For many of us, the transition to organic is gradual; it may start with dairy, meat, and the “Dirty Dozen Plus” list of fruits and vegetables (ewg.org/foodnews) and then move into packaged foods, even wine. But before long, you may start to wonder if you should opt for organic personal care products, too. To make that change, follow our guide to understanding and seeking out organic shampoo, body lotion, toothpaste, and other body care products.

Defining organic beauty 

More people than ever are looking for organic body products, according to Jessica Walden, technical specialist for Quality Assurance International (QAI), an organic certifier. Sales of body products containing 70 percent or more organic ingredients jumped more than 40 percent last year, reports research firm Spins.

But here’s the kicker: Neither the FDA nor USDA regulates the term “organic” on personal care products, so any item can include it on the label—even if it contains no certified-organic content. 

Luckily, truly organic personal care does exist; you just need to know what to look for. Body products bearing the green-and-white USDA Organic seal meet the same strict criteria required for food certification, including no GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and synthetic ingredients. Separate standards for personal care are in the works, but meanwhile, the USDA Organic seal remains a challenging goal for body care companies.

A newer stamp of approval

Introduced in 2009, the NSF/ANSI 305 “contains organic” seal aims to make organic certification more accessible for personal care brands. This label requires 70 percent organic content (certified to USDA standards) but allows some ingredients and common processes that the National Organic Program prohibits. “Right now, shoppers and manufacturers easily recognize the USDA seal,” says Walden. “But [manufacturers] also realize that the ANSI 305 standard allows them much more flexibility in developing a product.”

Both seals take the guesswork out of choosing organic personal care products. For the sake of innovation and variety, many brands do get both certifications but for different products, says Walden.

Organic challenges  

When you’re selecting a moisturizer or makeup, organic isn’t enough; the product also has to work. “The organic personal care industry is still in its infancy,” Walden says. “The technologies and the green alternatives are taking a really positive step in the right direction, but it takes time and effort to develop organic ingredients so that there’s consistent supply and shelf life.”

Toward that end, forward-thinking companies are investing in organic ingredients that perform just as well as their nonorganic counterparts, such as unique essential-oil blends as preservatives and plant-based surfactants (such as coconut) that lather or foam. Many organic ingredients are more expensive, though, so finished products often come with a higher price tag.

What to look for

In most cases, the stringent USDA Organic seal is ideal for simple products, such as lip balms, body oils, and soaps, that use just a few common plant ingredients like almond, coconut, soy, oat, and cocoa. More advanced formulas—antiaging creams and hair care products, for example—tend to opt for the more flexible NSF/ANSI 305.