The word organic is used quite a bit these days. You see it in magazines, you see it on TV, you see it on food labels, you hear it in discussions—and now you see it on the labels of “natural” skin-care products, including lotions, oils, creams and scrubs.

“Organic” has become part of our regular vocabulary—so much so, the phrase “organic process” is now understood to describe a simple, basic, homegrown approach to problem-solving and creativity, or for describing teamwork. This one word is being used incorrectly and loosely so often, it gives me pause for concern it will eventually mean nothing.

You might ask, “What does the term organic really mean?”

This much we know for sure: Organic farming and the use of true organic ingredients in products are good for you and good for the planet. It is as green as you can get and positively affects everyone. Every pound of fertilizer or pesticide that is not used, for example, means that much less of those substances in our rivers, streams—and bodies.

Organic farms help the small family farmer in America survive. They get a premium price for their crops; guidance, education and support from various organizations; and the ability to farm another generation. All of this is accomplished using methods that are sustainable, profitable and good for the Earth. Large factory farms are bad for the environment; they pollute and create huge environmental problems.

On the food side, organic means the ingredient or product was grown or made with the avoidance of most synthetic chemicals, such as fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge or irradiation. The farmland goes through a certification process that takes, on average, three years to pass. Companies must keep detailed production and sales records, keep organic and nonorganic products and production separate, and undergo site inspections.

There are several organizations that certify the organic process, and you can look for the green USDA organic label for food items that are 95- to 100-percent organic.

The problem massage therapists should be aware of is this: There is no government standard for the use of the word organic in natural skin-care products. The USDA gave it a shot a few years ago, but it became too bogged down and eventually was shelved. It will rise again for discussion, but that will take time.

Meanwhile, we are left to figure it out and to make sure “organic” has some real value and understanding.

Let’s begin our quest by listing some goals:

1. Investigate and then describe what we want organic to mean.

2. Begin a discussion about organics and how we want to use this term within our industry. A good source of information is the Organic Trade Association website (www.ota.com), where you can review the guidelines already established by the natural foods industry and see how they can be applied to us.

3. We must be willing to pay a premium for truly organic ingredients and organic products.

The next time you look at a product label that includes the word organic, take a closer look. Can you tell what is actually organic in the product? Is it just in the name? Some vendors do use the word that way. Or does the label say, for example, “Made with Organic Sunflower Oil”? If so, take a look at the ingredient panel. It should list that ingredient as organic sunflower oil.

The ingredient panel can tell you so much. We have been looking at food labels for years to see how much sodium or how much fat, sugar and calories are inside. Well, skin care can, and should, follow the same guidelines when considering organics—or any set of ingredients, for that matter.

It can take money and great effort to convert to manufacturing with organic ingredients. It takes more planning, work, study, management, biodiversity, special storage, special handling and special manufacturing procedures in order to maintain the integrity of the organic finished product as opposed to conventional products. Consumers are always the judge and jury when it comes to demand of one product over another. The additional costs can be 15 to 30 percent higher, and sometimes more, for an organic version.

The flip side is that nonorganic skin care is not necessarily of lower quality than its organic cousin. In some cases, an ingredient will be organic but cannot be listed as organic because it has not gone through the certification process. Or the conventional product may be more efficacious, have more product stability or just be better all around than the organic version. After all, the product needs to do the job you bought it for.

To really confuse things, there are legal fights going on right now in the natural foods industry about whether a skin-care product can be considered organic when it contains various chemicals that are not available organically or naturally. Some say yes, and some emphatically say no.

The organic journey is a long one. It does not happen quickly for the consumer, the farmer or the manufacturer. But it can be a win-win situation for everyone. If done right, there are no losers. We all reap the rewards—especially Mother Earth and our future generations. I look forward to working with you on this project as we move our industry forward.

Gurukirn S. Khalsa spent more than 16 years in the natural foods industry, selling organic and conventional products and visiting organic farms. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Florida and has been a practitioner of yoga, Sikhism and vegetarianism since 1974. He is national sales manager and co-owner of Soothing Touch (www.soothingtouch.com), a manufacturer of massage lotions, oils, gels, scrubs, bath salts, soaps and essential oils, located in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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