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Cosmetic Chemical Fearmongering Reduces Credibility

We try to keep this website focused primarily on education. Specifically, educating cosmetic chemists, formulators, cosmetic marketers and anyone else interested in working in the cosmetic industry. So, I have to admit upfront that this post is more ranting than it is educating. However, this is an issue that should be important to everyone who works in the cosmetic industry. The issue is Chemical Fearmongering and the websites that propagate it.rant

What prompted me to write this was an article I saw published by the folks over at SpecialChem4Cosmetics.com. I often recommend them as a good resource for cosmetic chemists and I am particularly impressed with their INCI Directory. I will continue to recommend them as a resource but the latest article they published titled The Ugly Truth About Beauty Products: What’s in Your Cosmetics Could be Killing You is downright ridiculous. While I can overlook the fact that it was written by a personal injury lawyer (why isn’t there some requirement that scientists write about scientific questions?), I cannot over look the distortion of facts, the shoddy research, the terrible advice and the biased chemical fearmongering running throughout the piece. It is an outrage that a resource like SpecialChem4Cosmetics would think for a minute that this article would be worth running. To an audience of Chemists!!? What were they thinking?

Let’s review some of the glaring mistakes in the article.

Introduction

The first mistaken claim is “…nearly every cosmetic product that’s part of our normal morning routine is hiding numerous health risks, from rashes to fatal illnesses.”

This is wrong. Cosmetics do not represent a significant health risk. While some people may develop rashes to some of the chemicals in cosmetics (almost always from a natural ingredient) most people do not. And certainly there is no proof to support the notion that cosmetics will cause a fatal illness. That is just nonsense!

Another thing that is wrong which the people who run SpecialChem4Cosmetics should know is the statement that “…the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act does not authorize the FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, and manufacturers may use essentially any ingredient they choose.” The FDA is authorized, and does, approve all the colorants used in cosmetics. Manufacturers are not allowed to simply put any ingredient in the formula if they are using it to color their product. The statement is demonstrably false.

The implication that manufacturers are frivolously putting consumers at risk with the chemicals they put in cosmetics is also wrong. It is against the law for anyone to sell products that are unsafe.

Food supplements

Here is where the author misses a golden opportunity to point out the real lack of regulation in an area that is much more dangerous than cosmetics, food supplements. He starts with the suggestion that

“…apparently what we put on our bodies on a daily basis isn’t as important as what we put in our bodies. Cosmetics are not as strictly regulated as drugs or foods.”

While I would agree that cosmetics are less regulated than drugs, I wouldn’t agree about food. And certainly the fact that food supplements (which are ingested) are essentially unregulated demonstrates that whether something goes in our bodies or stays outside is not indicative of importance when it comes to regulations. Cosmetics are much more highly regulated than food supplements.

Lead

The information in this article about lead in lipstick is so misinformed it’s hard to know where to start.

“Red lips are supposed to be sexy, not deadly.”

Who has ever died from using lipstick? That is complete and utter nonsense. This kind of distorted fearmongering is right out of the playbook of the Environmental Working Group.

The article says that the follow-up study of lead in lipstick done by the FDA showed lipsticks had far higher rates than previous surveys. This is wrong! If the author bothered to look up the studies he would have found that in the original study done by the FDA the average lipstick lead level was 1.07 ppm while the later study found the average level was 1.11 ppm. Hardly “far higher rates”.

Does anyone fact-check articles any more?

For a more rational review of the issue (or non-issue) of lead in lipstick, you should read this article which concludes that No, lead in lipstick is not a problem.

Phthalates

Here again the article ignores what the science is saying and defaults to fearmongering tactics typical of people who don’t understand science, chemicals, or risk. The claim that “…all signs point toward (phthalates being) hazardous.” is just mistaken. In fact, the FDA has a very nice write-up on the research that has been done on the subject of phthalates specifically as they relate to cosmetics. They say…

An expert panel convened from 1998 to 2000 by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), part of the National Institutes of Health, concluded that reproductive risks from exposure to phthalate esters were minimal to negligible in most cases.

