I spend a lot of time on this blog pointing out the shortcomings of scaremongers who delight in trying to suggest that there is something wrong with the cosmetics that everyone uses every day.

The motivation of people who spread these stories is usually financial.  Switching people from perfectly good conventional products onto generally inferior more expensive ones is obviously profitable.   Ever been tempted to switch to ‘clean’ products free of ‘nasties’?   I regret to inform you that you have been had.   The world is full of people cynically out to line their pockets with the contents of yours.

But scare stories are a good way to drive traffic to a blog or to sell newspapers as well.  And there are times when the consequences of doing this are much worse than a poor choice of shampoo.

At the moment there is a significant measles outbreak going on in the city of Swansea in South Wales.  There is a suggestion that a 25 year old man may have died as a result.  We can’t be sure that this particular death is linked to measles.  But the statistics of this kind of epidemic are well understood.  Looking at the pattern of the data so far the doctors covering it can already predict with some confidence that the number of cases is still on the rise and has yet to peak.  The size of the outbreak is large enough that an avoidable death is almost certain.

The reason for this crisis is straight forward.  It is down to scaremongering in the media.  The whole story has been told in great detail by Ben Goldacre (a medical doctor and statistician).  The summary is that there was a huge media story in the UK suggesting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.  The link never existed.  There was never even a strong case for a link.  Despite this newspapers ran acres of newsprint casting doubt on the vaccine’s safety.

This led to vaccination rates plummeting as parents with no other source of information withdrew their children from the vaccination programme.  A notable contributor to this was the Daily Mail who deployed one of their ladies who lynch,  Melanie Phillips.  She somehow succeeded in finding a conspiracy by the government to hide ‘the truth’.  The Daily Mail was actually hiding the truth.  Though not everywhere.  As I say, this was a UK story.  They didn’t run it in Ireland.  No doubt this was because market research showed that the Irish were not as interested in the story as the rest of Britain.

The unfortunate inhabitants of Swansea had to cope with a further level of misinformation.  In addition to the dishonest national media campaign the local paper weighed in against the MMR vaccine as well.

The tragedy is that while it is true that all medical interventions have some risk associated with them, vaccines are just about the safest – certainly way safer than getting measles which kills around 1 in a 1000 of children who get it.  There would be a lot less sick children in South Wales today if we had fewer sick people who own tabloid papers without any regard for the truth of what is written in them.


Here is a blog post by Ben Goldacre with more detail

13 thoughts on “Scaremongers”

  1. It’s a shame that there is little or no comeback on journalists and newspapers who publish this scary nonsense. The Daily Mail is always at the forefront of stupid scare stories about cosmetics as well (which is why the title of my forthcoming lecture for the Society of Cosmetic Scientists is “What Will The Daily Mail Publish Next”!).

  2. Absolutely Dene. In fact it is worse – they get paid more for attracting attention. Raise a holler, earn a dollar.

  3. Right on, as usual Colin! Shared this post on my Facebook page, hope it hits home for people, but I suspect that some people get an odd sense of moral superiority from buying “clean” products. As such, their mind won’t be changed (until something else comes along to fill that need).

  4. This article really irked me . For one, you seem to be equating advocates of natural cosmetics with people who advocate against vaccination, which is totally off, and I also think you mistake the motivation of people who spread information.

    I’ll state right away that I love natural products, write a blog about it, but also don’t believe I do any “fearmongering.” I get very frustrated by people who tell you not to get vaccines, or my other pet peeve, avoid fluoride. Vaccinations do not cause autism, and time and time again studies have proved that the two are not linked. I believe most of the people who advocate against vaccines are misguided, not because of money. In the U.S., Jenny McCarthy is one of the loudest voices against vaccines, and has an autistic child. I don’t think she is motivated by money or is purposefully fear mongering, I think she just can’t accept the truth and believes she is doing the right thing. The ignorance is absolutely frustrating, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    Now, as for natural products, it’s just a fact that we haven’t tested chemicals for safety. Especially in the U.S., we tend to take something off the market when it is proved unsafe, instead of making sure everything we use is safe before it is used, and our standards for products are lower than Europe. There is so little regulation. I know that causation is a huge thing to prove, so we can’t say that most chemicals in cosmetics “cause” any diseases, but if I have the choice to purchase products with ingredients that are safer, why wouldn’t I? The biggest difference is, I am encouraging people to use the cautionary principle, and avoiding chemicals in cosmetics is not in any way analogous to avoiding vaccines. If I recommend that someone use a pure oil instead of a facial cream, am I putting them at risk for measles?

