What we eat, drink and breathe is certainly important, but so is what we absorb through our skin. The skin is an organ – our largest in fact. Our internal control centers are all wrapped up inside this giant organ, yet we seem to forget (or ignore) this truth. Perhaps it’s because our personalities and identities appear to be forged through our skin’s shapes and colors. We deem it as a reflection of our deeper “organ-less” self, when it is simply just one part of the whole.

Contrary to red carpet commentary and style magazine recommendations, the skin does much more than make us sexy or otherwise. It does more than keep our bones and guts from falling all over the place. It soaks up nutrients; it’s both a delivery system and a barrier. The skin is our most corporeal relationship. It’s sensual and mysterious. And of course, it must be kept clean.

If cleanliness is indeed right up there next to the holiest of all things, then the Bronner family appear to be a bunch of angels working overtime, ensuring that people are truly getting soaps that are safe and effective, not laced with harsh chemicals.

Dr. Emanuel Bronner was a third generation German soap maker (and not technically a doctor). He was a quirky pacifist, committed to finding crafty ways of delivering a monumental message of truth and universality. “All one,” he called it, “We’re all one family.” His recipe was a simple blend of quality biodegradable, vegetable-based ingredients (from the label for liquid peppermint): Water, Saponified Organic Coconut & Olive oils (w/ retained Glycerin), Organic Hemp Oil, Organic Jojoba Oil, Organic Peppermint Oil, Organic Mentha Arvensis, Citric Acid, Vitamin E.

With a small following in the early years, sales experienced tremendous growth as the counter culture movement of the sixties exploded. Dr. Bronner’s magic soap fit right in. The symbolic bottle loaded with a unique collection of thoughts and inspiration scrawled every which way delivered a message of “transcendent unity.” Like many natural ideals that took hold in the sixties, Dr. Bronner’s became an institution. It is a universally loved product found in virtually every health food store in the U.S. (making them the number one selling natural brand of soaps in North America), with die-hard loyal fans espousing its effectiveness.

The 4th and 5th generation of the Bronner family has taken Emanuel’s commitment to heart by developing fair trade sources and using only certified organic oils. They’ve donated millions of dollars to their local community (San Diego county) and converted their signature plastic soap bottles to 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) cylinder bottles and paper labels.

Like the mainstream conventional food industry, personal care manufacturing includes a lot of by-products. There are preservatives, thickeners and foaming agents born out of other industries, often petroleum. They are sold cheaply to skin care companies, some of whom sell garish products that retail for hundreds of dollars in boutiques and department stores. The only cosmetics one needs, according to Dr. Bronner is “enough sleep & Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap to cleanse body-mind-soul-spirit.”

Caring for the skin is not a modern invention. For thousands of years, natural plant oils, butters, herbs and flowers have been valued for their rejuvenating, moisturizing and hydrating properties. Now, industrial convention implies the same experience can be had in a squirt bottle of watered down lotion mixed in a factory, loaded with chemicals. Browsing through any women’s magazine, you’re bound to stumble onto countless brands all promising baby-soft, supple skin. Cruise through the aisles of any Whole Foods Market or natural food store and you’ll find a similar situation: Bottle after bottle of miracle soaps, crèmes, lotions and shampoos, but these also exclaim that they are free from the harsh chemicals and parabens of mainstream products, plus they’re organic.

Though the natural and organic industry tends to stand for more than just single bottom line profits, make no mistake, that is priority. And even more so now as Green is the new Vaseline; like they used to say back in the 60’s: the times they are a-changin’. Wal Mart is now the largest distributor of organic produce in America (and just announced that their milk suppliers will no longer be allowed to use growth hormones). Whole Foods Market, who initially thought there were roughly only one hundred spots in the U.S. where their markets would work, are now pushing 300 locations with dozens more in development.

In 2003, Whole Foods became the first certified organic retailer. They worked with 3rd party certifiers Quality Assurance International (QAI) to ensure stringent protocol is adhered to on their handling of organic products. This they claim is “further proof of Whole Foods Market's unwavering commitment to organics.” There is unquestionably an ambient vibrancy in a Whole Foods Market that is more appealing, more resonant than what it feels like when prowling through an overly bright dirty-but-sterile ShopRite or Safeway. Every product in a Whole Foods seems to glow and ring with an “I’m-reeeeaally-really-good-for-you-so-buy-me” echo.

