Walk into any beauty department or personal-care store and chances are you will find an ever-widening array of cosmetic products that claim to be "organic" or "natural".
But can you always trust labels that claim to be both?
Probably not, says Mr Amarjit Sahota, managing director of Organic Monitor, a London-based specialist research and consulting company which focuses on global sustainable product industries.
"Asian consumers don't really know what organic means. It is a sustainable form of farming. There is a lot of confusion," he says.
Organic and natural - what you need to know
There is no single official definition of an organic product.
An international organic standard is in the works, says Dr Alain Khaiat, president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of Singapore and vice-president of technical and scientific affairs at the Asean Cosmetic Association. There are also no official regulations on labelling products "organic", he adds. But if someone contests the labelling, the brand will have to prove that its label is accurate.
There are private companies that audit brands and certify the level of organic content in products. But the standards used between the companies are different, so the same brand may get different results.
Certifying companies consumers can trust, says Dr Khaiat, include Cosmos, EcoCert, Natrue, NSF and BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics. Look out for their logos on the labels. And make sure the certification logo applies to the entire product and not just one ingredient in it.
Organic products come from organic plants.
Dr Khaiat says that only plants can be classified as organic, not animal-origin ingredients.
Organic agriculture is defined loosely as crops grown with only natural fertilisers and pesticides. Again, because there is no official global definition of what is "organic", a crop which is classified organic in one country may not be categorised as such in another.
Organic ingredients do not necessarily guarantee an organic end-product - this depends on how the ingredients are processed.
Natural cosmetic ingredients are obtained only from plants, animals and those of microbiological or mineral origin.
Ingredients sourced from fossil fuels are excluded from the definition, says Dr Khaiat. These include vaseline and paraffin.
Natural products should contain a high content of natural ingredients. The exact amount will be revealed once the international guidelines are set. And increasingly, the focus is put on sustainable development. This means, amongst other things, ensuring the plants are renewable, the energy comes from renewable resources and packaging is properly recycled.
All reputable companies make sure the product is safe before it is placed in the market.
Safety assessment is a mandatory requirement. This applies to natural or synthetic ingredients and products. The regulatory authorities check that this is done properly.
Do your research.
Read up on the brands. Besides certifications, Mr Eric Chew, founder of organic and natural cosmetics speciality store Bud Cosmetics, looks out for a few things when he picks the brands he stocks. These include a composition of at least 99.9 per cent natural ingredients in the products, the brand's commitment to producing good, clean products that work, and fair trade ingredients.
Synthetic chemicals are not always bad.
Natural ingredients are not as effective as synthetic chemicals when it comes to products such as skin lightening and sun protection ones, says adjunct associate professor Steven Thng, senior consultant and head of the pigment clinic at the National Skin Centre.
That said, certain synthetic chemical-based products do lead to a higher incidence of allergic reactions, he adds. They include cinnamyl alcohol, citronellol, eugenol, hexyl cinnamal, hydroxycitronellal, hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, d-limonene and linalool.
Some chemicals can also be carcinogenic. But these are usually banned by the Health Sciences Authority, says Associate Professor Thng.
There is no single official definition of what makes a product organic, but generally, organic cosmetic ingredients are those that come from organic plants, while natural cosmetic ingredients are those obtained only from plants, animals and substances of microbiological or mineral origin.
Mr Sahota adds that in Asia, the absence of mainstream retailers of such products and a lack of large natural food shop chains lead to "a disorganised sector where there is strong competition for shelf space with pseudo-natural brands".
Small speciality retailers which carry a relatively sizeable range of reputable organic and natural beauty products in Singapore include SuperNature, Bud Cosmetics and Pure Tincture.
Mislabelling is one of the biggest problems.
Mr Sahota says: "In Asia, many brands put self-designated logos on their products. It could just be a conventional formulation with one organic ingredient and it will have a large organic logo on the label. Or, it could be that the product's name includes the word 'organic' in one form or another, but there is nothing organic inside the bottle.
"And there are also cases where brands use false logos and seals on their products. This greenwashing is more common in Asia than in other parts of the world."
Greenwashing is a term coined by environmentalists to describe products and services which claim to be environmentally friendly when they are not.
