This question has been puzzling me for a while now. The more I delve into the science behind cosmetic formulation, the more I am surprised at the vehement and sometimes downright condemning attitudes to natural skincare that I read online from cosmetic chemists. Why is the cosmetics industry so arrogant?
I love natural skincare. Much like using renewable energy, recycling and growing your own food, to me using natural skincare just feels right. It’s not so much the idea that mainstream cosmetics are toxic, it’s more the idea that botanical extracts are better. And the science backs this up – I have a computer filled to the brim with articles from scientific journals singing the praises of practically every skincare plant you can think of.
Somehow there are still mainstream cosmetic chemists out there who still need to be convinced of this fact. Sometimes I think they are perhaps slightly cynical of the ‘natural’ skincare world because of the crazy statements sometimes made by people who should know better or the facts about cosmetics touted around the internet as undeniable truths.
Nonetheless, the biggest discussion point that seems to separate the mainstream chemists from the ‘natural’ ones always boils down to preservatives.
Methylisothiazolinone and Methylchloroisothiazolinone
Don’t misunderstand me, I think preservatives are a great thing. Without them, you’d be smearing creams filled with microbes and fungus on your face. Sound appealing? I didn’t think so. Preservatives are necessary and there is no way around that unless you make your own skincare from scratch and throw it away as soon as it goes off. But there comes a point that you have to critically examine the ingredients in your formulation and listen to your customers.
Earlier this year the media was full of reports about methylisothiazolinone (MIT), an ingredient found in many different cosmetics as a preservative. Consumers and dermatologists were saying that high exposure to MIT is causing steep rises in contact dermatitis (a product-caused allergy) where the skin turns red and starts to blister. In one extreme case, one woman in Spain was hospitalised after using her sun cream.
MIT was previously mixed with another preservative, Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) in a three-to-one ratio. But concerns about MCI causing allergies meant some manufacturers started using MIT as a single agent. Used alone, it has been included at a much higher concentration which seems to account for this increase in reported allergies.
Campaigning for Safe Cosmetics
Various organisations such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have been campaigning against the use of methylisothiazolinone for years. These campaigns have generally been met with scorn from the cosmetics industry. This attitude can also be seen in the response following this summer’s flurry of media articles about methylisothiazolinone. The Telegraph Newspaper asked the UK’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association for a comment and they came out with a bland statement which read:
“Cosmetic products are carefully made to ensure that they withstand normal use and this will generally include preservatives to prevent contamination by microorganisms and so keep the consumer safe.
Human safety is the cosmetic industry’s number one priority; in fact it is the law. Every cosmetic product must undergo a rigorous safety assessment before it is placed on the market. The assessment covers all of the ingredients, the final product, how and where the product is to be used, how often and by whom and must be carried out by qualified assessors.”
In other words, “we’ve assessed it, the law says it’s OK and therefore there isn’t a problem”.
And it’s with this attitude that I have a problem. If you were a small business and a percentage of your customers started ringing you to tell you that they are getting skin allergies from your products, what would be the best approach to take? Hide behind your safety assessment or reconsider your ingredients?
From a business perspective you always want to take your customers seriously and you want to listen to them. They may not always be right, but they pay you for your product and I can’t think of a more important stick to beat you with.
Revlon threatens Breast Cancer Charity
Revlon recently showed that they seem to have forgotten about this important piece of business acumen. When they came under fire from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, UltraViolet and the Breast Cancer Fund for allegedly using various unpleasant ingredients in their cosmetics, they actually took the opposite approach and retaliated with a bullying ‘cease and desist’ letter demanding that the three organisations retract their defamatory statements.
The letter runs through the various claims made in more detail and ends with:
“The harm to Revlon from these false and defamatory statements is immediate and progressive, and it gets worse the longer you permit your statements to remain in circulation. We therefore must insist that you withdraw the press release immediately and issue a retraction, so that people who have already viewed the release have the opportunity to learn the truth. Unless you act immediately, Revlon will be forced to take more public and legal steps to protect its hard-earned good name.”
Regardless of whether the NGOs are right and whether the ingredients in question are toxic or not, this seems an extreme stance to take. The headlines don’t exactly work in their favour – “Revlon threatens breast cancer charity” doesn’t have a great ring to it, does it?
As a small business owner, I cannot fathom why anyone would write a menacing letter to threaten legal action against a charity in this age of social media. Of course it’s going to end up on the internet. Of course the mainstream media will pick up on it. Of course people will side with the breast cancer survivors. Wouldn’t it have been better to sit round the table together and talk things through?
So what do they hope to achieve by taking this arrogant approach? Clearly these NGOs are not going to back down and ultimately Revlon will just look like a huge intimidating bully who probably puts toxic chemicals in their cosmetics. Whoever is in charge of Revlon’s PR needs to have a good rethink of their media strategy. Then they need to seriously think about the ingredients they use. There are always alternatives.
It pays to listen to your customers
Thankfully not all multinationals work along these lines. Proctor & Gamble have removed certain chemicals from their cosmetic formulations, as have Johnson & Johnson. Their Vice President of Product Stewardship & Toxicology announced their changes in a recent blog post and said:
“We know that all our products are safe by scientific standards and meet or exceed government regulations. Over time, though, we’ve come to realize that sometimes safety alone isn’t enough. There’s a vigorous public discussion going on around the world about what ingredients should or shouldn’t be in personal care products, and how they should be regulated. We have a point of view that we’ve expressed, based on our considered understanding of the science involved, and that’s always going to be our starting point. But what matters most isn’t what we think, it’s what the people who use our products think.”
This is exactly the point I’m making – the customer is always right. It’s good to see some larger businesses embracing this concept and let’s hope they continue to listen and learn as they move forward. It will only guarantee more revenue and success for them in the long run and after all, that is what cosmetic scientists ultimately work to achieve.
And sometimes, just sometimes, the customer is actually completely right. Earlier this month in a statement to the cosmetics industry, Cosmetics Europe (the industry’s trade body) told its members to stop using MIT in leave-on products. Although this doesn’t necessarily lead to a reduction in MIT in rinse-off products, we can only hope that the industry goes one step further and eradicates the use of this preservative at such high levels in all cosmetics products.
After all, in doing so they will not only be preventing a number of allergic reactions, they will also be listening to their customers’ wishes. And I cannot think of a more sustainable business model to guarantee a long and fruitful future for your company.
Do you think large cosmetics companies listen sufficiently to consumers? Do you trust them to do what’s right for you?