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But I sell my product as ‘free from’ because people need to know, to keep them safe…

July 26, 2019

I mentioned in an earlier article this week that the EU is about to crack down on free from claims and have been thinking about this ever since. I hear enough chatter to know that people care a lot about the products they make and the products they purchase and that for many of them, knowing easily that the choices they make or have made are ‘free from’ stuff is key to their marketing or purchasing choices.  I also know that a substantial amount of those same people actually know little if anything about the things they are trying to avoid, where they may find them and what they might do.  I see this as a failure on my part, as part of the cosmetic industry at large.  We didn’t do enough. We weren’t trusted enough.  We still aren’t and sometimes for good reason.  One only has to fall down in life for a moment to know that blind trust in any human construct is a one way ticket to hell…

So how do we reconcile this situation in our minds and on our cosmetic products?  How should we approach this if we are outside of the EU? How do we keep our customers safe?

Safe, now there’s a word.

Whole subsections of the cosmetic industry have built themselves up on the notion that there are safe and unsafe cosmetics.  I’ve always struggled with how people discern safe from unsafe in this space, the logic doesn’t flow for me and the outcomes (the products created) often don’t appear to offer any solutions.

I ran a workshop on this once, I challenged the class to construct a definition of ‘safety’ and, unsurprisingly found that safety meant different things to different people.

For some, safe cosmetics were those that did no harm to the skin.  This is a fairly logical and, at least to my mind, valid definition.  It is something that can be challenged and explored through testing and data, real-life experience and evaluation.  However, most people in the cosmetic industry already know that this is covered in the cosmetic regulations of most countries or regions.  That if the makers of cosmetics are suitably trained, products properly tested and packaged with good instructions and appropriate cautions, that products are safe. But we know from just looking at the market that we didn’t really mean that. That people want safe and then ‘extra safe’…

Extra Safe.

Many people self-identify as having sensitive skin, another section of people have skin issues with a medical diagnoses, others would prefer their cosmetics to be gentle although their skin hasn’t shown any signs of being particularly sensitive.  This sub-section may want to tread carefully on their micro biome, protect their skin barrier and respect nature’s self-managing strategies while just purchasing a few products to help them do that.  This group may identify ‘safe’ cosmetics as being better able to do this than ‘regular’ cosmetics.  So for this group, safe means gentle or ‘do-not-disturb’ rather like a no-dig garden or how we might approach caring for our babies. Soft, gentle, safe.  I identify with this group strongly as an eczema / acne/ hormonal skin break-out sufferer.  I would rather not challenge my skin too harshly because it’s likely to shit its self if I do.

What if there was a way to identify these extra -safe products to clients…

Oh look, there already is.

There is the eczema association certification, the provision to make hypoallergenic claims (which has also been revised),  rankings of ingredients from gentle to stronger (such as we find with surfactants), the Allergy Association of Denmark accreditation and more besides.  All of these things help chemists and brand owners produce products that are extra-safe, just-in-case, for their more delicate clientele.  But we didn’t want that did we?

We actually just wanted to bag out certain chemicals. That’s all we wanted all along…

OK so this isn’t aimed at you, because 99.9% of you out there didn’t come up with this strategy but the 0.1% of you who did can go straight to Jail without collecting your $200.  You guys have had us all running around in circles doing what I call ‘busy work’ that costs time and money but gets you nowhere for far too long and guess what, people will still defend their right to believe you because people are generally stupid.  Sorry, yes I do know that I am a ‘people’ too. I know.

So we now live in a world where ‘safe’ cosmetics are defined only by what they leave out.

Many of my workshop participants stated that ‘safe’ cosmetics to them meant that the cosmetic didn’t contain things like parabens, sulphates, perfume or colour.  Well, there’s a lot to unpick there and I don’t want to keep you all day but I would like to pick on the parabens for a minute.

Before 2004 parabens were up there as one of the most commonly used families of cosmetic preservatives, others being formaldehyde donors and Methylisothiazolinone and Methyl Chloroisothiazoninone.  In 2004 there was a paper published that shook the confidence of consumers about parabens, it was the paper that attempted to link parabens with breast cancer.  It is unlikely that the majority of the people hearing the fall-out from that study, ever read or understood it (rather like the Muller report probably…) However, marking companies jumped on this as an opportunity to sell a solution into this fear landscape by offering ‘safer’ cosmetics i.e: cosmetics that were ‘free from’ parabens.

