Thursday, November 01, 2007


The NYT has a story on the increasing popularity of "natural" and "organic" cosmetics. The trouble is, while "organic" is a carefully defined and heavily regulated term for food, there are no standards for cosmetics. And there's a bigger problem (one that others have argued also applies to organic food): people believe that "organic" means healthier/safer, but there's not much evidence for that with respect to cosmetic applications.
Jeremiah McElwee, the senior coordinator in charge of personal care at Whole Foods, which is the company’s fastest-growing department[, said,] “The biggest impetus for buying natural or organic body care is the perceived health benefit.”

It would seem logical to assume that common ingestible ingredients like olives or soy would naturally be healthier for the skin and body than hard-to-pronounce, multisyllabic industrial cosmetic ingredients like the preservative methylchloroisothiazolinone. But representatives for the government and the beauty industry, as well as some environmental activists, acknowledge that there is no published scientific proof to support the notion that plant-based cosmetics are safer, healthier or more effective for people.

The Times labels this a problem of "truthiness." I think the traditional "misleading" might work fine, though regulators are unlikely to clamp down on such general claims, even though they clearly do communicate a superiority message to consumers.

Another tidbit from the article demonstrates the Department of Agriculture's institutional hostility to organic farming, despite its mandate to support such farming:

[P]eople should not interpret even the U.S.D.A. Organic seal — — on cosmetics as proof of health benefits or of efficacy, said Joan Shaffer, a department spokeswoman. Government-accredited certifiers simply vet the manner in which these food ingredients are grown and processed, just as they would for a jar of organic tomato sauce, she said.

“The National Organic Program is a marketing program, not a safety program,” Ms. Shaffer said, likening the department’s organic seal to its grading system for beef. “Steak may be graded prime, but that has no bearing on whether it is safe or nutritious to eat.”

Here's another example of true-but-misleading statements: organic certification is, indeed, not safety inspection. But at least some organics have nutritional advantages over their conventional counterparts, and the absence of pesticide residues is another important factor in assessing their potential health and safety benefits. The contours of the organic standards are definitely shaped by marketing concerns, but I'm still dismayed to see a federal spokesperson speak of them so dismissively.

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