Among the many things I try to cram into my schedule is a newsletter for people with sensitive skin. I am not very successful at doing this I am afraid, and I don’t get the newsletters out very frequently. But despite this I get a steady stream of people talking to me about their issues with reactions to cosmetics. In particular, to preservatives. And particularly in particular to methylisothiazolinone.
Most feedback is pretty friendly, but I do get a few people who don’t like the fact that I don’t support a ban on methylisothiazolinone. In fact there is one individual who has sent me some rather menacing sounding communications which hint that she is considering taking some kind of unspecified action against me. I should probably be more worried about this than I actually am, especially as not being a public figure and having a business to run it is fairly easy to find me if you put your mind to it.
Wisely or unwisely, I am not too worried about becoming the world’s first pro-cosmetic preservative martyr. But I have been a bit unhappy that my position on the issue isn’t as strong as it could be. My line is that the problem with preservatives is that the good ones get overused. Formulators quickly notice that the parabens and the isothiazolinones work well and generate few reaction reports. So they use them more, and carry on using them. The result is that they become the most widely used preservative options. This is fine for most people – who if they ever gave it a moment’s thought would probably agree that it is good that cosmetics use the preservatives that cause minimal reactions. But if you do suffer from an allergic reaction to one of the widely used preservatives then you have a problem. There are not many alternatives out there for you.
Banning preservatives or spreading scare stories about existing preservatives doesn’t help overall. It just reduces the options still further.
So my preferred solution is to improve labelling. But how can labelling be improved? Cosmetics already have the preservatives that they use included on the ingredient list. This has a number of drawbacks. For a start, a product might easily have 30 ingredients most of which have very scientific sounding names which are a challenge to read even if you are a chemist. It’s easy to miss what you are looking for. And it also fails to take into account something quite important, which is that preservatives get used at different levels. Adding percentages to ingredient lists would further complicate them.
It is easy for me to suggest clearer labelling, but how exactly could it be done? I had, until a few days ago, no idea. But I was planning my work using the popular tool Trello the other day when I noticed something. Trello lets you use coloured labels to differentiate between different things you are working on. I noticed that I was getting my plans sorted out a lot quicker when I started colour coding them. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I realised that I didn’t need to read so much if I could just work off the colours.
So that is my suggestion. Rather than just listing preservatives we could give each preservative a colour. Most products need more than one preservative so you’d need space for more than one colour. I think that there are only about 15 preservatives in common use, so there should be enough colours to cover all the eventualities. The other information it could convey is how much of the preservative is actually in there. Quite often a preservative is there at very low levels and would give the end user no trouble at all. They are often simply carried over from ingredients. So if there were say a 5 point scale where if the product were at less than 20% of the maximum permitted use it only had a single coloured dot, up to 5 dots for the full amount, then people could make informed decisions about what they are allergic to.
People who have serious reactions would probably still need to go to dermatologists and get patch tests and learn the name of the chemical that their immune system has a problem with. But for the majority of people who only have the odd rare reaction it would make working out what the problem is much easier. If products with 5 purple dots bring you out in a rash, just avoid them. You don’t even need to know what the chemical name is.
That at any rate is my suggestion. It might work even without legislation if companies could be persuaded to adopt it voluntarily. If you have an opinion on whether or not you think this idea would work, I’d be interested to hear it.