by Bob Butler

Bob Butler, MASSAGE MagazineIncreasingly, health-conscious consumers are indicating preferences for organic goods, including food, apparel and body-care products. It’s important you know how to identify truly organic products, both as a therapist who uses organic products on clients and as a consumer who purchases them for yourself.

So, what’s really behind that organic label? You may be surprised to know many so-called organic labels list synthetic materials. It’s understandable why so many consumers are being fooled again and again by labels that mislead.

The problem for the massage and esthetics professions is the absence of a single set of organic standards for body-care products. Companies looking after their own interests (their bottom lines) are evolving different sets of standards to suit their needs or to accommodate their special problems. Confusion reigns.

The next time you purchase products for your clientele or personal use, take a look at the front labels. You’ll see words and phrases like organics, natural, natural organics, made with organic, organix, green, organica—and a host of other names. Now, take a moment to read the back labels. You’ll begin to understand the degree to which attempts are being made to manipulate you. Providers of such products want to leave you with the impression their designations somehow make their products unique or better than conventional, nonorganic products.

Ingredients in one such self-styled “organic” product include some noted as organic—Organic Lavandula Angustifolia (lavender) Leaf, for example—but absent is any mention of an organic standard or certifying agency with regard to the ingredients bearing the organic description. This product’s ingredients list also includes items found on many synthetics-based products. For example, tocopheryl acetate is an additive with harmful impurities and no safety data. It can instigate immune system responses including itching, burning, scaling, hives and blistering of the skin (source: Another example, retinyl palmitate, is a synthetic alternate for retinyl acetate, a form of vitamin A. You can also discern the presence of chemicals typically found in many mass-produced body-care products: dimethicone and disodium EDTA, for example.

Of course, the manufacturer of the product will assert, in all innocence, nothing is amiss here. The manufacturer has simply combined some organic ingredients with run-of-the-mill chemicals, which have been used in lotions for years. What’s the problem?

I take issue with such innocence. It’s one thing to deliver a product with no pretensions as to the ingredients list; it’s quite another to enhance the appearance of product quality by listing organic ingredients, slapping the word organic on the front label and then including the standard fare of synthetics and chemicals—all without reference to independent certification or verification. And, to add insult to injury, charge more for the product.

The producer of the product is betting on a couple of things it hopes will work in its favor. First, the mention of the word organic, or one if its variants, on the label with some organic ingredients is intended to convince the purchaser a better product is being offered. Second, the manufacturer is betting the consumer will either overlook, or be ignorant of, the chemicals in the product—chemicals that arguably negate the perceived added value of the organic ingredients.

I’ve often wondered how anyone producing such a list of ingredients can think consumers are so gullible as to believe a product made with organic ingredients is better than a natural or conventional product.

So, be careful! If a product labeled organic is really organic, it will be certified by one of the certifying agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP). There’s a list of such agents on the USDA’s website,

Every certified organic product must have two logos on the back label: the USDA Certified Organic logo and the logo of the certifying agent. If both are not present, then the product has not been certified in accordance with USDA regulations.

Products formulated with ingredients not on the USDA NOP-approved list of ingredients do not qualify for certification.

There is a small problem we haven’t yet discussed. For body-care products, including massage and esthetics products, there is, as yet, no universally adopted national organic standard. However, some body-care products can be, and currently are, NOP-certified and carry the USDA seal. What’s going on here?

The USDA NOP oversees organic agricultural products. To the extent a body-care product is based in agriculture and meets the standards for food, it may pass through the NOP certification process. For example, you’ll find certified 100-percent organic grapeseed and almond oil, and you’ll find certified 100-percent organic jojoba. You may find blends of such products, all certified in accordance with the NOP and carrying the USDA seal.

However, again, products formulated with ingredients that are not on the NOP-approved list of ingredients do not qualify for certification.

Let me confuse you even more: All body-care products are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not the USDA. But the USDA published a rule on Aug. 25, 2005, saying products, including body-care products, may be certified to NOP standards and carry the USDA seal as long as they meet organic standards for food. Further, the USDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (part of the FDA) concerning the certification of alcoholic beverages (notably organic wine), but that memorandum did not extend to body-care products. Consequently, there is no requirement that body-care products making organic claims have to be certified. The labeling of body-care products in the U.S. that contain organic agricultural content remains unregulated at the federal level.

Perhaps, now, you have a better understanding of why some people put products out there that purport to be organic or have organic ingredients, but are not certified. They are trying to capitalize on the value organic holds for people. They’re giving lip service to organic without providing the substance—and they can do so because there are no regulations telling them they cannot.

Read your labels carefully. If you desire truly organic products, rely on those that carry both the USDA seal and the seal of the certifying agent.

*Why should you care about how your body-care products are labeled? Visit to read “Why Organic Matters to Today’s Massage Therapist,” by Bob Butler.

Bob Butler, a former organic jojoba grower, is president and owner of The Jojoba Company (, a provider of certified 100-percent organic jojoba.