When verifying if a product is organic, typically you’ll look at the label to check if the words ‘USDA organic’ are written. But what is the USDA, and what exactly does it regulate?
The USDA stands for the United States Department of Agriculture. They’re a national, umbrella government entity that deals with all things related to agriculture–food, farming, nutrition, and related issues of policy and regulation of plant and animal agriculture in the US. The department was founded in 1889 to increase federal funding for agricultural activities, and today it’s made up of seven divisions which work together to protect public health, maintain environmental standards, promote sustainable practices, and promote education around food safety. Their remit is broad, and covers animal and plant health, national agriculture research, nutrition, dietary guidelines, food security research, and health and safety around agricultural products.
So how do they regulate all of these sectors and smaller entities? Through cabinet-led democratic processes and government oversight. The USDA inspects farms, regulates and updates national food and agriculture policies, promotes rural development through grant and loan programs, and oversees all things agriculture. This can all get confusing to understand, as the USDA plays a unique role from the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration). While the USDA deals with farming, the FDA deals with things like nutritional labels and food sanitation.
USDA Organic Certification
Out of their many roles, the USDA is the government body responsible for determining guidelines for what makes certain agriculture products organic. They have the power to label (or not) agricultural producers with the organic stamp, and they provide guidelines for farms on how to transition an operation to organic functioning. Part of what they do is provide an educational platform, linking farms and agricultural operations up with resources to transition to pesticide free farming.
This all links into plant-based cosmetics and personal care products, which also have to satisfy certain USDA guidelines in order to legally call themselves organic. Organic skincare product brands are required to source their plants from farming operations that adhere to a set of farming practices that, in the words of the USDA Organic Practices Guidelines:
“support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.”
A key point to remember: while the FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetics and personal care products, the USDA does. They’re the ones responsible for regulating the use of the term ‘organic’ as it applies to cosmetics and personal care products. According to the USDA, in order for a cosmetic product to be labeled ‘100 percent organic,’ it must be made up of entirely organic agricultural ingredients, excluding water and salt. And if any remaining ingredients in a formula aren’t plant based (non-agricultural substances), they have to be approved on the National List of products that aren’t commercially available in organic form.
“Made with Organic Ingredients”
Something to look out for: many skincare products will advertise themselves as ‘made with organic ingredients.’ While this is a good start (and better than conventional formulas), this phrase is actually a technical one, meaning that the product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Remember, some formulas will contain a partial percentage of organic ingredients and will list this on the label, and advertise themselves as ‘organic’ without using the USDA seal. But unless the USDA seal is there, you can’t be certain that the product is 100% (or 70%).
And because the USDA is ultimately an agricultural oversight department (not a cosmetic or personal care product one), they don’t have any authority over the production and labeling of cosmetics and makeup. This means that cosmetics, body care products, and personal care products may be certified to other, private standards and are often marketed to these private standards, which might include foreign organic standards or company specific terms like ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘earth friendly’, and ‘all natural’.
Things can get confusing out there! Our advice? Look for the USDA seal and always check ingredients! Armed with this knowledge, you’ll never be a victim of greenwashing - and you can be sure the products you’re using are totally transparent.