This week there has been a scare story about PFAs in makeup. (PFA is a recent acronym for perfluorocarbons.) Its origin is persistent mischief mongers the EWG who keep up a continual stream of misinformation about all manner of consumer products including cosmetics, most of which are easily linked to their fund raising activities. In this case the story was that there are dangerous components in colour cosmetics and many cosmetic companies don’t even know they are there. The monetisation comes from the EWG’s accreditation standard – where companies pay them for approval.

If there’s a coin to be turned there’s always someone somewhere ready to turn it, and if it wasn’t our friends from the EWG doing it someone else would be. So it is as well to be ready to deal with issues like this if they directly affect your product line. Here are a few does and don’ts.

Know What You Are Talking About

Do make sure you understand the issue. In this case the data generated was (probably) accurate. The researchers tested a pile of marketed makeup products for fluorine. Not surprisingly they found plenty. It is found in plenty of minerals that are used to make the pigments. It is sometimes used as a coating for packaging too. So the results they obtained were unremarkable. The conclusion that they drew however was rather remarkable. They concluded that the presence of fluorine indicated the presence of perfluorocarbons. As it happens there is no particular problem with the perfluorocarbons that are used in makeup anyway from a safety point of view anyway. But facts don’t matter to scaremongers. Nonetheless, you want to make sure that if the phone rings with a worried customer, the person they talk to is both aware of what is going and and sounds like they know what they are talking about.

Know Who You Are Talking To

Don’t engage with the scaremongers. They thrive on attention.

Your response, if you chose to give one, is to your customers. You are interested in your relationship with them. Don’t name the source of the accusations. You have no interest in getting into an argument with anyone.

Know Who You Are

Do put a discrete comment on your website. In the case of this makeup story something along the lines ‘We are aware of inaccurate reports suggesting that some components of makeup have been linked with health issues. We take the safety of our products seriously. They are assessed by safety experts prior to being placed on the market, and are manufactured following internationally recognised good manufacturing practices.’

Make sure that any response conforms to your brand image. So for example if you have a fairly conservative mainstream market then stressing that your products conform to government safety regulations and are fully approved is the right kind of message. If you are a green brand emphasise that the reports are incorrect and that the fluorine they have found is a natural component of the minerals you use as colourants.

The green angle is one that the people spreading the story aren’t interested in. ‘Your lipstick will give you cancer’ is a more striking line than ‘your lipstick might have a long term harmful effect on the environment’. Nonetheless there is a case to be answered on this. The very inertness of perfluorocarbons that makes them intrinsically safe also means they will be around for a long time. And when they finally do break down there is the potential for them to break down into greenhouse gases. I’d have to say that if your brand has a strong environmental focus you probably shouldn’t be using perfluorocarbons.

Most of the time it is better not to draw attention to the issue. This is tempting if it turns out that for some reason your products aren’t affected. People don’t pay that much attention to the details, and a strong statement that your products don’t contain perfluorocarbons might well be remembered as that they do contain them a few weeks later.

Do work on giving your brand a positive image for environmental issues, product safety and ethical behaviour. This is surprisingly effective. I remember that when the parabens scare was at its height, fans of Liz Earle were telling people online that their brand didn’t contain parabens. This was despite not only them being on the ingredient list but also a longish page on their website explaining why they were continuing to use parabens.

If you have a funky and irreverant brand image you might dare to take a bit of risk with this. ‘Old men have always been keen to stop young women having fun. Now they are saying we can’t have non-slip easy glide makeup because they might be dangerous – but did you know they use exactly the same materials to coat yachts hulls so they glide through the sea more quickly! They never talk about that.’ It’s rarely a good idea to get political as a business, but with a good copywriter it might work.

And Finally

Don’t panic.

Scare stories will be around as long as there are people who believe them. Just let them take their course.

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