low levels of natural and organic ingredients2.

Suppliers, manufacturers and formulators alike realise the need to reduce reliance on petrochemicals, as well as satisfying the needs of the green consumer. Standards and certification play an important role in providing a guarantee to consumers that products meet certain minimum criteria for authentic natural/organic products.

Although the level of certified products is generally increasing, especially in Europe and North America, there are differences between the major standards on what ingredients are permitted. In addition, some brand owners are creating their own natural and organic seals and logos, which adds to consumer confusion.

Many brands use a number of synthetic ingredients that are not common to natural and organic cosmetics. They would be classified by the author as ‘semi-natural’ or ‘naturally inspired’, but due to marketing, consumers may perceive them as purely natural.

Subsequently, greenwashing has hit the headlines. Many brands are making natural and organic claims today, and many of these are unsubstantiated. There is therefore an increasing need for standards, due to the important role they play in helping to provide a level playing field in terms of cosmetic formulations.

Standards proliferation

A large number of natural and organic standards have been introduced in recent years. However the adoption rates have, to date, been mostly on a national basis. The major standards in Europe include Ecocert Greenlife (France), COSMEBIO (France), Soil Association (UK), BDIH (Germany), Ethical and Environmental Certification Institute – ICEA – (Italy) and a host of smaller national standards, including the Organic Food Federation’s (OFF), Non Food Certification Company (NFCC) and Organic Farmers and Growers (OFG) in the UK.

There is a less crowded picture in North America, where the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (USDA NOP) and NSF ANSI 305 provides the major organic standards and the Natural Products Association (NPA) is the only real natural cosmetic standard to date. Organic standards exist in Australia, and IBD in Brazil has organic and ecosocial standards, but much of the rest of the world looks to Europe or the US.

The most interesting developments in recent years have been the attempts to form regional or international groupings based on harmonisation of various national standards. NATRUE, for example, was the first to launch a standard based out of Belgium in late 2008 after becoming disillusioned with the slow progress of European harmonisation efforts.

The COSMOS standard, from which NATRUE broke away, was finally launched in 2011 after nearly nine years of discussions. The COSMOS standard (which stands for Cosmetics Organic Standard) AISBL (international non-profit organisation based in Brussels) grouping involves Ecocert Greenlife, COSMEBIO, BDIH, ICEA and Soil Association.

The implications of the harmonised COSMOS standard for manufacturers of certified products were not, initially, clearly understood and so there have been further refinements of the standard based on licensee and stakeholder feedback. The latest standard revision (version 2) was launched on 21 October 2013 and can be found online3. Some major changes to note in this second revision are as follows:

To achieve ‘COSMOS NATURAL’ certification the product must now indicate the percentage of natural origin ingredients by weight in the total product, as “x% natural origin of total”.

Petrochemical solvents will be allowed for chemical processing of agro-ingredients with certain exceptions. However, except by permission, petrochemical or halogenated solvents are not allowed for processing organic ingredients, even if they are subsequently removed.

Phosphorylation is now an allowed process for leave-on products only, which brings the standard more in line with NATRUE. The prohibition for rinse-off products is on environmental grounds.

Cocamidopropyl betaine, alkyl amphoacetate/diacetate based amphoteric and alkyl glucoside carboxylate surfactants, which were due to be phased out by the end of 2016, are now allowed only where the ‘chemical moiety’ does not exceed 2% in the finished product.

Other ingredients containing both natural and petrochemical moieties that are permitted by exception include dicaprylyl carbonate, carboxymethyl cellulose (cellulose gum) and hexyl laurate.

Most interestingly, guar hydroxypropyl-trimonium chloride (which was at one time allowed as an exception by Ecocert) and distearoylethyl dimonium chloride (DSEDC) are now permitted with the same restriction of 2% petrochemical moiety in the end product, but for hair products only.

Annex VI of the standard provides a list of physically processed agro-ingredients that are considered to be available in organic form in sufficient quantity and quality. These must be organic in products under COSMOS ORGANIC certification. Examples include a number of fixed oils, such as argan, almond, coconut, palm and olive oil, along with shea and cocoa butter and certain plant extracts.

By comparison, the North American situation on the surface appears to be more stable and less complex. It is not so easy to compare US organic products with their European certified equivalents because of the way water is treated in the calculation. The major organic standards in the US exclude water from their calculation of organic content, whereas most European standards such as Ecocert or COSMOS count it as natural, since it cannot be organic, or neutral in the case of NATRUE. However, COSMOS, for example, allows the ‘without water’ organic content to also be displayed for comparison purposes.

