What It Means to Be Organic – USDA Organic Standards Explained

what it means to be organic

Sometime in the last few years, organic became the new black. Growth rates for organic sales average over 20% annually. In the clamor for sales dollars, certain important questions get lost. What does it mean for a product to be organic? How do organic standards apply to soap and skincare products, and how do consumers distinguish true organic from organic claims?

Three Levels of Organic Certification

soap stacks

The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has set the global standard for what makes a product organic. Within the NOP, there are three levels of organic certification. Classification within these levels is based on the percentage of a product’s organic ingredients vs. total ingredients, not counting water or salt. Here are the three organic levels defined:

  1. “100% Organic” – Exactly what the name says. Dried organic herbs are a perfect example.
  2. “Organic” – Products in this category contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. It’s usually a small amount of a natural preservative or processing aid that keeps them from reaching 100%. Many fixed oils (such as palm or coconut oil) contain a trace amount of citric acid to increase their shelf life. Any trace ingredients must conform to the USDA’s list of ingredients approved for use in organic products. Both the “100% Organic” and “Organic” categories are allowed to display the USDA organic logo.
  3. “Made with Organic” – Products in this category contain a minimum of 70% organic content, but don’t reach the 95% mark. The USDA has set 70% as the minimum percentage a product can have and still use “organic” in its labels and marketing. For consumers, this is the most important category to understand, since it’s also the most misrepresented and  the one most improperly marketed. This is especially true for soap and skincare.

How Organic Standards Apply to Soap and Skincare

Bar soap and liquid soap – the true kind – can’t ever reach the 95% organic level. Certification requires accounting for all ingredients used in production, even if those ingredients don’t exist in the finished product. True soap requires lye for production – sodium hydroxide for bar soap and potassium hydroxide for liquid soap – which accounts for 13-15% of original ingredients by weight. Even if all other ingredients in bar soap were certified organic, it would never have an organic content of more than 85-87%. Meeting organic standards isn’t easy and making truly organic products isn’t cheap. Which is why it’s important to verify if a company’s products are certified organic or if their labels and marketing are simply using the word organic to cash in on its popularity. There’s only one organic proof – certification according to USDA standards.

At Botanie, we maintain a minimum organic content level of 85% in our bar soaps and we’re certified by the Montana Department of Agriculture under the USDA National Organic Program.

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