What does "organic" makeup mean, anyway?

The FDA doesn't regulate the term "organic," but the USDA does... so what does that mean for makeup?
Making Axiology Balmies with Organic oils and butters
Navigating makeup buzzwords of any kind is difficult because the FDA does not define or regulate these terms like "natural," "clean," or even "organic." But "organic" is a little more complicated because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does regulate this term, at least as it pertains to agricultural products. Confused yet?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has sole discretion over the official use of the term organic (think the little green and white "USDA Organic" stamp). However, the associated standards were developed for agricultural products—not cosmetics—and the application of these to a final beauty product involves stringent requirements across the entire supply chain. As a result, not many makeup products qualify for organic certification, and for those that do, undergoing that process is long and onerous. Long story short, relying solely on the word "organic" to select "healthy" makeup isn't as simple as it seems. 
In makeup products, the most common way the term "organic" appears is on the ingredients label (as opposed to the main product label). This means that individual component ingredients may be listed as organic, but—assuming the product as a whole doesn't bear any organic certification (USDA stamp)—one or all of the ingredients could be organic. Plus, no one (the FDA or USDA) is going to follow up to make sure the organic ingredient claims are true. 
Still, the use of any number of organic ingredients in makeup is important, just as it's important for the food you eat and why you might choose an organic apple at the grocery store. Ideally, the use of organic ingredients reduces or eliminates the presence of residual harmful pesticides in a final product. 
Beyond the use of organic component ingredients, it's possible for a product as a whole to be certified as some level of organic by the USDA, as indicated by the green and white USDA Organic stamp. It's important to know that there are four distinct levels of organic certification, and they probably don't mean what you think they do:
  1. "100% Organic," which must have only certified organic (agricultural) ingredients;
  2. "Organic," which must have at least 95% organic content—the other 5% must be on an approved list of nonorganic agricultural or nonagricultural ingredients. However, often the most irritating or toxic ingredients in a product are included in under 2% concentrations, so 5% is quite a wide berth;
  3. "Made with Organic _____," which must have 70% organic ingredients;
  4. Individual ingredients flagged as organic on the ingredients list, as discussed above.
All to say, unless it's 100% Organic, you still need to look at the ingredients to see what else is in there.
In our opinion, the best way to find "healthy" products is to look for short ingredients lists. For those with sensitive skin, short lists are key, because they can help a person pinpoint possible irritants, should an adverse reaction arise. Our Balmies have only 9 ingredients in the base formula. Also, it just makes it easier to assess any unfamiliar ingredients because there will be fewer.
It's also not necessary for a makeup product to be certified organic for it to have skin nourishing, plant-powered, good-for-you ingredients. We are immensely proud of our plastic-free Balmies that moisturize and soothe skin while providing buildable, multi-use color. 
Some of the botanical powerhouses in our Balmies include: Organic Sunflower Seed Oil to support the skin's barrier function by reducing transdermal water loss and locking in deep moisturization, Organic Hemp Seed Oil to reduce inflammation and boost elasticity, and flavonoid-rich Elderberry Extract to fight free radicals, moisturize, and calm. 
It's also possible for a makeup product to be "natural" and use organic ingredients and still be highly irritating. Essential oils, in particular, are used heavily across a wide range of products in lieu of synthetic options and can be produced using toxic solvents, and also just be wildly irritating to those who are susceptible. 
Finally, it's important to remember that there are many ways for a makeup product to be "better," especially when it comes to small, indie beauty companies. "Better" comes in different forms, like sustainability, accessible pricing, ethical sourcing or labor, diversity, etc., and just because a given company chooses to use some organic ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it's more committed than another brand to improving the beauty industry in one of these ways. 
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