Navigating Labels in the Green Era

Today's spas are reaping the rewards of making sustainability the foundation of their business plan

The Organic Beauty Craze—Marketers Stretching the Truth

Watch out for the organic and all natural labels on the beauty products you select for use in your spas. They are not always what they claim to be.

Lynn Shulman, owner of Elixir Organic Spa in Toronto, learned this the hard way. Over 10 years ago, Shulman suffered from a terrible allergic reaction from an "organic" beauty product she had purchased. "It was all over my neck, shoulders, and back. The rashes were raw, red, and angry-looking. It looked like raw liver was growing on my skin," Shulman recalls.

It took her months to recover. She had to consistently steam and detoxify her body to draw all of the chemicals out of her pores. It turned out the natural products she was using were not as clean and wholesome as she had originally thought.

Lack of regulations
There is very little government regulation in Canada for personal care and beauty products. The government does not mandate specific standards for what can be deemed organic or natural. Health Canada has developed a hot list—a list of chemicals that are banned or restricted in personal care products because they can pose a health risk. However, there are still many carcinogens that fail to make the list.

As long as the banned names are not included in the ingredient list, consumers can be applying a cocktail mix of unregulated chemicals onto their skin.

Over the last few years, there has been a boom in green products. Consumers have been exposed to growing numbers of labels that claim to be organic and all natural. These two terms have become significant marketing lures.

Voluntary certification
Competing companies that create their own regulations and private organic certifications set these standards. But these guidelines are voluntary.

Certech, for example, is a wholly-owned Canadian organization offering environmental, health, natural, and organic certification services. According to Certech, in order to receive a certification seal for organic personal care products, a minimum of 95 per cent of the ingredients must be of natural origin. Packaging must be recyclable and the products and their individual ingredients must not have been tested on animals. The formula must be virtually free of synthetic ingredients, and must not contain pesticides, harmful preservatives, artificial colours, and fragrances.

Even with private organizations like Certech in existence, there is still a huge void in regulating the organic industry.

There are loopholes that allow marketers to make false claims— to label products as natural, organic, eco friendly, or green, and no certification seal is required—it is optional.

"Ecocert is another certification body in Canada. I have seen products with the Ecocert label and they still contain harsh chemical ingredients. It is not mandatory for businesses to certify themselves organic. For marketing purposes, a company can choose to gain a certification and pay the price to go through whatever hoops necessary to gain the organic seal," says Shulman.

This is where it gets tricky. Companies are not necessarily lying when they say their product is natural—they just stretch the truth. There could be one or two ingredients that are organic or natural, and because of this, it is not legally false to market the product as natural or organic.

Shulman also notes that a lot of companies will use ambiguous wording in their ingredient list.

"I have seen product labels that include the name of a chemical ingredient, but in brackets next to the chemical, they will say the particular ingredient was 'derived from coconut,'" she gives as an example. "So this could mean that at one point in time this started off as a coconut, but has gone through so many chemical processes that it no longer results in anything that should be compatible with human skin."

Protect your clients
The gruesome reaction she had from the falsely labeled organic product is what started Shulman's journey to open Elixir Organic Spa, located in Toronto's trendy King West neighbourhood. Her spa caters to those with allergies, skin sensitivities, and autoimmune skin conditions. After extensive research, Shulman found small artisan companies around the globe that provides her spa with food-grade organic beauty products.

Shulman's motto is: "If you can't eat it, don't put it on your skin."

Elixir spa offers the same services as traditional spas, but uses organic alternatives for its facials, massages, and waxing.

She says many new clients complain about reactions from waxing services from conventional spas. What Shulman stresses is that, in most cases, clients do not react from the wax itself, but from the post-wax product.

She says the ingredients used in post-wax care are especially important.

"After a waxing treatment, the client's pores are completely open and vulnerable. The worse thing you can do is apply chemicals and other toxic ingredients onto their skin. It goes straight into their bloodstream," Shulman says.

The products used during post-wax services at Elixir Spa are completely dye-, fragrance-, and paraben-free. Her treatments include ingredients such as shea butter, cocoa butter, grape seed oil, and almond oil.

Shulman is a true believer in 100 per cent organic products, but knows how difficult it can be to find the real deal.

"I have seen so many organic labeled products, even some with certification seals. But when I flip the bottle around to read the ingredients, I see listed parabens, ethanol, and perfume additives."

Without proper government regulation in place, it is important to be diligent when reading labels. Discretion must be used when buying products to avoid falling for misleading marketing claims and offering your clients products that don't live up to their branding.

When navigating labels, Shulman's best advice is: "if it sounds like it was made in a lab, avoid it."


by Chelsea Shim | Spring 2013