A deeply probing question from Kareen of Ziba.com.
Hi Colin, I’ve been following your blog regularly and reading some of your articles on personalcaretruth.com as well. I am a beauty blogger and I am looking for advice on the best way to read cosmetics ingredients lists and make sense of them. When I do my product reviews, I try my best to give accurate information about the ingredients. When I first got into this world of beauty, the claims by EWG and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics about toxicity in cosmetic products were very compelling. But after reading opinions on the other side of the story (namely by cosmetic chemists and formulators like you), I now have some reservations about the information given at the EWG site and their affiliations. So now my question, what sites or database would you recommend for consumers to turn to in order to find the most accurate, unbiased information on cosmetic ingredients? Sometimes I fantasize about starting a Beauty Wikipedia that could be open to everyone and free of unbiased information.
Quite a big one there!
First things first, ingredient lists aren’t there for members of the public to do their own safety assessments. They aren’t even there to give beauty bloggers something to talk about during product reviews. Their origins go back to the seventies and eighties and are the result of pressure from dermatologists.
Dermatologists could carry out patch tests on patients with allergies and determine what ingredients were causing the reaction. But there was no way for the patients to use this information because cosmetic formulations were a closely guarded secret. So ingredient lists were brought in for the benefit of the small proportion of the population who are allergic to cosmetic ingredients. But as everyone uses cosmetics, although it is a small proportion it is still a large total number of people. So it seems a reasonable thing to do.
Given that the large number of different names for chemicals confuses even chemists, it was agreed to compile a list of generally agreed names to standardise things and give the consumers a sporting chance of identifying their particular allergen. These names were published in the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary, which is four thick volumes in size. These are the names that you are legally obliged to use on your product.
You can buy this if you want. It currently costs $350 and if you buy it from the Amazon link at the bottom of the page I will earn a pathetically small commission. Luckily I don’t particularly need the money because I can offer you a free alternative in the form of the EU’s CosIng database.
This will give you the names of cosmetic ingredients. It also links to opinions on those ingredients from the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, where there is such an opinion. The committee’s deliberations are minuted, the references they use are quoted and most importantly of all the people who make the decisions are listed by their names and their credentials. So you can if you wish look at what they have decided and see how they came to that conclusion. It’s a very open system.
The American system is a little different and in principle is just as good. There reviews are carried out by a committee called the Cosmetics Ingredient Review whose members again are made public and whose qualifications can be scrutinised. Again their reviews are carried out using literature in the public domain which is referenced and can be checked by anyone. There are a couple of aspects of this that are sometimes questioned. The review process was set up and funded by the industry. This makes it possible that there is some kind of bias in favour of the industry. The other difference is that their reports are published in a scientific journal and until recently cost a lot to get hold of – though I have just noticed that they seem to be free to download from their website at the moment.
The reports assume a pretty high level of scientific knowledge and recently a database has been created based on the CIR reviews called cosmetics.inf.org which is a lot easier to understand but still goes into a lot of depth. I don’t think that there is any serious bias in either the CIR reports or the cosmetics.inf.org database, but as they quote their sources it would be possible to detect it if it did exist.
If you read Personal Care Truth and this blog you’ll know that the Beauty Brains blog is another good source of information on ingredients. You’ll probably also have seen Chemists’ Corner which is aimed at cosmetic chemists but has a lot of content that anybody can appreciate. I am sure there will be other cosmetic chemists who will get the blogging bug coming along in the future as well.
So if you do want to set up your Beauty Wikipedia there is plenty of information out there to draw on.