Let me start with these statements:
All that said, there has been—for some years—a hysteria surrounding the compounds used in personal care products that is reaching a critical level. Most of this misinformation has been reported as fact, when it is not. And even this week, a blog that I posted about how junk science is being passed as fact caused a great deal of discussion.
There are two extremes I oppose in the cosmetics industry, and they are at opposite ends of the industry spectrum. I am opposed to over-hyped, over-priced products that cannot deliver on the claims that they make. I am equally opposed to the so-called consumer advocates that use half truths, junk science, and sensationalism to scare the buying public.
To really put the latter in perspective, I decided to quote a more definitive source regarding this topic.
Here is the simple truth—there has never been a single documented case of any adverse health effect caused by a consumer OTC cosmetic. Not one case of cancer. Not one case of hormone disruption. Not one case of any mutation to cells. At worst, some cosmetics have caused skin irritation, but that is hardly a concern for mass hysteria. Some people have allergies—that is just the way it is. We don't ban cats simply because some people can't live with them.
One of my go-to sources for true research, when I review products or look at formulations at my own company, is Perry Romanowski—a biochemist, cosmetic chemist, author of the Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry textbook (currently in its third edition), Vice President of Brains Publishing (a publishing house specializing in scientific texts), co-founder of The Beauty Brains, and, quite arguably, the most famous cosmetic chemist in the world. He has been a featured expert on cosmetics for the Dr. Oz Show, and the Rachael Ray Show.
Below is a direct reprint of a recent article that he wrote on the subject of why this ingredient hysteria is so prevalant. I have opted to use his words directly, rather than paraphrase. I will say, I agree with all of his statements.
Again, I am a supporter of safe, reliable, and effective cosmetics in the market. I know some products are not able to deliver on the results that they promise. I also do not believe cosmetics are the poison some would have us believe. Science does not support the claims made by fear-mongers, science does not support the conjecture passed as fact, and science does not support the need to make people afraid of using beauty products.
This is just a truism of journalism. People are more interested in stories that scare them than in stories that are reassuring. Sensationalism sells. So stories of toxic cosmetics will always trump stories declaring cosmetics safe. And since cosmetics are far and away safer than most any other consumer product, the media will have to rehash stories about lead in lipstick. There just isn’t much else.
The reason that these fear stories are compelling is because people are generally scientifically illiterate. They also prefer simple answers to complicated questions. Lead = bad is a much easier thing for people to comprehend than “certain levels of lead are bad but other levels are perfectly safe.” Fearmongering is effective because the people propagating the stories do so to a public that is not educated enough about science to make a judgment about the validity of the story.
Did you know that to determine the level of lead in lipstick you have to use Hydrofluoric Acid to separate out the lead? The stomach acid just isn’t strong enough to break down any ingested lipstick so the lead will never get into your system anyway!
Another huge problem is that people are just not good evaluating risks. They fret about lead in lipstick or BPA in plastic bottles which have risk levels in the 1 in 1 million lifetime risk, but think nothing of getting in a car which has a 1 in 100 lifetime risk of killing them. Here are the things that kill people. Cosmetics is not one of them.
One of the reasons these stories will stay around is because some marketers use fear to set themselves apart from their competition. When you see “paraben-free” or “sulfate-free” claims on a container, there is the implicit claim that those things are dangerous or otherwise bad. These are not direct lies but they implicitly propagate a myth and benefit from it.
Finally, there is the Dunning Kruger effect. This is the notion that someone unskilled in a subject has more confidence in their opinion about the subject than someone who actually knows something about it. So, you get books written by PR Agents and Runway Models exposing the toxicity & dangers of cosmetics. Why is it that people who have spent their careers researching and testing cosmetic products are not writing scare books about cosmetics? Why is it that the people who would most likely know the truth about whether cosmetics are dangerous don’t pen these books?
Just because something sells very well, does NOT mean the quality of the product is any good.
Clinique's Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion is a prime example of a product that remains on the market simply because it sells so very well. Let me be clear—from an ingredient perspective, a performance perspective, and a quality perspective, this product could not be more outdated a formula if it tried.
Introduced in 1971, this product has not had a single change in its formula since its inception. In forty-two years, there have been a great many technological strides made in the world of consumer cosmetics that make this product so outdated. I am not sure what the appeal actually is, except maybe for nostalgia. Many people fondly remember this product from childhood and have continued to use it as time has gone on. Indeed, some 16,300 bottles are sold every day of this product, worldwide! At $43CDN a bottle, that is over $700,000 a day in sales. That is $256 million per year in sales. That certainly ranks as a best-seller, by anyone's standards.
Let me say, this product is so not worth a single penny paid for it. It is neither inexpensive nor does it contain any important ingredients known to benefit the skin.
