I saw this interesting article examining how the media sensationalizes scientific findings and gets things wrong. The article covers the story of researcher Chris Adigun who made a presentation that got misinterpreted as saying gel manicures are a cancer risk. Her talk actually said the risk was incredibly low. But her experience got me thinking about the chemical scaremongering groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the EWG, and the David Suzuki Foundation and why they misinterpret science to suit their needs. Here is what I came up with and how that impacts the job of a cosmetic formulator.
Learning the truth is too hard
One of the main reasons these groups do what they do is because science is difficult and filled nuances that people who do not have scientific backgrounds don’t understand. The people that go into journalism or work at these types of groups haven’t spent the time studying science. They don’t understand basic concepts of epidemiology or risk analysis. These topics are hard for scientists to understand so it’s no wonder that non-scientists don’t.
It’s much easier to learn some nugget that sounds shocking (e.g. gel manicures are a cancer risk) and then collect all the information you can to make the story sound even scarier. It’s simple to learn that there is lead in lipstick then incorrectly tell everyone that there is “no acceptable amount of lead exposure.” It’s much more difficult to learn the full truth that the lead is chemically bound up in molecules that are indigestible by our bodies or that the level of lead in lipstick is so low it is inconsequential. No, the full truth isn’t nearly as shocking as the scary soundbite and that’s what fear mongering groups depend on.
They can’t change their positions
Another reason scare mongering groups misinterpret science is because once they set their position on a topic, they are unable to change their mind. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics declared that lead in lipstick is dangerous. There is no information that they can accept to change their minds. The group of independent scientists in the EU who evaluate the safety of cosmetic ingredients reviewed all the safety information about parabens and have declared them safe to use. But this scientific review matters none to the CFSC as they still list parabens as an ingredient of concern. More scientific discovery does not matter to fear mongering groups.
It doesn’t matter much to journalists either. Headlines like “Baby Shampoo Contains Toxic Chemicals” is much more compelling than one like “Baby Shampoo is Perfectly Safe.” And if there is later science that verifies the safety of an ingredient you will not hear about that in mainstream media. They’re done with that story and quickly move on to some other scary “fact.” There’s no money in telling the truth.
Speaking of money, here is the main reason that these scaremongering groups continue to distort science, money. Groups like the CFSC and the EWG depend on donations to continue to exist. In fact, if there were no scary stories there would be no reason for the continuation of these groups. Scare stories drive interest and donations. Scary headlines drive traffic to websites and attract clicks which attract money.
If the cosmetic industry removed every chemical that these groups claimed were killing people do you think that would be the end of it? Would these groups quit? Doubtful. They would find some other chemical to attack or some government agency to criticize. These groups theoretically exist to put themselves out of business but we know they don’t really want to. Fear mongering is easy and profitable.
Effects on cosmetic formulators
Since these groups are never going to go away, let’s look at what real effect they will have on cosmetic formulators.
Ingredients you can’t use
Marketing cosmetic products to the general population means that you have to give people what they want. If a large segment of your consumer base is mistakenly concerned about parabens in cosmetics, you will be pressured for business reasons to avoid using them. Unfortunately, the people in your marketing group are often as misinformed as the public on these issues so they may also dictate to you ingredients that can’t be used. If there is a preservative or surfactant or other ingredient that is cost effective and performs well, you may not be able to use it. That is the reality of today’s formulating world.
Less safe formulas
More unfortunate is that a lot of the chemicals being restricted are ones that are the most effective. This is particularly true of preservatives. There really aren’t more effective and safe preservatives than parabens and formaldehyde donors. But based on bad science, many formulators are forced to choose less effective preservatives which represents a greater safety risk to consumers. This safety recall of Badger sunscreen is an example of how products are made less safe by using unproven preservatives.
Less effective formulas
Having fewer ingredients from which to choose also means that you will probably be creating less effective formulas. This is because the ingredients that are being criticized are the ones that are also most effective. It’s difficult to find an ingredient that performs better in a skin lotion for moisturizing than petrolatum or mineral oil. There are things that work, just not as well.
One more important effect on cosmetic formulators is that you will have to spend your time on things that are not real innovations. Companies will be spending their resources on reformulating perfectly good formulas to make new ones that do almost the same thing but with different ingredients. I remember my former company spent significant R&D resources removing Laramie DEA from our shampoo formulas even thought there were no real safety concerns. We accomplished the goal of reformulating but we didn’t come up with any new innovations that would help improve the condition of the consumer’s hair. This was spinning your wheels innovation. Thanks to these fear mongering groups, you’ll be getting a lot more of that in the future.
Of course, it’s not all bad. There are some benefits cosmetic chemists get because of these scaremongering groups.
Verify safety of ingredients
It’s not really a bad thing that companies are being forced to review the safety of their ingredients. Testing technology has changed as have methods of ingredient manufacture so it’s a worthwhile exercise to go through old ingredients just to insure that they continue to be safe. However, once the safety testing has been repeated and validated we should be allowed to move on to other things. Unfortunately, these fear mongering groups never change their position about anything no matter what the data says.
These groups also keep cosmetic chemists employed. It takes a lot of effort to reformulate perfectly fine formulas. So from a career standpoint, that means more jobs for formulators. Sadly, these jobs will involve a lot of “reinventing the wheel” but there can be some interesting aspects to that too.
Chance for innovation
Finally, the ingredient restrictions being placed on cosmetic formulators could lead to new innovations. You may start out just trying to reformulate your perfectly fine formulas but you might stumble on some new consumer benefit. You can’t predict where innovations will come from. In fact, an excellent innovation exercise is to take your current formula, replace every ingredient and see if you can make it perform exactly like your current formula.
On the whole, these fear mongering groups do more harm to the general public than good and we would be all better off if they turned their attention to more significant problems. They can start with the dietary supplement industry in the US. Those products can (and do) actually kill people. Where is the Campaign for Safe Dietary Supplements?