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What is wrong with a cosmetic company caving to fearmongers?

Recently, Johnson and Johnson have announced plans to remove a variety of chemicals from their cosmetic products. This is strictly a PR move and also an unfortunate mistake for the following three reasons.

1. Emotion trumps science

From a cosmetic chemist standpoint, the ingredients we use are safe. Even J&J admits that the formulas that they are currently selling are safe. But despite the guaranteed safety of their product, they are going to change them

“Because we know parents want complete peace of mind when making decisions about their babies, we will phase out the use of all parabens from our baby care products.”

So in other words, they don’t really care what the toxicologists, independent scientists, and government regulations say, if parents are irrationally afraid of parabens, they are going to remove them.

I suppose it’s not that big of a deal at the moment. But how about when the next fearmonger group comes out and convinces a tiny minority of consumers that surfactants are dangerous? Is J&J going to remove all surfactants from their products? or thickening agents, or pH adjusters, or any other ingredient that people are irrationally afraid of? Good luck with that.

2. Alternatives may be less safe

The one piece that fearmonger groups miss is that when a cosmetic formulator has to switch from a material with a proven safety profile, they replace it with something that is less tested. J&J might be phasing out perfectly fine ingredients like Quaternium-15 and Methylparaben but what will they be switching to? A brand new preservative that has only a few years of safety testing? Do you know the long-term exposure effects of the material? Not likely. They could easily be using materials that are less safe than the current options. Congratulations CFSC. You just made everyone less safe.

3. Encourages scientific illiteracy

The third problem I have with this move by J&J is that they are encouraging scientific illiteracy. They are capitulating to non-scientific thinking and rewarding willful ignorance. This is the same kind of nonsense that will prompt people with no background in climate science to declare that global warming isn’t happening or that vaccines are causing autism. These are the non-scientific, irrational positions that are having a real, detrimental effect on our government and society. J&J is contributing to the erosion of society. Nice going.

Chemical free cosmetics

Perhaps the dumbest thing I’ve seen related to this issue are the various tweets and blog posts declaring that Johnson and Johnson are removing chemicals from their products. How J&J goes about making “chemical free” cosmetics is a mystery to me. Last time I checked everything that goes into their cosmetics is a chemical.

As a scientist, I have a real problem with capitulating to non-science based conclusions about chemicals. If an ingredient is unsafe, then by all means get rid of it. But if it is safe, publicly reformulating is a mistake.

I understand cosmetic companies have to give consumers what they want and that’s what J&J is doing. It just doesn’t feel right to give in to irrationality.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Sam 10/22/2012, 3:49 am

    Isn’t the whole industry about making money? Catering to whims and demand? No one really needs any of this beauty stuff. So why criticise a company for doing that which is in their best commercial interests?
    Anyone can learn to make a basic soap or serum with supermarket items. A little egg white for a face mask, avocado for the hair… In short, the cosmetics industry is not there to fulfil a TRUE need, but rather, a perceived one. One it has, in fact, created. And it has capitalised on that quite simply to make money. If scaremongering makes even more profits, then go for it!
    Preservatives are not necessary if you use a little fresh oil each day. Or a little handmade soap. They are only necessary to keep a company’s stock from going rancid over the next 2, 3, 5 years. To avoid law suits and thus to keep profits. Milk goes rancid after a few days and no one complains about that. So does caviar if anybody wants a money for money like comparison.
    So let’s not fool people into believing that the cosmetics industry is there to do anything for the ‘good’ of our skin. Or that scientific studies are all unbiased and objective when they are in fact financed by the very institutions that are flogging you the fairy dust – puuuulease!!!
    The industry, including its ‘scientific evidence’, which always manages to find its way into the latest cosmetic PR, is a pure money making machine, and if J&J can make more money by jumping on the fear mongering bandwagon, then kudos to them! They are simply playing the game right!

    • Perry 10/22/2012, 2:06 pm

      You and I just have a different view on the way marketers should operate. If industry was all about making money then there would be no companies in the industry. They would all be in banking or investment. At least a part of the cosmetic industry is to provide people with products that help them look and feel better about themselves.

      Preservatives are necessary unless you don’t mind exposing yourself to disease causing bacteria & fungi. People don’t drink milk after a few days, they still use cosmetics though.

      The funding source of a scientific study does not automatically render the conclusions unreliable. It can, but there are plenty of unbiased research studies published.

  • Dragon 09/11/2012, 10:58 pm

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3040614/

    Based on that report and the lack of data available for the effects on females, who are exposed more so than males, cumulative effect needs to be considered . Other options are available.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1897/08-225.1/abstract

    Then there are natural parabens which also make for an effective preservative system…just don’t tell anyone why or how it works. Great deal of that being done in the market as well.

    Pick your poison ;)

    • Perry 09/12/2012, 12:23 pm

      Natural parabens do not work any differently than synthetic parabens. If one is dangerous, so is the other.

  • SAP1 09/06/2012, 3:27 pm

    Well put!

  • Skinactives 09/06/2012, 10:12 am

    We have been faced with the same decision. Half the calls we receive request ‘natural’ products that are preservative free. We try to educate our customers but a lot of the time we have to provide a parabens free alternative.

    • Perry 09/07/2012, 2:53 am

      Yeah, on some level as long as you can produce a safe product, you have to make what your customer wants.

  • Eliza 09/05/2012, 9:56 am

    I’m afraid this will only get worse, Perry…

    For example:
    In the fragrance industry the fearmongering of granola types writing about fragrance = nasty poisonous chemicals lead to something rather funny. IFRA and RIFM, the organs behind regulating the FF industry were forced to take a lot more stringent position towards natural fragrance materials by restricting and even banning them! (this is how the perfume allergen labeling began)
    Those so loved green, all natural and ‘oh so harmless’ granola type essential oils proved to be most ‘dangerous’ from a toxicological, environmental and dermatological point of view. Leading to an increase of the use of secret (captive) new synthetic ‘chemicals’ in ‘fragrance’ and ‘aroma’.

    From a scientific point of view in this case: yes, safer! But also overly over-regulated leading to all kinds of different and new problems.

    • Perry 09/07/2012, 6:17 am

      I guess there is a trade off and people don’t want to admit that there is a level of “safe enough”. Everything could be made safer, for example cars could be made to go no faster than 20 miles an hour. They would be much safer but people wouldn’t like them.

      I would say cosmetics are different because even if you removed all chemicals that might be problematic, you have no way of knowing how much safer you have made them. For instance if cosmetic harm 1 in 10,000,000 people each year, could you reduce that to 1 in 20,000,000. Would anyone even notice?

      • Eliza 09/07/2012, 7:40 am

        You are so right. From what I’ve been told exposure is the main concern. We wash more, use more (scented) products on our skin, but also in our homes, while we eat less healthy, exercise less, spend less time in the outdoors, live in cities plagued by smog etc. There is an increased epidemic of allergies and asthma and also there is more fear, I think too much information like internet can scare people to death.

        Should we hope that our bodies will evolve and metabolize McDonalds faster, curve muscles and bone to adapt to our sitting all day behind a computer and our longs will filter better?

        The way I see it, the industry is just trying to keep up with the demands, some based on fear, some environmental, some commercial.

        Although I do wish that our children would be born with a ‘science gen’ to cut through all the bs and make up their own minds, instead of externalizing, thus expecting that the outer world would change to meet their demands.

  • Jana 09/04/2012, 10:14 pm

    Hear hear!

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