March for Cosmetic Science: Why Consumer Perceptions Need to Stop Influencing Ingredient Restrictions- Our View
In April, hundreds of thousands of people around the globe took part in over 600 rallies that were part of the “March for Science”. While the demonstrations specifically targeted issues such as climate change and concerns that science based policy is being rejected, they highlighted the underlying issue of distrust and ineffective communication between the scientific community, the government, and consumers.
The Cosmetics Industry
This has long been a problem in the cosmetics industry. Consumers have become more concerned about safety, sustainability, ingredient sourcing and processing methods in evaluating the products they wish to use.
Sadly, many consumers are too often basing their perception of the safety of cosmetic ingredients on junk science or information with no relevance or context. They often cite a handful of dubious papers and studies that have been largely rejected by the wide scientific community They ask, “Does the ingredient have a chemical sounding name?” and “Is the ingredient synthetically produced?” instead of valid, scientific questions like, “What do independent third party trials on this ingredient’s safety show?”.
This has caused consumers to exert enormous influence on public perception and on retailers to alter their house brand formulations, or restrict their listed products to companies that are willing to adjust their formulas.
Marketing departments are part of the driving force influencing consumer perceptions of “harmful” ingredients. Paraben, sulfate and fragrance free are just a few marketing taglines that have been interpreted as dogmatic statements about a product’s safety by consumers. Just mention the word “parabens” over the water cooler and people react like you just said, “nuclear waste”. Mention this word to cosmetic scientists and they will sadly lament that the industry has lost valuable and safe preservatives and are forced to instead use ingredients we know much less about.
While consumer trends and perception are certainly important, problems arise when they start to dictate that scientific evidence be ignored. It creates an attitude that consumers are qualified to interpret scientific information better than the experts whose job it is to ensure product and consumer safety.
Take for example, the common cosmetic ingredient oxidane. It sure sounds like a synthetic chemical to the average consumer, right? Not only that, it is based on a highly reactive hydroxyl radical and can denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and alter critical neurotransmitters. In addition to cosmetic products, it is also used as a propellant, coolant, and industrial solvent in the pesticide, military and uranium industries. It has many adverse health effects, such as the risk of death if accidentally inhaled, severe tissue damage with prolonged exposure, and severe burns. It has also been found in the biopsies of pre-cancerous tumours and lesions.
Based on this information alone, there would seem to be reasonable grounds for consumers to want this ingredient banned in the products they slather on their skin and hair everyday. But the truth is that many of these products couldn’t function without it. This ingredient also goes by another name- water.
Part of the problem is a disconnect in communication between the scientific community and consumers. In an age where information is widely available and can be published by anyone, access to it isn’t helping the situation. While making technical documents freely available online improves transparency, it also allows information to be taken out of context, as in the example of oxidane. The risks associated with water depend on the conditions and quantities of its use. It is relatively easy to look up a safety data sheet (SDS) for any cosmetic ingredient, but many consumers erroneously take the warnings and safety precautions for industrial quantities of the substance and apply them to the substantially more dilute concentrations in their cosmetic products and conclude that they are unsafe.
Perhaps the solution is not more data available to consumers, but more relevant data. Some individuals and organisations have attempted to step in and fill that void, but unfortunately for science, they often have their own agendas. Running an internet search on the question “Are Cosmetics Safe?” brings up pages from Scientific American, the Environmental Working Group, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, The University of Rochester Medical Center, MedicineNet.com, U.S. News, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, and “Common Medical Questions”. Most of these would appear to be fairly credible sources to the average consumer. Even after a cursory view of these websites it is obvious that many of them don’t have much faith in the safety of cosmetic ingredients, with the top results holding a largely negative view of the industry. However, regulatory agencies, dermatology and toxicology experts agree that the vast majority of cosmetic ingredients and products are safe to use as currently directed, so where are these voices and why aren’t they reaching consumers?
Another part of the problem is education. In North America, many students are not required to take Science courses past Grade 10. By the time they are out in the real world, they know or remember little about scientific inquiry, methods, and analysis. Without a solid understanding of scientific principles as adolescents, consumers easily accept misconceptions presented through fake news, junk science, and biased parties. If technical information is going to be made available to consumers, they should receive some education on how science and statistics are used to interpret results of safety trials, studies, papers and other technical documents. While clearly some people will still prefer to avoid certain ingredients for their own personal health or ideological concerns, this would help consumers make informed purchasing decisions based on scientific evidence, without dictating to the industry which ingredients they deem “safe”.
The problem with junk science has not entirely escaped to attention of educators. Two professors from the university of Washington recently launched a course titled “Calling Bullshit In the Age of Big Data” demonstrating how inflated claims, manipulated algorithms, and twisted interpretations of scientific research can be used to mislead the public. Their lecture material is not copyrighted and they are encouraging those who have approached them to adapt the lectures and case studies into courses at other institutions. The course was fully booked within the first minutes after registration opened and has drawn the attention of middle schools and high schools as well. There is both a clear need and demand for the public to be better educated in interpreting, analysing, and applying scientific data to their lives.
Conclusion- The Role of the Science Community
The “March for Science” rallies are the culmination of many years of miscommunication and mistrust between consumers and the scientific community. It is rampant in the cosmetics industry. Cosmetic scientists need to stand up, make their voices heard, and ensure that the scientific evidence isn’t getting lost in the sea of misconceptions and biased resources. Part of the job of the scientific community also involves acknowledging that there are no immutable facts, there is always the potential for new evidence on the safety of an ingredient. But until the risks of an ingredient are backed up by robust, repeatable, and credible scientific evidence, we must do more to counter junk science and the unfounded, misinformed dictates of consumers.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Focal Point Research Inc. We are industry leading Cosmetic Regulatory Consultants that you can trust to help guide your company in the right direction.