Buyer beware: 'Natural' bodycare products skimp on natural ingredients

Otaki animal rescuer Kate Waghorn has preferred organic products for last 22 years, and says the words like natural, ...
ROSS GIBLIN / FAIRFAX NZ

Otaki animal rescuer Kate Waghorn has preferred organic products for last 22 years, and says the words like natural, bio, and organic can make for misleading labels.

Bold claims of "natural" and "organic" appear on everything from shampoo to hand-cream, but shoppers are being warned to look at the small print.

The absence of rules about marketing body care products has sparked a stoush between big and small manufacturers. Consumer NZ says supermarket revenue from "organic" products like these has climbed 147 per cent since 2012, rising to $167 million in 2015.

One small company, Kerikeri body care firm Goodbye, is calling out the big players: its owner believes they are pulling the wool over consumers' eyes.

The watchdog Consumer NZ says Organic Care shampoo is not organic.
Ross Giblin

The watchdog Consumer NZ says Organic Care shampoo is not organic.

But manufacturers trading on naturalness point out that they do not claim to be 100 per cent natural, and that synthetic ingredients need not be unsafe.

READ MORE: Want to save thousands? Give up shop-bought toiletries

That's not good enough for some consumers. Westport mother-of-three Jessika Gray was disappointed to read the fine print and discover some of her regular purchases were not as "natural" as she thought.

Kate Waghorn with hair and skin care products that claim to be natural or organic, but actually have chemicals in them.
ROSS GIBLIN / FAIRFAX NZ

Kate Waghorn with hair and skin care products that claim to be natural or organic, but actually have chemicals in them.

She has now forsworn Lucas Pawpaw Ointment, on discovering its 96 per cent petroleum content.

"I went to use it on my daughter, that's when I looked at the ingredients and realised that it wasn't as natural as I would have liked," she said.

One organics proponent who was out shopping on Saturday, Otaki's Kate Waghorn, said that in her opinion the labels still "sucked people in". 

"Applying the word natural is an easy trick because everything in the world is technically natural, non-toxic or not – but it's misleading because people do equate it with organic and healthy."

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She said finding genuine organic products was difficult on a limited budget, and that she was aware the relatively cheap Organic Care shampoo she bought was "probably the best of a bad bunch at that price".

Consumer NZ has highlighted concerns about Organic Care shampoo not being 100 per cent organic. The watchdog also raised concerns about Palmer's Organics Cocoa Butter Massage Cream, in which only three of 33 ingredients are certified organic.

Becky Cashman, the founder of Natrue-certified natural skin care range Goodbye, said she was raising concerns because she worried shoppers were not getting what they expected.

Products claiming natural and organic ingredients ranged "from shampoos with full chemical bases with a token amount of natural oils, to petrochemical products with a small amount of natural actives, to products that are mostly natural but still use chemical preservatives," she said.

Nivea's "pure and natural" milk and honey lip balm contains polyisobutene​, a synthetic polymer about which Environment Canada has raised safety concerns. The same company's raspberry rose caring lip butter contains a petrochemical product.

Nivea​ skin care expert Robyn Hutch said the brand's non-natural ingredients were kept to a minimum and all had a long history of safe usage in cosmetics. "All of the raw materials used in Nivea products are comprehensively verified and are required to fulfil the highest standards of purity and quality tests," she said.

Lucas Pawpaw Ointment, which boasts about using a natural fermentation process and containing a natural active ingredient, is 96 per cent petroleum.

Health Basics advertises no soap, no parabens​, no EDTA, no cocamide​ DEA, no MIT. But its first three ingredients are all chemically-derived.

A spokeswoman for API, which operates the Health Basics brand, said it was not holding itself out to be 100 per cent natural. 

"The reason we highlight that our products do not contain those ingredients is because they are additives which may cause some people concern. We provide consumers with factual information so that they can make an informed choice. No other claim is being made about the product," she said.

Palmolive Naturals liquid hand wash promises extracts of 100 per cent natural origin but its fragrance is synthetic or chemically derived. 

Other body care companies have hit back. Ecostore founder Malcolm Rands said even his range would not claim to be totally natural, because it was an impossible claim to make. 

Consumer NZ spokeswoman Jessica Wilson said the term "natural" was being used "quite liberally".

She said the Fair Trading Act required companies not to make unsubstantiated claims. She said retailers and manufacturers needed to remember their obligation not to mislead. 

The Commerce Commission had not investigated the use of the term "natural" in products.

"However we do focus on what we refer to as credence claims," a spokesperson for the commission said. Credence claims relate to consumers' acceptance of something as true.

"The commission has a number of current investigations into such claims but cannot disclose any further details at this time."

 - Sunday Star Times

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