NATRUE entered into a standards equivalency agreement with the American certification agency Quality Assurance International (QAI) in February 2009. QAI has been a major driver of the NSF ANSI 305 standard. The equivalency agreement means NATRUE ‘With Organic Portion’ products should also be able to meet the NSF ANSI 305 ‘Made with Organic Ingredients’ cosmetic standard in the US, and vice versa.

In February 2011, NATRUE and NSF announced that they would be working together on a new American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for natural cosmetics. This would allow equivalence to be achieved in the US for NATRUE natural cosmetics. Until this point, NATRUE and NSF were in discussions to achieve a similar agreement with the Natural Products Association (NPA). Talks broke down, however, and it’s now likely there will be two competing natural standards for the US, as well as the Ecocert/COSMOS standard as Ecocert Greenlife also has a market presence in the US. The new natural standard is therefore still at the stage of discussion and definition of terms.

Formulating options

Huge strides have been made in recent years in the number and types of natural and organic raw materials available to formulators.

Many suppliers will attempt to obtain certification (if organic) or approval of one of the major natural standards bodies, such as Ecocert Greenlife or NATRUE, for their ingredient. This makes it much easier for a formulator to know which ingredients they can utilise in natural product development. COSMOS approves natural raw materials by trade name, but the number of ingredients on the database is still small – 633 at time of writing – whereas Ecocert has almost five times as many.  This is certainly not yet enough to be able to formulate all types of products easily, and some checking is required to ascertain the likelihood that an ingredient would or would not pass the COSMOS certification process as part of a finished product, as well as to prove the absence of any genetically modified plant material: all areas that can trip the formulator up, sometimes quite far down the line.

This can be a costly mistake as the certification process can often add several months to the development time.

Other challenges of formulating to standards are the lack of choice and performance in certain categories of ingredients. For example, hair care is notoriously difficult to formulate naturally, let alone to an organic standard. Most consumers don’t want to pay high prices for inferior performing products. Shampoos and conditioners, along with styling products, have always been a massive challenge and it is interesting to note the COSMOS changes to allow a quaternised guar derivative, which was phased out of the Ecocert standard some years ago, and a biodegradable, vegetable derived hair conditioning esterquat (DSEDC), which should help achieve hair conditioning at an affordable price. This material is sold as a blend with cetearyl alcohol under the trade name VARISOFT EQ 65 by Evonik. As a more natural option, Inolex produced a groundbreaking cationic hair conditioner and emulsifier under the trade name Emulsense and Emulsense HC for hair care, which has several natural product standard approvals including COSMOS and NSF ANSI 305.

NPA in the US also has a list of temporarily approved ingredients, a number of which are for hair conditioning. Much more still needs to be achieved in the styling product area as there are almost no styling resins that are naturally derived.

Performance drivers

As a formulator of natural and organic cosmetics, one is often asked questions like “Can natural cosmetics really perform well?” and “How can serious anti-ageing skin care, for example, be formulated to produce measurable, consumer relevant results without resorting to slipping in some synthetic high-tech actives?”

Many companies in the industry now provide a plethora of naturally based actives (and functional ingredients) whose performance is tested in the same rigorous manner as synthetic actives. However, what is not always understood so well is what in a plant extract is responsible for the activity. In fact, studies often find that a combination of phytochemicals is the key, not a single active component. So what can you use to drive functionality and sensory/marketing appeal without breaking the bank?

Products from Oat Cosmetics prove the whole plant ingredient is more than the sum of its parts

Oat Cosmetics UK markets a range of raw materials based on the food cereal crop, Avena sativa, the humble oat, most famously known for the nutritious breakfast dish porridge. Oat Cosmetics’ extruded colloidal oatmeal (Avena sativa kernel flour) is manufactured using a unique patented process that enhances the availability of beta-glucan and therefore increases the anti-ageing activity, as well as providing enhanced moisturising, cleansing and soothing activity as compared to alternative colloidal oatmeals. The oatmeal is rich in essential lipids and fatty acids, and contains natural antioxidants. It demonstrates skin pH buffering and emulsion stabilising properties, as well as reducing greasiness.

