The biggest cause of complaints to cosmetic companies from consumers are allergic reactions. Anyone can develop an allergic reaction to anything at any time, so this is only to be expected. There are some ingredients that are more inclined to cause allergic reactions than others. Preservatives and fragrances are big culprits, which probably won’t surprise anyone. Colours are not, which is probably mainly because they are used at exceptionally low levels in most products. But as I say, anything can cause an allergy and they can develop at any time. So even if you have used a product for years you can still develop an allergy. When this happens most people assume that the product has changed, but it is just as likely to be your own immune system that has changed.
But although anyone can develop an allergy, there do seem to be people who are more prone to them than most. So it would be a great service to those people if products that are not so likely to cause allergic reactions could be identified. There are indeed already brands that trade on creating low allergy products. Almay is probably the most successful, but although less well known the UK’s own Queen Cosmetics is the pioneer in this market having been going since the 1920s and is still going strong.
Both those companies produce products that I would be expect to be relatively low on allergic reactions – although I don’t believe it is possible to produce any product that will never provoke a reaction. But you ultimately only have their word for it. It would be good if you could get products independently certified as having a relatively low potential to cause a reaction.
There are formidable obstacles to setting up such a scheme. For a start the basic proposition is a difficult one. You can’t really rate the allergic potential of ingredients. Some ingredients are clear villains. Formaldehyde is one such, though it so rarely used nowadays that this is of only academic interest. The parabens and the isothizolinones have undeserved reputations – they provoke quite low rates of reaction but because they are used so widely this still gives high numbers of reactions. Materials like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate on the other hand cause quite a lot of reactions, but because they don’t get used so often you don’t get so many cases.
And it is even more complicated than that. Low doses of a material might not provoke a reaction. The use of relatively high levels in patch tests means that they are quite likely to produce false positive results. I can’t think of any way round this, but it does mean that there are probably a lot of people out there that believe themselves to have allergies that they don’t actually possess. Formulations have an effect as well. I have a reaction to high levels of potassium sorbate myself, but only in clay masques not in creams.
But despite all these difficulties, of which I am sure they are aware, a Danish company called AllergyCertified is planning to launch a low allergy cosmetic standard next year. The criteria they intend to apply seem reasonable enough – though I imagine that this is the kind of thing where if you asked 2 experts you’d get 4 contradictory opinions. They have the ambition to make this a world wide standard. They have even included the optimistic rubric “one world one label” into their logo.
Will it work? I hope so. I think there is a need for allergy certified cosmetics. A lot will depend on whether or not it gets picked up by the public. They’ll also need to be very careful to maintain the credibility of the scheme. Inevitably somebody will buy an accredited product and get a severe skin reaction to it. A few cases like this could create a great news story and wreck the whole thing overnight. But I listened to a talk by Lene Still about the scheme at the annual meeting of the Scandinavian Cosmetic Chemists and was impressed by their plans. She is a toxicologist and they have other well qualified folk on board. I wish them luck, and have a feeling that they will need it.
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