An industry friend of mine posed this question to me in regards to the proliferation of so much junk science when it comes to the safety of cosmetic products. Although cosmetics continue to be among the most safe of all consumer products selling billions of units each year with minimal adverse reactions, the Internet is awash in scare stories to steer consumers away from perfectly safe products.
So, what is the cause of this mistrust?
I think there are a number of factors.
Anti-Corporation sentiment: A certain percent of the population believes corporations are evil and are out to poison the population while chasing down profits. Some corporations have certainly done their part to create this feeling (e.g. tobacco industry). Of course, it’s true that corporations sometimes behave badly, but it is wrong to say they all do and all behave badly all the time.
Naturalistic Fallacy: There are a certain amount of people who believe that things that come from nature are good and things that are man-made are bad.
Cosmetic industry complicity: Certain companies in the cosmetic industry benefit by scaring consumers. They make it a selling point that their products are “safe” while implying (or saying straight out) that their competitor’s products are unsafe. Unfortunately, fear marketing works and is much easier to spread with the Internet. This awful sunscreen article is an example. Here is a company that is selling products by misleading people saying that other company’s products are causing cancer. There is zero evidence for this.
Non-governmental organizations: These groups thrive when they can scare consumers about fake problems. A group like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics benefits greatly in terms of donations when they can scare people about chemicals in the environment. They are staffed by professional PR people and have no scientists on staff who know anything about the cosmetic industry. They don’t mind using junk science to support their dubious assertions.
Consumer Scientific illiteracy: Our population as a whole is not well-educated when it comes to science or chemistry in particular. When consumers don’t understand a concept (like toxicology) they just assume anyone telling them something that is not what they want to believe are lying to them. They think 15 minutes searching on Google qualifies them to hold opinions about toxicology that are superior to those of researchers who do actual research and publish in peer reviewed journals.
Where is the cosmetic industry headed?
If the false stories about cosmetic ingredients continues to grow, we’ll eventually get cosmetic products that don’t work as well and cost more money. That’s what you have right now with products in Whole Foods. On some level this is good for cosmetic chemists because we constantly have to be reformulating products for essentially arbitrary reasons. But there is a limit to the impact this will have on cosmetics. Ultimately, consumers want products that work and if they can’t get them, they’ll revise their thinking about whether any of this carcinogenic BS is true. If you have toxicologists telling people products are not a risk and there are products that are demonstrably superior in performance, most consumers will still buy them.
What can cosmetic chemists do?
All we can do as formulators is to speak out in news stories, social media, and any other place to confirm the safety of cosmetics. When engaging with people don’t tell them they are wrong, question them why they believe what they believe. Yes, reaching out on social media is effective, challenging groups producing junk science can work, and pointing out who benefits from consumers having false beliefs can be effective.
You might also consider following our advice to become a pro-science activist.