Exclusive interview

How safe are cosmetics?

By Natasha Spencer

- Last updated on GMT

How safe are cosmetics?
In today’s regulatory landscape, it is vital that consumers receive reliable and truthful information about cosmetics items.

We talk to Belinda Carli, Director, Institute of Personal Care Science about what more needs to be done by formulators, brands and organisations to give consumers the correct guidance.

1. Why are consumers questioning how safe cosmetics are today? 

‘Fear campaigns’ around certain cosmetic ingredients have been there for a long time, but the widespread (mis)information that is on the internet today means that if someone searches for a chemical, they get instant results back – but not necessarily truthful results or results that provide information in context of how a chemical is actually used in a personal care product.

Industry example

They may also see a lot of misinformation that arises from earlier regulations that is not consistent with the current regulations in place – a good example of this is the misinformation about 1,4-dioxane – it is actually prohibited in personal care products even if present as an impurity. It also evaporates quickly which means even if it were present <10ppm (the maximum allowed amount even as an impurity) it cannot actually penetrate the skin in a quantity to cause harm.

But if you search ‘1,4-dioxane’ you could be quickly convinced that it is present in products containing any ethoxylated (PEG) ingredient or SLES. It is simply not true – but there are too many sites providing this misinformation and not enough sites providing the correct information. How is a consumer supposed to know the difference? Companies selling a product should not be spreading the misinformation, but yet they do!

There are several references that can be accessed in both the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)​. And in the EU (which is the same for Australia, New Zealand, Africa and the ASEAN regions)​.

2. What is creating these concerns?

There are two things that sell products: hope and fear. The hope that a product will make you appear younger, more beautiful, white skin, more vibrant. Hope drives you toward a product.

However, fear of a chemical giving you cancer or being bad for you drives a far bigger need to avoid certain products. So there are a lot of companies out there that sell their products based on fear and fear campaigns – if I tell you to avoid a chemical because it could give you cancer, and then tell you my product doesn’t contain that chemical, it makes it incredibly appealing.

Consumers want to feel safe! If a consumer searches the chemical to ‘find out for sure’, unfortunately, there is too much misinformation on the internet, and so this quickly convinces them they need to avoid certain chemicals after all!

Sometimes too, the companies marketing departments simply don’t know better and don’t consult the correct sources to get truthful information – so sometimes the fear campaign is spread intentionally because their competitors are also saying it, or it gives them a point of difference to a competitor.

In addition, sometimes it is misinformation being relayed, unintentionally, but it just adds to the large pool of misinformation out there.

3. What the biggest hurdles to ensuring the safety of cosmetics?

There really are not hurdles to ensuring safety. A properly trained chemist conducting due diligence would check regulatory sources and combine materials in a way that ensures the safe use of the chemicals including any absorption/penetration.

If the chemist stays within the regulatory limits including any flow restrictions or directions for use that may be relevant to the product type, then they are ensuring safe use. It is the misinformation that exists that is the problem, not the chemicals that are permitted.

4. Are we communicating these correctly and effectively?

No, clearly not. The chemists are doing their job if they have complied with regulations and ensured safe inputs, combinations and flow restrictions.

5. What now needs to be done?

Re-education and to shut down these sites that run on fear campaigns. Shut down the sites that give out incorrect and misleading information. Have a consumer-friendly site/explanation for consumers. Informative sources such as my recent video ​support this.

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