Cosmetic Design Europe is reporting that the Danish Environment Minister Kirsten Brosbøl has called for methylisothiazolinone or MI to be banned across Europe. I have to say I think this is a really bad idea, but I do see how she came to that conclusion. Compared to other preservatives, MI does have a greater potential to cause allergic reactions when used at relatively high levels. This was something that was noticed very quickly when it was brought out in the seventies. But luckily there was a solution, because it is very effective and so it works at very low levels.
This is ancient history in personal care – but the reason it has come up again is actually rather a good example of how things don’t always work out the way people expect. MI was originally used in combination with a closely related chemical called methylchloroisothiazolinone. But it turns out that methylchloroisothiazolinone is more likely to provoke reactions than MI is.
For a long time this was of only academic interest because only the combination was available for formulators to buy. But a few years back MI on its own became available. This sounded like a great move, because you could now use the safer one of the pair on its own. What’s not to like?
Well the trouble was that MI on its own didn’t work as well so you have to use higher levels than you use of the combination. People started doing so, and the allergic reactions started to happen. But it has taken a while. We are talking here about a really tiny percentage of the population. So although reaction rates are up according to dermatologists, we are still talking about very low numbers of actual people. So for most of us this is a non-story. This kind of reaction is so rare that there is a good chance that you will never meet somebody who suffers from it.
But although it is tempting to ignore it altogether as not relevant I’d say please do pay attention. For a start, although the people affected are a very small percentage of the population they themselves are 100% affected. Also, although some of us are more prone than others anyone can develop an allergy to anything at any time. So it is worth taking this kind of thing seriously.
So why am I not supporting my friend in Denmark?
The answer is that I simply think that banning this material won’t reduce the total number of people suffering allergic reactions, and might well put it up. If you get rid of MI you have to replace it with something else, and that may well be no better and could be a lot worse. I think most people involved in skin care would agree that MI is worse for allergic reactions than methylparaben and propylparaben – but in combination with MCI it is probably better than most others. The parabens can’t be used in everything – they simply don’t work in some formulations. And even if they could, that would leave no products at all for the people who are allergic to them.
Reducing the number of options for preservation in any case is bound to cause an increase in the number of products using the ones that are left, so making life even harder for people who are allergic to them and increasing the number of people who are allergic to them.
I think the answer has got to be clearer labelling. MI is always reported on cosmetic packs, but it is part of the main ingredient list which is a challenge for most people to read. I’d suggest ingredients with a high potential to cause allergic reactions should be listed separately maybe in larger type in a distinctive colour. It would also be good if companies would stop packing their ingredient lists with extra and irrelevant information like whether or not particular ingredients are natural or organic. The lists are confusing enough already and are intended to play a public health role, not to be part of the brand building strategy.
So thanks to Denmark for raising the issue, and I really do appreciate it when elected officials take action to protect the public. I just think that this solution is not the one that we need.
Since writing this I have put some flesh on the bones of my suggestion for improved labelling.