My good friend Dene Godfrey wrote an article for personal care truth denouncing the practice of free from the claims on cosmetics. This is very much the kind of thing Dene does, and he did it very well. Normally he beats all oppostion into instant submission, but this time there was a riposte to it from a blog called Skin Matters, which although I wouldn’t call them great friends is a blog I read from time to time and generally appreciate. This response was also very well-written and made some good points. To sum up the debate, Dene asserted that free from claims were not based on scientific evidence and had the effect of alarming consumers about non-existent risks. Skin Matters replied by saying that some people have genuine problems, and there was a need for products to address this. In fact Skin Matters are so convinced of the general goodness of free from claims that they have instigated an award for free from products.
I’m a bit bemused as to what exactly constitutes an award-winning free from product. I’d have thought that any free from claim was equally valid with any other. After all they all contain exactly the same lack of the stuff they are avoiding, so I’d call that a dead heat.
Perhaps it makes sense to some people.
Both the protagonists in this argument expressed themselves them very well and I cannot really do any more than pop the links to the debate below – and particularly draw your attention to a very good comment on the Skin Matters blog post by Perry Romanowski.
But what is the reality about free from claims?
I should say that like nearly everybody else on the scientific side of the cosmetic industry I really hate free from claims. I’m naturally inclined to side with Dene’s viewpoint. But I will also concede the point made by Skin Matters that there is a need for some free from products for those people who have real problems.
But the interesting question is why do they make so many of us so angry?
One thing it certainly isn’t is a question of the big boys in conventional products beating up the little guys in the natural product sector. Free from claims are used by lots of the biggest cosmetic companies on some of the highest selling brands around the world. You tend to associate them more with the natural product sector, but I don’t really think of that as being distinct from the rest of the cosmetics industry. If you’re making cosmetics and selling them, you’re in the cosmetic business. In reality a lot of the natural products are formulated and made by the same people who do the standard ones anyway. And I’m just as annoyed when I see a large company making a free from claim as when a small company does it.
And this isn’t simply about scientific rigour either. A great many claims made for cosmetic products across the whole industry really don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny at all. But they don’t annoy me to anything like the same extent.
I think the reason that free from claims are so annoying is the fact that they play on fear.
And this is where the Skin Matters people don’t understand the situation as well as Dene does. Fear is a powerful emotion. We evolved in a world where a rustle in the bushes was quite likely to be a tiger. It’s little wonder that we are constant look at for things that threaten us no matter how innocuous they seem. We are hardwired to exaggerate the risks we come into contact with. This is something marketers know very well. When they come up with a free from claim they are quite aware of what they’re doing. I know this for sure; I’ve been in the meetings.
So when I see a free from claim on a pack I remember times when I’ve been asked to dig out negative stories on particular chemicals in order to backup scaremongering claims. It just feels like emotional blackmail.
As with a lot of things, it’s not so much what you do as the way that you do it. There are companies that genuinely want to provide products to meet the needs of people who have problems with particular ingredients. And this is a very good thing. So for example there are people who have a genuine and serious problem with gluten. Although as a scientist I doubt very much that there is any cosmetic formulation that would actually provoke any kind of reaction for a person has a genuine gluten intolerance, I can fully understand why they would prefer not take the risk. But that situation is a very different one to simply putting free from on the label just make your product sound different from similar ones. I suppose it is tempting to try and get a powerful marketing benefit without even paying for it. But it is straight out manipulation.
Free from claims are so ubiquitous that you can’t really realistically boycott products that make them, and in any case as I’ve said there are some free from claims that are okay. But I would urge you to take a dim view of free from claims when you see them. The chances are that they are trying to put one over on you and if there is an equivalent product that is being more straightforward I suggest that is where you spend your money.
And here is the YouTube version