What does organic mean? It depends on what beauty company you ask.

Many of us are more conscious than ever before about the products we use and how they affect our skin, hair and the planet. Browse the aisles of just about any store and you’ll likely find the word ‘organic’ emblazoned on many hair care products.

The organic industry is growing at around 20 percent annually, exceeding $40 billion. An estimated $4 billion each year is spent on personal-care products.

However, sorting through the plethora of expertly marketed potions can be overwhelming, even to the most educated curly girl. And the term "organic" doesn't mean the same thing to every company.

Here, a cross-section of beauty companies leading the organic movement share insights on what it means to be organic, and offer advice on how to make better decisions on the curly hair care products you buy.


THE COMPANY: TERRESSENTIALS

What’s Organic?: All products contain 100% USDA-certified organic ingredients.

Diana Kaye, and her husband James Hahn, founded Middletown, Md.-based Terressentials 17 years ago when they were in the midst of the biggest challenge of their lives. Kaye was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The chemotherapy attacked the cancer, but also made her extremely sensitive to the many beauty and household products she used every day.

“My husband and I started scrutinizing the labels to find information about these ingredients that we couldn’t pronounce,” Kaye says.

Surprised by the harsh chemicals she discovered, Kaye and her husband bought an organic farm in a small Maryland town and began producing their own line of organic products. Kaye’s health steadily improved. Today, she remains cancer-free.

Terressentials bears the USDA-certified organic seal, which requires companies to follow the stringent regulations of organic food products and guarantees products are minimally processed as well as contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.

“The process was extremely challenging, and that can be synonymous with costly,” Kaye says. “We pay more for our ingredients, and sometimes it’s really hard to find the them because there are still limited supplies. So, is it challenging to follow the regulations? Yeah, you bet it is. But is it worth it? Yes, we believe it is.”

Despite the prestigious seal, Kaye says she still finds it difficult to compete in a retail marketplace flooded with so-called "organic" products that make it onto store shelves, whether or not they contain real organic ingredients.

“A lot of retailers have said to us that they have to take baby steps. But when your house is on fire, do you take baby steps to the door or do you run like hell?” Kaye asks. “ I feel like maybe we’re reaching a tipping point and we have a good shot at cleaning things up, but it’s not going to happen with baby steps. It’s time to make those giant strides!”

Kaye’s Actionable Advice: “People have to understand that it is indeed their responsibility to read the labels, question ingredients, and make more informed choices instead of just blind ones.”


THE COMPANY: JOHN MASTERS ORGANICS

What’s Organic? Products contain 70 percent to 100 percent organic ingredients certified by Ecocert, Quality Assurance International, California Certified Organic Farmers, or Organic Crop Improvement Association.

John Masters agrees the beauty industry has become much more complex and confusing for consumers than it was when he founded his company more than a decade ago.

“There are a lot of companies jumping on the bandwagon by putting 'organic' or 'natural' on their bottles,” Masters says. “I recently went into stores and saw ‘organic’ on the front of some bottles, yet when I turned them round I didn’t see much organic anything in them. In the United States, it’s very difficult for consumers to decipher what’s going on because, unfortunately, the regulations here are not very strict.”

Masters’ products, which are sold in 25 countries, follow the more stringent European Union (EU) directives that required his company to provide documentation — such as material safety data sheets and a certificate of analysis — for every raw material in the products.

“Everything we say is organic had to be proven,” Masters says. “In Europe, we had to have studies done that cost tens of thousands of dollars, and we went through stringent challenge tests.”

Despite following these strict European standards, John Masters Organics’ products do not bear the USDA organic seal.

“The USDA standard follows the food standard, which is fine, but sometimes it’s not applicable to beauty products,” Masters explains. “There are some raw materials that are extremely beneficial, like certain forms of Vitamin A, but they’re not approved to be put in food products, so you couldn’t put that in your beauty product, if you wanted the USDA seal. It can be very tricky.”

Masters' Actionable Advice: “Turn around the bottle and look for certified organic ingredients. You don’t want petrochemicals, like propylene glycol. You don’t want parabens, nothing ending in -mea, -dea or -tea, and no copolymers, which are a plastic. You don’t want artificial color or artificial fragrance either, the scent should come from essential oils.


