We’ve had elections recently in France, the US and the UK. We’ve had quite a lot of them in the UK actually. One of the things that happens a lot in politics is that partisans for one side or the other are keen to make out that their opponents have made a lot of mistakes. Given their terrible track record, you should boot them out and pick someone else instead is the argument. This is a convincing line if, and only if, the people who have got things wrong never learn from their errors. But the reality is that when things go wrong most of us look at the situation and see what we can learn to avoid getting it wrong again next time. I think this is true in every walk of life, and it is definitely true in the world of cosmetic formulation. The best lesson is getting something wrong and having to put it right. Good judgement is the result of experience. But experience is the result of bad judgement. You won’t get much right without first getting a lot of things wrong.
So one of the things that I have learnt is that when something new comes along, you should factor in a period of trial and error before you can begin to use it effectively. This was brought home to me recently when the Honest company were forced to withdraw some of their baby wipes which were going mouldy. As I say, it is important to learn from your own mistakes. But it is a bit of a free ride to learn from other people’s mistakes. So when I heard the news on Twitter I looked into as much detail as I could get hold of. The first question was, which preservative had they used?
The answer turned out to be silver citrate. I have blogged about this recently. It is a relatively new option for formulators and as it happens I haven’t had the opportunity to give it a try myself yet. The published data is promising enough. But this is never the whole story. You also need to see how it works out in practice. There aren’t many preservatives that don’t have some kind of drawbacks.
I wasn’t the only person interested in this news story on Twitter and another chemist shared that she had poor results using silver citrate in paint, catheters and surface coatings. Combined with the Honesty Baby Wipes, you can already see something of a pattern there. These are all applications where the product is spread out with a lot of contact with the atmosphere and to some extent to light.
It is a bit early to speculate, but maybe silver citrate is oxidised rather easily. Or possibly the silver doesn’t penetrate into thin films for some reason. But whatever the reason it looks like you need to take care with it. I wouldn’t like to rule it out entirely at this stage. There are few enough preservative options as it is, so it would be a shame to lose one just because it has an Achilles heal. And there may well turn out to be other applications where it proves to be ideal.
So I am not inclined to be too critical of Honesty, especially as they have withdrawn the product promptly and got a video up on YouTube explaining what they were doing pretty quickly. But I do hope that they learn the lessons from this episode. The first lesson is that preservation is a serious business and needs to be treated with respect.
The second lesson is that sometimes it isn’t a good idea to give the consumer what they appear to want. I understand the pressures very well. People are worried about preservatives in general, and there are lots of scare stories going around about particular preservatives. So any good marketer is bound to conclude that this is a problem and that they should come up with a solution. Given that many companies also get a regular stream of reports of skin reactions to preservatives, it does look a lot like you will be thanked for avoiding preservatives or for using ones that are not widely used.
The trouble is that what actually happens when products are not very well preserved is a lot worse than the consequences of using preservatives at an effective level. Mouldy baby wipes are a serious health issue. It isn’t necessary for the mould that has been found to be growing on these wipes to be harmful in itself. If the preservative system isn’t working well enough then you have no way of knowing what might grow on them if they are left in circulation. One of the most obvious features of biological systems is that they don’t behave predictably. Once a mould has started growing in your product it will change its makeup and there is no way of telling what will happen next.
So it is good that Honesty have pulled the product and put out a video explaining what went wrong. I wasn’t entirely happy with the video itself though. One of the things I didn’t like was that they seemed to downplay the risk and suggest that they were withdrawing the product only as a precaution. In fact if the preservative system is so poor that mould is visible it really really shouldn’t be on the market. This is not an aesthetic issue. This is a health issue. What they should have been saying was that their product was inadequately preserved and that they had fallen below the normal standards prevailing in the industry they are working in. People who work in baby wipes have long known that they are difficult to preserve and have worked out how to overome this problem.
Which brings me on to the third point. If you get something wrong there is no substitute for careful and diligent observation. This is how things are made safe. Aeroplanes used to be quite risky things to get into. Progress towards making aviation safer was the result of investigating when things went wrong and learning the lessons. This is also how the cosmetic industry has become safer and safer and will continue to do so.
I hope, indeed I assume, that the Honesty team have got records of the lab work and the reasoning that led them to select a preservative that didn’t work as well as the ones that other companies have been using for years. I wish them well with that. And having looked at Honesty’s blog – much of which I liked a lot – I can offer them a first step. I noticed that they refer to the EWG as if they are some kind of authority. Regular Colin’s Beauty Pages readers will know that the Environmental Working Group to give them their full title are anything but a trusted resource. They are in fact a bunch of ignorant half wits who often get the simplest of facts wrong. Resolving to have no further truck with them would be a great starting point to the very necessary process of catching up with the level of safety the rest of the industry routinely manages.