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Evaluating and Reporting Cosmetic Safety

December 22, 2013

My article last week entitled Safe Cosmetics, Toxic Chemicals and Why now is no time to fight  has got a few people talking. That is a good thing but I thought it might be wise to add to that by telling you what prompted me to write that.

Firstly there was this article in the Cosmetics and Toiletries magazine. You have to pay $9 US to download it which I encourage you to do as the author makes some valid points concerning the complexity of the ‘safety’ issue.

And then there was this article on nanoparticles in sunscreens which I had read earlier and found interesting, not so much for the content (not that there is anything wrong with that) but for the way that the article sets out two camps – the them and the us.  I thought that was worth thinking about.

After that came a few conversations with customers and friends.

Plus something that really made me uncomfortable back in November. The exchange between Revlon and an organisation  or cancer survivors called ultraviolet.

The above represent a small sample of articles and thoughts that cross my desk every week.  I see each one as different pieces of the same puzzle – a puzzle that will only come together if the people with the box (and the picture) show the people trying to piece it together.   Co-operation is king.

Christmas is a good time to sit with that thought as whatever your religions convictions one can’t help but feel a little cheered by the happiness and love that the holiday season brings.  Well, OK  so this isn’t Disney Land (thank goodness) and some people hate this time of the year but maybe that is what makes this the PERFECT analogy…..

I sat with my kids and watched a documentary about death the other day.  Sounds cheery right?  We are all going to die and we don’t know when, where or how.  Even for the people in the film who had a fair idea of how (heart disease, breast cancer,  Cystic fibrosis, cirrhosis of the liver) they didn’t have control over the fine print – the ‘Devil in the detail’ and it was that which scared (if scared is the right word) them.  That not-knowing, that inability to plan, that feeling of being left hanging, on hold, interrupted.

We as people have become so accustomed to being in control of our lives that the idea of something as important as death being outside of our control is abhorrent and cruel.  Of course death is the pinnacle of horrors and one that nobody wants to attribute to their cosmetics (and nor should they). Indeed most of us would jump at the chance to enjoy a risk-of-death free life at least until our mid eighties or beyond right?  Oh and can that cover our nearest and dearest (including pets) please?  But it ‘ain’t going to happen…..

Christmas is as much about life as it is about death.  It is a well-known but little celebrated fact that Jesus’ official day of birth isn’t actually known.   The 25th is an estimate really and it could have happened any time around then.  The reason that this wasn’t notable was that in those days births weren’t recorded, it was deaths that were – death was the defining date.  How odd to our death-denying modern selves!

Anyway, all this talk of death is not making for great reading so I’ll get to the point.  My point is that death (or more specifically early and untimely death) is,  for most of us, the worst thing that can happen to us as humans.  The second worst part is the intellectual notion that we could have done something to prevent it – that we could have controlled the variables, made better choices, prevented this from happening.  That is a fear that sits in the heart of many of us, not least those of us that have children under our care (don’t we all?)……

Taking this a step further (further away from death) we have risk and risk management.  Given that the worst thing that can happen to us is death it makes sense that we view every action and reaction against a scale which puts euphoric bliss and enjoyment at one end and painful, tortuous death at the other.  I don’t know whether it is the internet, a weakening of real-life support systems and extended families,  our increased education, 24 hour world news,  entitlement issues or an inability to recognise a real vs perceived threat that has done this but we (as a species) seem to be finding it harder and harder to assess risks and more importantly to understand the limits to which we can remove or overcome them.  We don’t like the idea that there are some things that we just have to put up with.  We don’t like it one bit.

Granted this is all rather doom worthy and one would hope that upon receiving a new lipstick for Christmas the receiver doesn’t launch into a monologue of ‘oh how could you,  you may look sweet and beautiful but let me count the ways in which you could kill me’…..  But maybe that isn’t such a stretch.

And here in lies my problem.

The ‘them’ – those members of the public who are not in the cosmetics industries scientific belly – have been made aware of potential risks and issues that didn’t exist before.  I say ‘potential’ risks because that is exactly what they are.

The ‘us’ are people like me, the ‘scientists’ or people who have the map but don’t want to share it…..  The us that have decided that ‘yeh, there is a theoretical problem but you don’t need to worry your minds about that, we have taken care of it’.

Only that requires trust and ‘they’ don’t want to trust ‘us’. I can’t say I blame them.

Whether we (scientists in the industry) want to believe it or not we have ourselves a serious situation on our hands. Indeed we always have – for every scientific advancement there have been people who lobby against it, pointing out the ‘dark side’, the ‘risk’ – take electricity,  indoor lavatories, motor cars or aeroplanes as examples.  We all accept that these inventions carry risks but feel comfortable (for the most part) that we know and can manage the risks accordingly.

So why is chemistry any different?

Because chemicals are unknown quantities brought to us by scientists who think we are stupid (them and us mentality), who have the map but don’t think we need to see it, who don’t all agree anyway so how do we know who to trust,  who have lied before (there have been many a chemical disaster), have a tendency to ‘play God’….

And that brings me back to Christmas and the point of last weeks article.

I urge my fellow scientists to remember who they are when the lab coat is safety stashed away on the back of the lab door. It is holiday season, a time when we will be away from our desks being ‘normal’  (whatever that is).   We might be given a gift this Christmas that challenges us – a flight in a hot air balloon,  news that we are about to become a parent maybe (fur or human),  a trip to somewhere exotic or whatever it takes to evoke a feeling of vulnerability.

Whoever we are, wherever we are and whatever we do with our working life we are all human and human version 20.13 doesn’t like un-explained or little understood risks so let’s take the time to reach out, hold hands and go into the unknown together.

Because the only thing worse than dying, is dying alone.

And as Lorde says – we’re on each others team.

Lots of love

Amanda x

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