THE COMPANY: AVALON ORGANICS

What’s Organic? Products contain organic essential oils, plant oils and herbal extracts certified by Quality Assurance International, BioAgriCert, Oregon Tilth, Pro-Cert Organic Systems, BCS Öko-Garamtie, Instituto Biodinâmico, GOCA, or International Certification Services.

Avalon Organics’ brand manager Christa Skov points to the company’s "Consciousness in Cosmetics" pledge when she’s asked how the company supports the organic movement.

“We have a strong commitment to organic agriculture, and whenever we can, we use organic ingredients and list them on the back of our packaging,” says Skov, who also acknowledges the company does not have the USDA organic seal (again, since it is not based on a personal care standard, but a food standard) or require a specific percentage of organic ingredients in its products.

Still, Avalon’s products exclude many ingredients it considers harsh — such as parabens, mineral oil, artificial colors and fragrances — while also following strict European standards. The company’s website discloses all product ingredients and touts third-party organic certifications it has obtained for select ingredients.

Skov’s Actionable Advice: “Spend time to research companies and understand what their platforms are. Become more aware of what you’re doing instead of walking through life and using whatever you think looks good. It’s about making a conscious effort to be healthy, whether you’re choosing to eat organic foods or use organic products.”


THE COMPANY: HAMADI

What’s Organic? Products contain essential oils and plant extracts; company expects to receive certification this summer by European Union’s Ecocert.

Jamal Hammadi’s frustration with his thin, curly hair ultimately served as inspiration for starting his own product line, which bears his name (although his company name is spelled slightly different).

“When I was growing up, curly was not cool,” says Hammadi, also a celebrity stylist. “I always had to blow it out and I was sick of it.”

He began experimenting with shea butter and essential oils and his successful concoctions morphed into a line of hair care products. Although his products contain no artificial colors or artificial fragrances, Hammadi acknowledges his line is not 100 percent organic.

“Our only organic ingredients are essentials oils, our other ingredients are derived from plant extracts,” says Hammadi, noting that each organic ingredient is marked with an asterisk on each product label.

The company is also in the process of adding more organic ingredients to its shampoos and expects to be certified this summer by the Ecocert program.

“The point of this is to give back in the way that I can, that’s why I created the Hamadi line,” Hammadi says. “What organic means to me is that it’s a simple choice, it’s better for you. It’s more than just making money – it’s beyond celebrity. Each one of us needs to make a difference. Our environment is in trouble. It’s no joke.”

Hammadi’s Actionable Advice: “Know what you need before you walk into a store. When you get color, blow dry your hair or use a flat iron, know that it will dry out your hair. Pay attention to your hair so you know what you’re lacking and ask your hair dresser for help. (For curlies, he suggests moisturizing ingredients such as shea butter, avocado oil, vitamins A and E.) Read the ingredients on the label to see what’s in it.”


THE COMPANY: NURTURE MY BODY

What’s Organic? Products contain essential oils and herbal extracts from organic farms in Oregon, Washington, California and Germany, which are tested by a California-based agency, BioScreen Testing Services.

After more than two decades as a stylist and esthetician, Patty Kerr realized the industry she loved was making her sick. She developing extreme sensitivities to the chemicals she was exposed to over the years, and Kerr embarked on a mission to find out why.

“I studied over 500 companies and tore apart everybody’s formulations,” Kerr says. “That’s when I discovered there isn’t a lot of truth out there. There can be natural, organic or botanical ingredients, but it may be the last ingredient in the formulation and yet it’s still put on the bottle. So, the public feels like it’s getting a natural product when it’s not.”

After several years of research, she and her husband founded Nurture My Body, a line of skin and hair care products, in 2007.

“We source organic ingredients from farmers that are certified by their state,” Kerr says. “Our company is geared toward using the safest non-toxic ingredients available and not all will be certified organic, although we will use what we can.”

Within the first year, nearly all products in Kerr’s small company rated a “zero” in toxicity, and only three rated a “one” in the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic safety database. (The ratings are zero to 10, with 10 being most hazardous. A rating of zero to two is the lowest hazard.)

“We have to take responsibility for our environment and our earth. It’s an exciting time being in this industry,” Kerr says. “People really want to make a change.”

Kerr’s Actionable Advice: “Do your research. Go to www.safecosmetics.org or www.cosmeticdatabase.com (Environmental Working Group’s safety guide to beauty products), where you can check the toxicity rating and find different studies of ingredients. Also, support the little grass-roots companies that are making a difference.”