Here is the entire ingredient list:
Water, Mineral Oil, Sesame Oil, Propylene Glycol, TEA Stearate, Glyceryl Stearate, Lanolin Alcohol, Petrolatum, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Yellow #5, Yellow #6, Red #33
Of these ingredients, we can immediately dismiss (because they are not active ingredients that do anything for skin health):
Water: All lotions are an aqueous solution. This means the ingredients have been dissolved in water. All creams and lotions are made this way.
Propylene Glycol: This is simply a carrier that allows the active ingredients to penetrate the skin.
TEA Stearate: An ingredient used to create opaqueness in the formula.
Glyceryl Stearate: An emulsifier.
Lanolin Alcohol: A thickening agent.
Methylparaben, Propylparaben: Preservatives to prevent fungal growth in aqueous solutions.
Yellow #5, Yellow #6, Red #33: Colour additives that do nothing except create the yellow shade of the product.
So, almost 77% of the formula does nothing to improve the quality or health of the skin.
That leaves the remaining ingredients, which are the actives, to provide some benefit to the overall health of the skin:
Mineral Oil and Petrolatum: Two inexpensive by-products of petroleum. Yes, petroleum. These ingredients are occlusive (that is why so many people get clogged pores when using petroleum-based ingredients), and unless very specifically refined, contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs are known carcinogens. You may recall back in 2007, when many baby products were recalled for containing 1, 4 dioxane, because it is a group 2B carcinogen. Guess what contains 1, 4 dioxane when not refined under very specific conditions? Yep, mineral oil and petrolatum.
Sesame Oil: The only ingredient in this formula that is great for your skin. With the same molecular structure as a human lipid, it will provide moisture, prevent water evaporation, and leave a wonderful soft and supple texture on the surface of the skin.
That's it. No vitamins, no peptides, no exfoliators, no sunscreen, no trace minerals—absolutely nothing to help improve the overall health of the skin. The main actives actually have been shown to cause skin and health problems.
This formula is outdated, completely not in line with what is known for skin health, and, quite frankly, a waste of hard earned money.
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Let me preface this by stating that I am in full support of safe, useful, and effective cosmetics.
I personally respond to feedback from my consumers every day, and have continually adjusted my retail offering and manufacturing processes to meet their exacting standards.
However, as an owner of a cosmetics company, I have never bent to the pressure of lobby groups, least of all the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
This organization has been around since 1992, and is a multi-million dollar lobby group for the organic and environmental industries. Nothing wrong with that at all. However, the scare tactics that they use to push their agenda are highly dubious, and this organization should not be considered reliable, at all, as a consumer watchdog for the cosmetics industry.
In fact, the EWG has so many dubious practices that the number of said practices is almost impossible to list in its entirety. With any real review of their statements (which are presented as facts), it quickly becomes obvious that there is no real science behind the claims that they make in regards to a great many issues, including the safety of cosmetics. In fact, a full 79% of members of the Society of Toxicolgy have published that the EWG overstates or misleads the facts in regards to the safety of personal care products. The University of California Davis Department of Food Science and Technology analyzed EWG’s methodologies and found that they fail basic scientific principles.
Most interesting, to me, is their Skin Deep Database, which is presented as a fact-based safety guide to the toxicity level of ingredients in personal care products. This list could not be more misleading if it tried.
Besides the obvious errors of non-existent compounds (a listing for polyparaben quotes several "studies" and possible health risks of this compound, but the only problem is, there is no such compound—it doesn't exist!), and the inconsistent scoring method (identical ingredients with identical behaviours and properties get wildly different health concern ratings), and the fact that the EWG warns against specific brands, but then directly from their website links to their affiliate shopping site, which lists the very products for sale—besides ALL of these issues, the most pressing concern about the Skin Deep Database is that it is not at all based on any fact.
The database is never peer evaluated or updated when new scientific information becomes readily available. It seems that the EWG is so committed to the database being a definitive authority, they are unwilling to modify or update the database as the scientific community discovers new information. If this was really a scientific database, it would be edited and modified all the time. Any database that does not adjust as new information becomes available is unreliable at its very source. I do not mean to imply that the EWG needs to update the database more frequently, what I am saying is that since 1992 it has not been updated even once, and there have been many scientific studies done on almost all of the ingredients listed in the database during that time. Of the almost 6,000 allowed compounds for use in personal care products, 2,300 have been scientifically reviewed since 1993 alone. That is 2,300 ingredients with new information about their behaviour and safety that have not been updated on the database.
Consumers should have access to reliable, accountable information to properly inform their purchasing choices. The EWG, with their Skin Deep Database, is not one of those sources.
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I would like to acknowledge the research of Dr. Perry Romanowski for some quoted statistics and sources in this blog.