While the fear of parabens causing cancer hasn’t gone away for some people, the legitimate and widespread scientific research into this that has occurred over the lat 15 years has universally found the fears to be unfounded.  However, this hysteria or the ‘better safe than sorry’ mindset of the public didn’t come without a cost as I investigated here in order to answer my own question:

“did the marketing of products as paraben free make cosmetics safer for skin?”

I found this really interesting report from a Belgium hospital that focuses on dermatology training. They had recorded results of people coming into the hospital with dermal issues caused by contact with a product or substance over a 25 year period.

I also read several other reports about preservative allergens including this one from the UK

and this report from 1986 which shows incidents of paraben, phenoxyethanol, formaldehyde donors and Methylisothiazolinone/Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MIT/ MCIT) allergies from back before we had the wide range of options we have now.  Do remember that preservatives are used in more than just cosmetics so the results in these early studies could have been triggered by contact with paint, coatings and household chemicals.

Looking at this snapshot of preservative allergy and irritancy data a couple of truths stand out for me.  Paraben blends have always caused a small amount of people to develop reactions and some of those people may develop contact dermatitis from them. However, on the scale of things, the paraben blends were always responsible for a lower number of reactions than the chemicals that replaced them for a big part of the 2000’s namely MIT/ MCIT. Further, now, instead of less than 2% of people who develop a reaction being able to trace it to their preservative now, the figures are up in double digits, maxing out at nearly 25%.  This is a terrible outcome for people I feel.

But not all cosmetics that removed parabens used MIT/ MCIT.

This is true and is especially true now, in the 2010-2020 period as we now have a wider still range of preservatives to choose from.  However, what benchmark for ‘safer’ do we use?  Human bodies can tolerate a lot but not everything.  What happens with contact allergens is that the more popular a chemical becomes, the more we use it in everything. The more we use it in everything, the higher our exposure. The higher our exposure, the more likely we are to react to it.  Because parabens were a bigger part of the preservative pie pre 2004, the incidence of allergy was higher than it is now, when parabens are a smaller fraction. That said, the incidence was always low, it’s just now it’s lower.  Some of our newer strategies haven’t showed up yet but some will.  One that has is Ethylhexylglycerin which I’m surprised about as I thought that was quite unlikely to cause issues but there you go…

Ethylhexylglycerin, going by the Belgium hospital report, was responsible for 4 reactions out of a group of 145 that were tested. That amounts to 2.76%, more than double the peak percentage occurrence for paraben allergies.  If we look at a typical combination used in organic cosmetics we see that Sorbic Acid caused 1 reaction in 278 (0.36%) and Potassium Sorbate 2 in 146 (1.37%) which, overall give an allergy rate in percentage terms that is below the maximum allergy rate seen for paraben blend in the old data but above the rate we see in todays data.

If we step out of preservative land and look at a couple of other materials we see that the darling of the Organic surfactants market, decyl glucoside caused reactions in 11 out of 245 people (4.49%) and its cousin coco-glucoside 14 out of 82 (17.07%).  If you are thinking of just giving up ‘chemicals’ altogether and going for essential oils and water you’ll be distressed to learn that many of the aroma chemicals naturally present in essential oils and some whole essential oils caused more reactions still.  Limonene hydroperoxides (that is oxidised limonene), caused reactions in 92 of 465 people tested (19.78%).  Limonene is a large component of many citrus oils, particularly the orange family plus Bergamot (another orange family), Pepper, Pine, Thyme, May Chang, Fennel, Neroli and Fir.   That wasn’t the only one either, there are over 30 naturally occurring aroma chemicals on this list, each of which have allergy causing rates of between 2-18% approx.

This link takes you to a video that’s just over 6 minutes long. It is a chat between two dermatologists about contact allergens and was recorded in 2016. It is a very useful summary of contact allergens and the state of affairs at that time.  It may help readers of this blog post to realise that the list and relevance of contact allergens is not static, it is in constant flux. It also helps us to realise that the origin of the material, natural vs synthetic, has no baring on its ability to cause a reaction. Sadly, neither point is news to me.

If you have made it to this below the line point then thank you. This is my summary.