Mr Sahota estimates the global natural and organic cosmetics market to be worth US$11.7 billion (S$16.6 billion), with the United States and Germany being the largest markets. He was in town last month to give a presentation at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of Singapore's Annual Workshop on the natural and organic market in Asean.
The good news is the confusion over organic and natural cosmetics in the region may be solved by the middle of next year, says Dr Alain Khaiat, president of the association and vice-president of technical and scientific affairs at the Asean Cosmetic Association.
The International Standard Guidelines on Technical Definitions and Criteria for Natural and Organic Cosmetic Ingredients are in the final rounds of a six-year- long discussion involving representatives from countries such as Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand.
The guidelines will cover topics that include the definition of a natural or organic cosmetic ingredient and the amount of organic ingredients that a product should contain to be labelled as organic. This move will mean major changes for the industry.
According to Dr Khaiat, when the standards are published, they may be adopted by the Asean Cosmetic Committee as guidelines to control products that are imported into and exported out of Asean.
If and when the standards are adopted by local regulators, the standard guidelines will be used as a reference to check on claims made on a label. Companies can also use the guidelines to formulate their products so they can make the right claims on their labels.
There are no official figures on the market for such organic beauty products in Singapore. But there are now more skincare labels - claiming to be natural or organic- based - on the shelves.
About five new brands have been launched every quarter in the last two years. Some of the latest ones include Botaneco Garden, Stenders and Bottega Verde.
The businesses of local organic and natural cosmetic speciality retailers are growing.
Mr Eric Chew opened his first Bud Cosmetics store, a 260 sq ft space at Novena Square 2 in 2008 with just three labels - British brand The Organic Pharmacy, Logona from Germany and American label 100 Per Cent Pure.
Today, he has two more stores - a 600 sq ft outlet at Mandarin Gallery and a 300 sq ft shop at Paya Lebar Square. Bud Cosmetics carries 16 brands - at least seven are exclusive - including South Korean label Isoi and Mukti Organics from Australia. It also offers organic and natural facial and body treatments at the Mandarin Gallery outlet.
In October, Pure Tincture launched its second store and beauty studio, a 500 sq ft space in Tras Street. It also operates a 600 sq ft space at The Adelphi. Pure Tincture started in 2005 with three organic brands (Sukipure and Osea from the United States and Santaverde Natural Cosmetics from Germany). It stocks 11 labels - at least five are exclusive - including London- based Pai and Martina Gebhardt from Germany, and offers 25 kinds of facials.
Even organic food grocer SuperNature at Forum The Shopping Mall, which opened in 2001 and is owned by luxury conglomerate Como Group, has an entire section devoted to personal care products.
It sells at least 12 organic and natural labels, such as American brands Rahua, Simply Organic Beauty, Nature's Gate and Coslys from France.
Ms Liza Rowan, an Irish nutritionist who has been based in Singapore for the past four years, says she no longer has to stock up on organic cosmetics whenever she or her husband travels to Europe.
"These days, I can get whatever I need here. It is a little more expensive than in Europe and the range is limited, but at least what I want is available in certain stores," says the 49-year-old.
GOING AU NATUREL
Mr Chew of Bud Cosmetics and Ms Helen Lien, founder of Pure Tincture, say Singaporeans make up more than 70 per cent of their customers. Their regular ones tend to be in their mid-20s onwards and are usually savvy about organic products.
They add that organic and natural beauty products these days are more competitively priced and have improved formulas.
Mr Chew points out that many organic concoctions are no longer rudimentary as customers have become more discerning and expect the organic products to perform as well as non-organic products from big beauty brands.
"In the past, an organic product was made of raw ingredients. One just has to whip it up and if it smells nice, it can be sold. Now, organic products are infused with botanical cosmeceuticals."
And while organic food is generally still at least 30 per cent more expensive than non-organic food (because eco certification is expensive, among other reasons), the prices of organic and natural cosmetics are now comparable to those made mainly with synthetic ingredients.
Mr Chew attributes this to economies of scale and the fact that premium skincare products are usually priced higher, regardless of whether they are natural or organic or neither.
Traditionally, life-changing events - such as pregnancy or serious illness - also lead consumers to switch to organic and natural cosmetic products because the products are believed to be better for one's well-being, notes Mr Chew.
When Ms Brenda Lim, who is in her early 40s, was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, she started on an organic beauty regime to complement her strict organic vegan diet.
