Organic' or 'natural' have become the skin care industry's favourite buzz words. But how do consumers really know what they're getting - are these claims valid, or do the products contain potentially harmful synthetic ingredients? The good news is you don't have to be a chemist to know what to look out for - just by learning to read the labels you can start to be a savvy consumer. Scientists now recognise that what you put on your skin is absorbed by the body. Some ingredients can never be flushed out and are stored over time. Many ingredients permitted in skin care are untested and would be forbidden if skin care was controlled in the same way as pharmaceutical drugs. When you think that the average woman uses 12 skin care products a day, applying more than 175 chemicals in the process, there is reason to pay attention. The term 'natural' means 'existing in, or caused by nature; not artificial; uncultivated; wild or existing in a natural state; not disguised or altered'. 'Organic' is defined as 'produced and involving production without the use of banned pesticides, artificial fertilisers or synthetic chemicals'. Although a product may be labelled 'organic' you need to look at the rest of the ingredients - are they 'natural' or from an 'organic' source? For instance, skin care products labelled 'natural' only need 1 per cent of natural ingredients to be branded natural, says Jaca Cubrilo, chemist for Lavera and Lavere German-made organic cosmetics in Hong Kong. 'Every natural ingredient can be synthetically created, which is much cheaper than using real plants or fruit sources.' Unfortunately, there's no body governing the use of these terms on skin care labels. However, the term 'certified organic' is governed by a number of internationally recognised bodies. A few certified organic ingredients doesn't mean a product is 100 per cent organic. For instance, a synthetic preserving system may have been used. But it does mean ingredients labelled organic are what they say they are. The problem is, not all certification bodies are created equal. Next time you're at a beauty counter, check for the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Organic or Australian Certified Organic labels. For European products, each country in the EU has its own organic certification authority which meets specified standards such as the Soil Association (Britain). EU products are subjected to stricter standards than those in the US, where the Food and Drug Administration has banned only nine chemicals from cosmetics, compared to the EU, which has banned more than 1,000. Germany's BDIH is one of the most stringent. Brands can only achieve BDIH certification if 80 per cent of all products can be certified. It also doesn't allow any chemical treatment of ingredients or synthetic preservatives. France's Ecocert allows some chemical treatments and preservatives, but it's still better than a non-certified brand. 'When a label says 'made with certified organic ingredients', that only means some ingredients are certified organic,' says Cubrilo. 'It doesn't mean the product is certified organic or natural, nor that there are no harsh chemicals inside.' Companies are required to list the ingredients in descending order of quantity - the main component is always listed first. Some confusion can arise when organic and synthetic products list the same ingredient. Glycerin, for example, can be made from petroleum (synthetic) or it can be harvested from plants (organic). Why do companies continue to use synthetic ingredients? Because they're easier to obtain, and cheaper and quicker to make. US spa guru June Jacobs can attest to this. Jacobs, in Hong Kong recently for Cosmoprof Asia beauty trade fair, has just spent millions of dollars removing parabens from her skin care line. 'Companies don't want to do this because they don't want to spend the money on researching new preservatives. But it's the best money I've ever spent and it's well worth it,' she says. The company has since experienced an increase in sales, especially in the US, where parabens top the list of no-no's for many consumers. What if scientists discover something else that is a potential carcinogen? 'I'd take it out,' Jacobs says. 'But I don't really buy the whole organic idea. I mean these people just want to sell you organics because they're certified. But other skin companies could very well be getting the supplies for their products from the same supplier. So it's really all about choosing your suppliers well. My advice to consumers? Stay away from parabens, preservatives and added fragrances. Start to be savvy about ingredients. Study ingredients and read labels. Do your research.' Elizabeth Barbalich, who has launched Antipodes, a New Zealand-certified skin care line new to Hong Kong, says in meetings with buyers and retailers she's been told that 'the average woman here doesn't really care about organic - they just buy the big labels. I think that's mainly because they're not educated about the harmful effects of some ingredients. But I think once they're educated they will become more aware.' Jurlique CEO Eli Halliwell disagrees. 'There is a lot of consumer source anxiety out there,' he says. 'People are asking where did this come from and what's in it? Our industry is just waking up to those concerns.'