Results of a consumer research study have highlighted the moisturisation and skin soothing benefits of the company’s colloidal oatmeal (COM). The most recent study was conducted over 90 days, with a facial cream containing 3% Oat COM (colloidal oatmeal) used once per day.

Panellists were asked a number of questions at the initial assessment and on day 30, 60 and 90. Over the period of the trial, for example, 98% felt that the product consistently left their skin feeling moisturised and nourished, 91% felt it created a feeling that the skin was silky soft and 89% agreed that it soothed the skin. Each of these desirable effects can be attributed to one or more specific molecules found within the oat kernel.

The effect of all these molecules working together is, however, synergistic. This is a great example of the benefit of using whole plant ingredients, whose price is often more affordable than single extracted actives. Oat Cosmetics also markets Oat COM ORG, an Ecocert certified organic grade, suitable for cosmetic products that may need to be COSMOS organic certified. Further details can be found on the company’s website.4

What about plant derived oils, often known as fixed oils? There seems to be an ever increasing number of emollient oils from all four corners of the planet. One of the newest on the scene is kahai nut oil from Colombia, extracted by cold pressing the nuts of the cacay tree5. There is an amazing sustainability and social history story associated with this oil and, once the plantations are established in Colombia, it could be the next argan oil success story. However, perhaps more important to a formulator is the amazing silicone-like, light, non-greasy silky skin feel, which penetrates the skin rapidly. It is also claimed to have an exceptionally high content of retinol and vitamins E and F.

Sustainable solutions

Sustainability is a much bigger driver in today’s industry than natural and organic certification is ever likely to be. The standards setting bodies do try to embrace emerging technologies, such as green chemistry and biotechnology, but sometimes struggle to keep up with the pace of such changes. However, we are already experiencing massive changes in the way cosmetic raw materials are made. SCS Formulate 2013 was an exciting place to be, and one discussion was a fascinating insight into Croda’s Biotechnology programme6 at its Lunch & Learn session.

The terms ‘blue’ and ‘white’ now sit alongside ‘green’. White biotechnology applies to industrial processes, green biotechnology to plant and/or agricultural processes and blue biotechnology is applied to marine and aquatic processes. Whole cell biotransformation (white) already leads to biosurfactants such as sophorolipids. The use of undifferentiated plant cells to ‘synthesise’ target phyto-molecules (green) is already embraced by the Sederma division for actives such as Resistem, a plant extract obtained by stem cells cultured from Globularia cordifolia. Croda also has a partnership with Nautilus Biosciences in Canada to find novel actives and ingredients from marine sources (blue).

Facing the future

So, where are standards going? This is difficult to determine without a crystal ball but it does seems that at least for the foreseeable future we will still have quite a few to choose from. Events such as the Sustainable Cosmetic Summits7 have seen much discussion about manufacturers’ desire for one worldwide standard. However, as there are a number of vested interests associated with standards and certification, the likelihood is that this will not happen unless forced upon them by regulation.

One possibility is the voluntary ISO standard for natural and organic cosmetics8 in development; however, this was previously started and abandoned as the country representatives could not agree even on the definition of  ‘natural’ as related to cosmetics and ingredients. There is an obvious concern that a weak standard would encourage further greenwashing. Conversely, a very restrictive ISO standard may end up being too difficult to formulate high performing, consumer acceptable products. Until documents are added to the ISO website, it is difficult to judge progress.

The good news is that new extraction and processing technologies, green chemistry, biotechnology and biocatalysis will all help to increase formulators’ options. Natural and organic cosmetics will become more sustainable, with the focus shifting to encompass a variety of other aspects such as sustainable packaging, reduced energy and carbon and water footprints.

Judi Beerling

Organic Monitor Ltd


  1.     Organic Monitor report 1203-60, The UK Market For Natural & Organic Personal Care Products (3rd Edition), April 2013.
  2.     Organic Monitor report 8041-14, Technical Insights: Natural & Organic Cosmetics Brand Assessment, Aug. 2011,
  3.     COSMOS-standard AISBL,
  4.     Oat Cosmetics - 
  5.     Kahai SAS, 
  6.     Download Croda’s “Biotechnology and Its Role in Sustainable Design" document from
  7.     Sustainable Cosmetics Summit, Organic Monitor,
  8.     ISO/CD 16128-1 and ISO/CD 16128-2, Guidelines on Technical Definitions and Criteria for Natural & Organic Cosmetic Ingredients and Products parts 1 and Part 2: Criteria for ingredients and products - in development. (