"I wanted to stay as healthy as possible and avoid anything processed or artificial," says the lawyer.
Three years on and fully recovered, she no longer sticks to an organic vegan diet, but continues to use only organic skincare products from brands such as John Masters Organics and The Organic Pharmacy.
She says: "The products are much gentler and they make a big difference to my skin. It feels healthy inside out and has a radiant glow."
Many consumers also turn to organic and natural cosmetics to deal with their sensitive skin.
Ms Lien says: "Most of my customers have rosacea, eczema, thin skin, adult acne or contact dermatitis and they don't respond well to over-the-counter products and those from pharmacies."
However, adjunct associate professor Steven Thng, senior consultant and head of the pigment clinic at the National Skin Centre, says natural and organic skincare products are not always a fail-proof way to treat intolerant skin.
He says: "Generally, organic or natural skincare products are safer as they are deemed to have fewer toxic effects and reduce one's chance of developing an allergic reaction. However, that does not mean one will not develop allergic reactions to or be irritated by these products."
He adds that at the National Skin Centre, doctors do see patients developing allergic reactions to plants, plant saps and citrus fruit extracts in organic and natural formulas. "This is especially so if one is exposed to the sun after coming into contact with organic products because some allergies are not direct allergens but photo- allergens. Sunlight activates the allergies and without sunlight, they are not allergenic."
Products with synthetic chemicals in them are not always bad either, he says. "Despite higher incidences of allergic reactions, chemicals are usually more effective than organic ingredients as they are synthesized to achieve the effect desired. So there are always pros and cons when one chooses to use organic or natural products versus chemical-based ones," he adds.
10 natural and organic products worth checking out
1 The Organic Pharmacy Antioxidant Face Firming Serum, $212, from Bud Cosmetics, 03-32 Mandarin Gallery, 333A Orchard, tel: 6733-5782
Made with rosehip oil, carrot, sunflower oil, lemon, sweet orange and grapefruit to lift and tone skin.
2 Julisis Gold Emulsion Day, $415, from the Beauty-i pop-up store at B1-25/26 Scotts Square, tel: 9234-3940
Contains an alchemistic essence of gold, fermented wild flower honey, bee's wax, bee pollen, St John's wort oil and royal jelly to treat sensitive and irritated skin.
3 Biossentiel Bio Super Serum Anti-age Serum Five, $145, from the Beauty-i pop-up store
Blended with sunflower, rape, hazelnut, apricot and rose oils to slow down signs of ageing.
4 John Masters Organics Spearmint and Meadowsweet Scalp Stimulating Shampoo, $36, from Bud Cosmetics
Concocted with organic-certified ingredients - spearmint, meadowsweet, eucalyptus oil, soya protein and guar gum - to detoxify the scalp and add volume to hair.
5 Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum, $52.50, from Bud Cosmetics
All the products by the brand are blended with organic antioxidant rich plant juices. This product is made to unclog pores and reduce breakouts. Gwyneth Paltrow is the creative director of the brand.
6 Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil, $50, from Pure Tincture, 02-01 Pure Tincture Studio @ Tras, 68 Tras Street, tel: 6222-0267
A potent form of cold-pressed rosehip oil made to tone and condition skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines.
7 Tata Harper Rejuvenating Serum, US$173 ($242), from Net-A-Porter
Winner of the 2011 Allure Best In Beauty award, given to top products by US beauty magazine Allure, this anti-ageing serum is formulated with 29 natural and active ingredients.
8 Suntegrity Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen & Primer, $72, from Pure Tincture
This winner of the Allure Best of Beauty award in 2013 is a chemical-free sunscreen that does not leave a white cast on the skin.
It also contains red algae and organic aloe vera, jojoba, sunflower, pomegranate, cucumber and green tea extracts to calm and protect skin.
9 Vita Coco Extra Virgin 100% Raw Cold Pressed Organic Coconut Oil, $20, from selected supermarkets such as Cold Storage
This fatty acid-rich oil can be eaten and also used as a skin and hair moisturiser.
10 Dr Jackson's 05 Face And Eye Essence, US$101 (S$148), from Net-A-Porter
A blend of rose water and Roman camomile to soothe skin, kigelia to keep it elastic and vitamin C-rich baobab to protect skin.