This is probably why the word “organic” has come to be synonymous with “healthy.” While organic foods are free from chemical residues from pesticides and fertilizers, free from genetically modified organisms (GMO), and free from growth hormones – all of which are indeed health factors – an organic claim is not an automatic indicator of the food also being genuinely good for you as in: low sugar, no hydrogenated fats, no artificial colors or sweeteners, high fiber, vitamin rich, super miracle health food. Organic or not, a potato chip is still a potato chip. While this should be evident to consumers (who eat them anyway), the harder discrimination comes in those personal care aisles. Skin care, hair care, sun care, after-sun care, lip balms, soaps, lotions, make up and on and on. It seems the bigger question may not be which is organic, but why do we need so many products in the first place? If Cleopatra could survive on olive oil and honey for her skin, why do we need so many jars and bottles full of ingredients we can’t pronounce? And, how are those organic?

The Bronner family was celebrating their 60-year anniversary (and 150 years all the way back to Germany) at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California earlier this month. Expo West is the largest natural/organic trade show in the U.S. with attendance near 50,000. Some 2000 vendors set up their wares, sampling the latest and greatest in innovative categories along with the old tried and true standards, like Dr. Bronner’s.

As I approached the Bronner’s booth this year, I noticed something odd: none of the folks staffed behind it were looking up. They all had their heads down, eyes buried deep into something, reading rhythmically left to right. David Bronner, President and grandson of Emanuel, finally noticed me and handed me a copy of the press release he had been reading. “We’re sending all these out here at the show” he said. I was curious, but not surprised to find that “these” were cease and desist letters going to some of the leading “organic” personal care brands in the industry including Jason, Nature’s Gate, Avalon, Kiss My Face and Aveda.

The organic personal care industry is rapidly growing. Sales in 2006 were over $300 million (roughly 15% of the total personal care market). But the Bronner’s have not been taking the growth lightly. They’ve become incensed at the watered down chemicals pawning themselves off as organic. The reason for this happening is that the organic regulations for food are not the same for body care. There currently are none. "We've grown increasingly frustrated with the companies in our industry who seem to feed off each others' misleading practices and show no inclination to clean up their formulations and live up to their organic branding claims", says David Bronner.

From the press release: “The major cleansing ingredient in Jason 'Pure, Natural & Organic' liquid soaps, bodywashes and shampoos is Sodium Myreth Sulfate, which involves ethoxylating a conventional non-organic fatty chain with the carcinogenic petrochemical Ethylene Oxide, which produces caricinogenic 1,4-Dioxane as a contaminant. The major cleansing ingredient in Avalon 'Organics soaps, bodywashes and shampoos, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, contains conventional non-organic agricultural material combined with the petrochemical Amdiopropyl Betaine. Nature's Gate 'Organics' main cleansers are Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (ethoxylated) and Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Kiss My Face 'Obsessively Organic' cleansers are Olefin Sulfonate (a pure petrochemical) and Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Juice 'Organics,' Giovanni 'Organic Cosmetics,' Head 'Organics,' Desert Essence 'Organics,' Ikove 'Organic' Amazonian Avocado Bath & Shower Gel all use Cocamdiopropyl Betaine and no cleansers made from certified organic material.”

Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association, a watchdog group partnering with the Bronner’s says, "The labeling and formulation practices of these companies are so unsupportable, we wonder sometimes if the garbage manager is in charge of product development and R&D."

"Personal care products are not regulated like food in this country so there are currently no consistent standards for them laid forth by any governing body,” says Jeremiah McElwee, senior global Whole Body coordinator for Whole Foods. Not only are organic claims not being regulated in the personal care industry, but neither is overall efficacy. If a product claims to affect a structure or function of the body – as in “reduces fine lines and wrinkles,” then according to the FDA, it is classified as a drug and forced to adhere to controlled regulations. But if a product claims to “reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” it is classified as a cosmetic, regardless of whether or not the outcome is identical. That basically means I can bottle tap water out of my Jersey City apartment and sell it to you as a “super-wrinkle-defense-ointment” for $100 a bottle and not have to prove that it does what I claim. (This stuff really does work by the way – please email me to place your orders.)

The key to the cosmetic industry’s success has been in cleverly making products claims to avoid clinical designation, but appear to sound as if they are just as effective. They use statements like: reduce or increase appearances, enhance the look and feel of, or eliminate signs of, and so on, creating huge profits for manufacturers and cycles of desperation for those consumers conditioned to fear aging. With unregulated organic standards for body care we not only have products whose efficacy is questionable, but truth about the ingredients' origins is stretched so thin that even the best miracle-lotion-crème-ointment-oil can’t restore them back to something honest.

Whole Foods has taken steps to single out body care products that meet their “clean” regulations. Effective this year they’ve implemented a “premium body care standard” that forbids ingredients such as parabens, polypropylene and polyethylene glycols, sodium lauryl and laureth sulfates. But the Bronner’s expectations of the industry are even higher than those. Along with the Organic Consumers Association, they are raising the organic bar of soap and “plan to pursue legal remedies on Earth Day April 20th, if they do not receive responses indicating these companies…will cease organic branding by September 1, 2008.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Bronners.com