In 2002, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reaffirmed its original conclusion (reached in 1985) that DBP, DMP, and DEP are safe as used in cosmetic products.

While the CDC report noted elevated levels of phthalates excreted by women of child-bearing age, neither it nor the other data reviewed by FDA established an association between the use of phthalates in cosmetic products and a health risk. As a result, FDA determined that there was insufficient evidence upon which to take regulatory action.

The bottom line is that phthalates have not been shown to be a health risk according to the best experts in the subject. Should we listen to professional, independent toxicologists or personal injury lawyers?

Cosmetic labeling

There was one other point that the article raises and that is that labeling laws make it difficult for families to know what’s in their cosmetics. I would agree with the author here but he clearly hasn’t thought it all the way through. It is not just fragrances that contain “hidden” ingredients in cosmetics. It is nearly every ingredient on the label that contains more than it actually says. Surfactants are never just single molecules. They contain a wide range of hydrocarbon chains and technically all should be listed. And what about any kind of natural ingredient. There are literally hundreds of chemicals in a natural extract that aren’t labeled. See this article I did about the folly of asking for more information on cosmetic labels. The position of this article is naí¯ve.

Parabens

The treatment of parabens in this article demonstrates a true lack of interest in doing any real research on the subject beyond regurgitating what groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics say. Had the author taken any time or interest in the subject, he would’ve noted the fact that the independent EU commission on consumer products reviewed all of the published research (including the debunked bit of research cited in the article) and concluded that parabens in cosmetics are safe as used. For the curious reader, I recommend you look at this series on parabens in cosmetics.

Formaldehyde

Sigh. More misinformation. This post is already too long so I encourage you to go read this article about formaldehyde in cosmetics.

I would also like to point out that the article throws in another standard canard about “…chemicals from multiple sources combine they can form a poisonous soup…” There is no evidence of this! Ugh.

Advising DYI

While the misinformation and misunderstanding of the safety of certain chemicals is regrettable and not worthy of publication by SpecialChem4Cosmetics, the worst part of the article is the ending where the author gives recommendations on the types of products to buy. The advice…choose safer alternatives.

What are those safer alternatives? According to the author, they are “…products with fewer, more natural ingredients.”

I can’t state this strongly enough. NATUAL INGREDIENTS ARE NOT INHERENTLY MORE SAFE! In fact, if you look at the list of the most common allergens for most humans they are naturally occurring ingredients.

And then the advice that you should use DIY cosmetics?? Are you serious?

Does the author have any idea of the dangers of microbial contamination of products? Of the “toxic” ingredients found in naturally occurring plants?

How did this nonsensical advice get published in a legitimate science-based website like SpecialChem4Cosmetics?

Total and complete FAIL.

I still find the website useful, but articles like this make me lose faith. And I’m not sure how their advertisers (who make the very chemicals this article is bashing) would feel about being accused of creating dangerous cosmetics. I do hope they exercise better editorial control in the future.

Rant over…

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Jennifer Risner 12/23/2013, 1:45 pm

    Perry,

    Thank you so much for this article. It gets to be exhausting trying to wade through all the information to try to figure out what is accurate, what isn’t, etc. I get sick of the news telling you every day that if you put mustard on your sandwich, you will get cancer and die. This is the same with all the fear-mongering going on in the cosmetics industry, but I don’t need to tell YOU that. :) I appreciate this so much because lately I had come across endless articles of people doing the whole DIY approach to skincare and cosmetics. And THEN I come across these articles that say olive oil and argan oil (common ingredients in the DIY concoctions) are dangerous and could kill you. SIGH. As a consumer, I feel helplessly tossed about by the tides, trying to do the right thing but not really ever knowing for sure what that is. This all gives me anxiety, and your article gave me some peace. It’s like deep down, I know people are exaggerating and just out to make money on people’s fears, but it’s so nice to see it confirmed by someone who really knows. Again, thank you.