Many, but not all, free from claims are failing to make cosmetic products safer in terms of protecting the skin.  Some, but not all free from claims are helping to make cosmetics more unsafe by taking away valid ingredient options without adequately considering the impact of the alternatives.  None of this is anyones individual fault but together we all drops in the same ocean.

Yes people are scared of other things-getting cancer, environmental impacts, the health and wellbeing of our waterways etc-and our fears are always valid and always need to be considered. However, it is unlikely that just saying the same old unqualified ‘no xxx’ is enough information to achieve that.

There is still so much to say about this law enforcement but I’ll leave it here for today.  I just hope that this renewed focus on not just what we leave out, but also what we choose to put in, creates an environment where we, as individuals, brand owners, industry people and humans, can find a way to invest and be rewarded for investing our energy into results-based cosmetics rather than in propping up empty marketing slogans.  If just one brand takes a stand towards that I’ll be a lot happier, no pressure x


PS: I developed a contact allergy from exposure to MIT/ MCIT and it really does suck. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone actually. I also have eczema (as if I haven’t told you that before) so I was more likely than the average human to become sensitised.  All this means that I do, quite literally, has some skin in this game 🙂


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Amanda permalink
    July 29, 2019 7:11 pm

    Coming from another Amanda, I love and agree with what you say about synthetic and plant based (natural) inhredients both having the potential to be a skin allergen to some degree.

    As an avid learner/researcher/soon to be amazing non synthetic brand CEO I must add that in my world where eating a clean diet without added lab devised ingredients featered for many years before I fell in love with skincare, I see it differently. I have children with different chronic illnesses, one being an autoimmune disease so getting his body stripped of anything a body shouldn’t have in it and is a toxic load is of utmost importance. So skincare to me must mean no synthetic ingredients that can enter the body, not just sit on the surface or cause a reaction to the skin. No hormone disruptors or potential toxic load to the body.

    I guess this isn’t something that you are so concerned when your interest seems to be skin and the reaction ingredients cause to it.

    That’s my extra level of concern that you don’t seem to have addressed so thought I would. Sorry to bulldoze your blog which I love, so no disrespect from me.

    This lady here is an expert in the field of going deeper if you’re interested and she teaches professionals about it also:-

    Lara Adler
    Environmental Toxins Expert & Educator
    Certified Holistic Health Coach

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      July 29, 2019 9:16 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I did consider that, in my thinking about this piece but didn’t go down that rabbit hole as it is yet another area with misinformation, partial truths and alternative theories. The cosmetic industry in Europe has been accounting for toxicology for many years now and so the impact of multiple chemicals are considered. However, as is mentioned when I shared the skin results from the Belgian study, chemicals are on more than just cosmetics and if anything, cosmetics are regulated so much more than coatings, fabric chemicals, plastics and glues. I do have a lot of sympathy for people with autoimmune disease as rather than having no experience of it I’ve got plenty with my own family. I understand that there are groups of people who need to avoid lots of families of chemicals but I still fail to see how marketing-driven ‘free from’ lists add value. A product free from parabens or sulphates can still be irritating and/ or toxic. I do think that low allergy products should be easily identified but I also feel these should be rigorously tested and challenged due to the potential implications if they are not scrutinised. Often free from claims are not actually validated, brand owners don’t have to run assays to prove the absence of the named ingredient down to a minute level. I am personally excited about the rise in microbiome research and am looking forward to seeing how I, as a cosmetic chemist can help ensure we get the best out of that. I think that area of research has some promise for autoimmune too

      • Amanda permalink
        July 30, 2019 11:11 am

        Thanks for replying 👍🏼.

        I guess the free from lists are good for individuals who haven’t taken it upon themselves to know what exactly the numbers and scientific names in the ingredients list actually are! Not many (unless scientists or learned individuals) would, so having those main nasties as free from in bold on the front could be a start. I didn’t realise that products could still contain them even in small quantities, so thanks for enlightening me.

        I understand you though, that deleting some ‘bad’ ones doesn’t mean that you have a clean product and this I guess is the dilemma and that’s where you need to trust and know your brand. Finding something in a supermarket or chemist will hardly instill confidence in that brand.

        Yes it is exciting that the microbiome is being cinsidered and light is being shed on the whole body not just the skin. I look forward you seeing what you learn and share.

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