Not too long ago, organic beauty supplies — shampoos and lotions — were perceived as products for unkempt hippies.
But now they're for well-coiffed, urbane hipsters, too.
According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) trade group, sales of organic and natural "personal" products are soaring. They're now the fastest growing segment of the cosmetics market, increasing by 20 percent a year.
What's more, major retailers such as Bed, Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom and Target are carrying organic skin and hair care products. They're not limited to health food stores anymore.
"Natural beauty products are taking the industry by storm," says Mariana Krambs, chief operating officer of Sumbody, a maker of organic products located in Sebastopol, Calif.
"Consumers are responding amazingly well," Krambs said. "They have latched on to green products right now [as well as] the 'healthy for me, healthy for the environment' attitude. Since these products really work, the response is even more overwhelming."
Just what is an organic beauty product?
A survey by the OCA of more than 5,500 consumers who regularly purchase organic products indicates that 98.6 percent of those polled believe that a product with the word "organic" in its brand name should either be 100 percent organic or at least not contain synthetic detergents or preservatives.
And what impact do these products have on the environment?
Because organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, the threat of carcinogens from pesticide residues is non-existent, experts say. (The few organic pesticides in existence are much less harmful.)
Nor do organic farmers fertilize their fields with sewage sludge, feared to contain many heavy metals, preferring composted manure and crop residues instead.
Although cosmetics are generally regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, rules for handling of organic products are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In order to meet federal requirements, producers who wish to state on their products that their goods are "made with" organic ingredients must ensure that 70 percent of the product is indeed "made with" organic elements.
Display of a product's "organic percentage" on packaging is now required by the federal government, according to the USDA's National Organic Program Web site. The lengthy list of standards is at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NOP/standards/LabelPre.html.
Some retailers and manufacturers go beyond what the USDA mandates to ensure that their products are even more environmentally friendly.
The new personal-care products being sold at Target are completely free of synthetic ingredients, including parabens, phthalates and sodium lauryl sulfates.
Some organic consumers demand that.
"I can tell you that especially since the big study on phthalates was released, we've been swamped with calls from women who wouldn't ordinarily think that organic shampoo or baby lotion was a necessity," says Sheri Wallace, spokeswoman for Earth Mama Angel Baby, a maker of organic products for mothers and babies.
"As consumers get more and more educated about the ingredients that are really used in their personal care products, they get more and more upset," she added.
A widely publicized study published earlier this month in the medical journal Pediatrics recommended that parents not apply any baby lotions or powders to their children's skin, except for prescribed medical conditions.
That was due to dangers posed by phthalates, chemicals often used to stabilize viscous liquids — and which multiple studies have linked to impaired male reproductive function.
The study measured phthalates in the urine of 163 infants, and also recorded whether their parents had used infant powders, diaper creams, wipes, shampoo and lotion on them in the previous 24 hours.
All the infants' urine samples contained phthalates, and the use of powder, lotion and shampoo was tied to higher concentrations. Manufacturers are not required to list phthalates as ingredients on product packaging.
"Generally, consumers don't know much about the ingredients in these products," says Wallace. "The lack of education in this area is what we work to overcome on a daily basis — to try to teach parents what ingredients are, what is required to list and how to decide what is right for your family."
Some leading brands in the organic products world are companies like BeeCeuticals, Nourish Beauty, Dr. Bronner's, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Juice Organics, Kiss My Face and Avalon Organics.
The big brand products in this niche approach the "organic" ingredients question in many different ways.
— Avalon Organics claims to use 100 percent vegetarian ingredients to create a "sensual, satisfying" feeling in the buyers of its hair-, skin- and body-care products, priced from $7.99 to $22.99.
— Giovanni Organic Cosmetics incorporates vitamins, minerals, herbs, pure essential oils and oils harvested from renewable plants in its skin- and hair-care products, priced from $1.99 to $13.99.
— Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps claim to be USDA "certified organic" and are even packaged in 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic cylinder bottles. Made of coconut, olive, hemp and jojoba oils, the products are designed for everyday body washing and are priced from $1.99 to $12.99.
— Burt's Bees offers "earth-friendly" products, crafted with beeswax, botanical oils and herbs and flowers, which, advocates say, are "formulated to maximize personal well-being and the environment." The skin, lip, body and hair products are priced from $2.99 to $24.99.
Though the market is growing quickly for these products — Target begins selling new organic brands in March — they have enthusiastic backers.
"The quality of these products is easily discernible, and their capacity to nurture and enhance the skin's appearance is very evident," says Maureen Whitehouse, a former fashion model and now an "eco-spiritual consultant" in Hollywood, Fla.
The surface of the skin is emerging as a line of defense for environmentalists and the health-conscious.
"Your skin is your largest organ, you absorb more toxins through it than anywhere, and it requires the same types of nutrients as the rest of your body," says Sumbody's Krambs. "Why care what you eat and buy organic food, only to give toxins a free pass into your body via your carcinogenic body cream?"
Are these products really green? Generally, the answer is yes.
The USDA guidelines are proven standards, and products with the "USDA certified" label are sure to be friendly to your personal eco-system.
In future years the standards may be ratcheted up and only products that contain 100 percent organic ingredients may be truly called organic and natural.