    • Perry Romanowski 12/23/2013, 2:30 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Jennifer. I hope you continue to feel less anxious about cosmetics. They really do not represent a significant danger in your life.

  • Jessie Desrouleaux 07/04/2013, 3:24 pm

    ” NATUAL INGREDIENTS ARE NOT INHERENTLY MORE SAFE! “. Truer words were never spoken…

  • Maya 06/29/2013, 7:56 pm

    Thank you, Perry, for the post. It’s very informative as always. Originally, I encountered your website when I started developing a doubt on ‘natural-is-the-safest.’

    There’s a booming trend of DIY cosmetics in my origin, Japan, and what I’m concerned about it is that cosmetic material suppliers/online shops are providing free recipes of “no-preservatives, chemical-free” items to attract customers. In accordance, I see tons of beauty bloggers making lotions, toners, etc., following such instructions. Even emulsifying wax is considered as a harmful chemical, and instead, they prefer soy lecithin or liquid soap to emulsify stuff and use it without preservatives. Their skin is not sensitive at all as they think, apparently.

    Anyhow, I am looking for some evidence (e.g., research articles, books) that shows DIY cosmetics (without proper knowledge) can be hazardous. It’d be great if you have suggestions in this regard.

    Thank you!

    • Perry Romanowski 07/02/2013, 12:33 pm

      That’s a great question. Unfortunately, there is not an easy study I could just point to. Do a search of the site and see if you can find something about microbes in cosmetics. That would be the primary problem with DIY products.

  • Dene 06/28/2013, 7:13 am

    Thanks Perry – I presume I can replicate my “banned” response here?:

    “Hartwig, Perry is absolutely correct in saying that the SCCS consider parabens to be safe. The “undesirable effects” that you describe are totally avoided by the implementation of the restrictions recommended by the SCCS and, under those restrictions, parabens are considered to be safe for use in cosmetics. Your comment is illogical. I agree that the USA needs better regulations (although the lawyer’s poor attempt at summarising the cosmetics industry demonstrates a singular lack of any grasp of the subject), but there ARE regulations – it is NOT a free for all, and companies can’t get away with killing their customers, as suggested. Think about this – why would a personal injury lawyer be writing about the cosmetics industry? Could it possibly be to stir up the masses into launching a class action against the industry. Any such action would have the same chance of success as the pathetic attempts by the EWG to construct their laughable version of the Safe Cosmetics Act.”

    Not exactly offensive, is it! (A little blunt, perhaps! ;-) )

  • @Entensi 06/28/2013, 5:23 am

    Yes, the links are broken, we’ve just twitted you about that :)

  • Randy 06/27/2013, 6:30 pm

    I loved this rant so much I almost cried. Well done Perry!

  • Amy 06/27/2013, 12:07 pm

    I saw this article, read the title, read the description of the author, then the first paragraph, rolled my eyes and went on with the day. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen articles from SpecialChem like this. They are more like Google News in that they pull articles from many sources and put them on their site. They are definitely hurting their credibility by not screening the articles better but perhaps they are trying to pull in some non-industry point of views??

    • Perry Romanowski 07/08/2013, 7:59 am

      Perhaps. But disparaging a good portion of their audience doesn’t seem like the brightest idea in the world.

  • Dene 06/27/2013, 11:38 am

    Perry, none of the links seem to work – thought you might like to know! :-(

    • Perry Romanowski 06/28/2013, 7:05 am

      Thanks for letting me know Dene. I fixed them.

  • Dene 06/27/2013, 9:51 am

    Amen to all of that, Perry. I think the least that SpecialChem4Cosmetics should do is to publish your rebuttal in full in their next newsletter.

    • Perry Romanowski 06/28/2013, 7:05 am

      Yeah! Or maybe take down the post. I really don’t understand why they removed your comments and accused you of violating their comment standards.

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