A regular feature on the calendar of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists is the Southern Educational Event held this year on the 6th of June at the London College of Fashion. The first speaker was former president of the society Dene Godfrey who was talking on a subject that he has basically made his own. Whenever anyone anywhere dares to diss cosmetics they risk Dene turning up in some form or other to put them straight.
The title of his lecture was What Will The Daily Mail Publish Next? What indeed? He started with a review of media stories from the last ten years. In fact although the Mail was clearly one of the guilty parties, other media got a fair amount of coverage as well. There wasn’t anything that I found particularly new, given that I keep a gimlet eye on coverage as well. But reviewing the whole lot together does show some patterns that don’t always come across when you are looking at an individual story.
For example, all stories use quotes. By quoting an expert you give a story an air of authority. But when you look into the details – and if you want details looked into, Dene is your man – the lustre often comes off. For example a biochemist quoted on the dangers of cosmetic ingredients turns out to have founded an organic product company. A cancer expert’s credentials turn out to have been working as a technician in a lab. A worthy and respectable job, but surely you want to talk to someone who has actually done some research?
Sometimes real experts are used, but not always in ways that enlighten the reader. For instance a quote from Chris Flower is “balanced” by a much longer quote from a breast cancer survivor who happens to be a bit suspicious of chemicals. Having cancer is a traumatic experience and we are all happy she got well again, but how exactly does that make her opinion of what causes cancer more valid than that of Chris Flower who is a toxicologist whose job is heading up the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Perfumery Association?
Unfortunately emotion usually trumps logic. You learn about cancer by reading a lot of very hard science, not by being really really upset by it. But we all know what sells more newspapers.
Another thing Dene picked up is how facts appear from nowhere and get reported then rereported until everyone thinks they are true. The often quoted fact that women absorb 5 pounds (2.3Kg) of cosmetic product a year is a good example. That is one heck of a lot of personal care – even beauty bloggers would struggle to use that much. But whatever, nobody knows what the source for that statistic is. I estimate the chances are about 98.62% that someone just made it up.
All in all it was a typical Dene barnstorming performance that entertained us all. Scare stories cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety and induce some people to pay a premium price for products that are no safer than the ones they are avoiding. Journalists no doubt know what they are doing and will continue doing it. The only upside is that it gives Dene plenty of material with which to get a laugh.
Many Society of Cosmetic Scientist talks are open to the general public. You can find the details on the SCS website.