What Does Green Really Mean?

The Trend for natural, organic spa products is growing, but what does it really mean when these words are used to market products? Does it automatically mean the products are eco-friendly? There is considerable confusion in the marketplace, and it is important to go back to basics.

Natural: The word means "existing in or derived from nature, not made, caused by, or processed by humankind," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In terms of cosmetic ingredients, this means vegetable oils, salt, sugar, honey, beeswax, and other similar ingredients. The problem is, most ingredients, including these items, have to be processed, or at least extracted, before they are suitable for use in cosmetics. In most cases, "natural" means naturally derived, so be sure to ask for clarification from the manufacturer.

Naturally Derived: The term itself can be misleading, as well. As a result, it's also important to look at the processes used to obtain naturally derived ingredients. Many use synthetic chemicals, like solvents that are far from environmentally friendly. For example, an ingredient like sodium lauryl sulfate, which is produced from coconut, can be classified as naturally derived, but is not usually a popular ingredient among people who love natural products because of its chemical-sounding name. It is important to do research before automatically eschewing products that may sound unnatural.

Organic: This is defined as "relating to or derived from living matter" or "not involving or not produced with chemical fertilizers or other artificial chemicals." There are also wild-crafted plants—wild is the ultimate organic, but wild-crafted plants cannot be defined as organic, because, by definition, organic is a process of agriculture, and wild-crafted is just picking what grows wild without intervention. Interestingly, not all wild-crafted oils are approved by organic certifying organizations. To make things even more confusing, if a product contains only a tiny amount of organic essential oil, it can still be labeled organic.

Certification: This can be tricky because there are many certification organizations in the world (see page 56 for a list of trusted ones). Keep in mind, all of these bodies have different criteria. For example, synthetic preservatives are sometimes permitted, but again, there is much con-fusion over them. You should research the criteria each uses to better understand the different standards. Certification from a reputable source is the only way to ensure that most of the ingredients in a product have been organically produced. Excluding any water or salt, the percentage of organic ingredients needs to be listed on the packaging for most boards to certify the product.

Parabens: While these have mostly been discarded due to negative press, many cosmetic scientists still consider them safe. Parabens have been replaced by preservatives such as benzoic acid and benzyl alcohol. It's important to remember that many products do need preservatives in order to be safe, especially in spas. Bacteria need moisture, warmth, and nutrients in order to grow, and spas have all these in abundance. Basically any product that contains water needs some kind of preservative system. Examples of natural preservatives are certain essential oils, grapefruit seed extract, honeysuckle extract, and denatured alcohol. However, the use of alcohol can present problems, because the denaturing process often uses drying synthetic chemicals, and high levels are usually needed in creams to be effective. The same is true of essential oils. Honeysuckle and grapefruit seed extracts are considered natural, but they are rarely strong enough to prevent bacteria and mold growth. The transportation of products in warm climates is a concern, too, and in a spa, it is almost impossible to keep products constantly refrigerated to ensure safety. Beware that mold and fungi can be seen, but not all bacteria is visible, so it may be worth your while to reconsider your thoughts on preservatives.

Safety & Certification

How do you know if a product is safe? It's up to the product company to ensure that it carries out the necessary legal safety checks, which include formulation stability, packaging compatibility, and microbiological preservative efficacy tests. Also, safe levels of ingredients must be used and approved as safe by an authorized cosmetic chemist or toxicologist. Marketing claims about product effectiveness are also the responsibility of the product company and the legal requirements of the country importing them. It varies around the world, so be sure to ask the right questions.

Beyond safety, how do we really know what is in a product and if it fits basic criteria for natural, organic, or green? Certifications can help with understanding the organic status, but there is no legal definition linked to the use of the word "natural" on a product, so it is up to you to educate yourself and your clients. The Natural Products Association recommends that all products branded natural must be made with at least 95 percent all-natural ingredients, contain only synthetic ingredients allowed under this standard, and incorporate environmentally friendly products that are nurturing and as harmless as possible to the earth. This helps, but it is only a recommendation.

Some think that the list of ingredients on the back of products will reveal what's natural, but that also can be misleading. Consider the following—sodium chloride (salt), tocopherol (vitamin E), peptides (from amino acids), glycerin, and linanol (found in lavender essential oil) can all be either natural or synthetic. Galactoarabinan does not sound very natural but is in fact derived from polysaccharides extracted from larch trees, so it can only be classed as a natural ingredient.

Finally, how do you decide whether a product line is eco-friendly? There are many issues to look at—the manufacturing processes involved in producing both the packaging and the ingredients, the transportation of these, and the product company's own carbon footprint. Packaging can also be misleading. For example, Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) paper may be used for a box, but if it is laminated, it cannot be recycled.

So how do you make the decision on which product line suits your clientele? It is imperative to ask product companies questions on all these issues. It is becoming more important for all of us in the spa industry to ensure we are not misleading clients by using products that do not stand up to their marketing claims. —Geraldine Howard

Geraldine Howard is the co-founder of Aromatherapy Associates. For more information, visit www.aromatherapyassociates.com.


Looking for answers? Get help from these organizations.



Forestry Stewardship Council


Green Spa Network


Natural Products Association


Soil Association