    1. Well Mary, this article was mainly prompted by people whose only product is fear, such as the columnist I mentioned and the media outlets that seek this kind of thing out. Any one scaremonger doesn’t cover the whole range of scares – they usually have a discrete portfolio. Although natural products are one of the ways people use to derive an income from scare stories, as you would no doubt agree there are natural brands that don’t rely on scaremongering. Natural brands can also be the victims of scaremongers. Have a look at the EWG’s website. They are very happy to take a pop at natural products. My gripe is any person, publication, product or posting that plays on people’s fears and insecurities.

      To answer your presumably rhetorical question about a pure oil versus a facial cream, yes I imagine for someone with dry skin applying a pure oil might be a better option than a formulated cream. They would have more trouble applying it but it might well give better results. This doesn’t make pure natural oils necessarily benign. I recall somebody setting up doing baby massages using organic oils near me a while back. It sounded like a good idea. But a lot of the babies became very distressed. It turned out that the oil was insulating their skins and making them hotter than if they had been let be. Okay, it didn’t give them measles but it didn’t do them any good either. I had heard about her plans beforehand but this risk didn’t occur to me. Maybe somebody who knew more about infant physiology would have spotted the risk. Every test a chemist could devise on the oil would not have predicted this particular problem.

  5. Thanks for this article there is a clear link between why how ‘clean’ cosmetics are marketed. I noticed the EWG cracking down on natural ones too theres this new little slogan going around on the mongered I forget how it goes but its basically like even in your natural products there might be SYNTHETICS oh the terror! Something that bothers the heck out of me is as a radical feminist logic is important to me despite the stereotype of a hysterical woman so many feminist both liberal and radical and using the EWG scaremongering shit and turning it into a women’s rights issue. Even radicals which surprises me are eating this crap up taking it as scientific fact and I think it really takes away from the psychological effects of cosmetics advertising. That commentary we once had in books like The Beauty Myth is gone and replaced with this crap. Its a loss for feminism when we aren’t targeting whats actually hurting girls which is the female hating advertising I dont mind cosmetics but no one should feel like they are ugly or worthless without them when I was in high school many girls wore it out of fear so they wouldnt get bullied same for dressing in brand name clothes and straightening their hair and being called ugly was one of the worst things someone could do to u and it really felt like DOING rather than saying like a punch in the gut. My point is the scare mongering has been taken up by feminist as a womens rights issue and I feel like its lazy rather than addressing where the real harm to our minds is- since instead they just say the cosmetics themselves are literally giving u brain damage and other hogwash. On feminist blogs there is a lot of talk about the reproductive harms of personal care products. Here is an example: I also find it confusing bc it equates personal care products with working with industrial chemicals but does not say what kind and what exposure in fact its very unclear. I very much agree with an above commenter who noticed people who buy these have a sense of ethical superiority despite that they are wasting plants that could have been eaten and there are even companies who use ‘rare, exotic’ botanicals that are probably going extinct. I have heard this happens dont know if its true. It seems so wasteful to me a lot of natural products contain plants that are edible, people are starving in this world even in the states and Canada people are starving for nutrition and most of the plants that go into it provide no functional benefit at all! What a waste and embarrassing to want ingredients you know how to pronounce just because. The ingredients I can pronounce thing is embarrassing too it just shows you failed chem in high school or weren’t required to take it to graduate. I have heard these scare mongering from public school teachers in the past. They think its scientific fact, I expect more from them.

  6. Oh another example of this rhetoric corrupting feminism is this group called Breast Cancer Action and documentary called Pink Ribbons Inc its sounded cool stuff like how little of the profits of some products go towards actual research (despite jacking the price) but both of them I have heard described on feminist sites talk about ‘the irony that cosmetics that donate to breast cancer orgs actually use chemicals that cause breast cancer’ then I knew that it was a waste bc any good insights would be overshadowed by this scaremongering. What a shame. Feminist sites were getting all in a tizzy bc Susan G. Komen put out a pink perfume they claimed caused breast cancer.

    1. Thanks for those comments Ruby. Ideally issues like safety and environmental protection would be treated as non-political and would be fact based. Sadly this doesn’t look like happening any time soon. Certainly not when so many people treat green lobbying as a meal ticket.

  7. Just to clarify: I get the impression you think the EWG database is overly conservative/scaremongering in the things it deems dangerous, is that right? I’m a biologist but my knowledge of biochem is a bit lacking and I don’t have time to look up everything I smear on my face on PubMed. Could you recommend any online references that have solid science behind them? I’m from a country in Southeast Asia and I’m OK with assuming that Western and Japanese brands generally are safe, but I’d also like to try local/regional cosmetics and skincare products from time to time, so that’s where I’d want to check up on the ingredients.

  8. Yes for me fact based is a must. I can see having suspicion after all the rights abuses against women through the ages but the product formulations are not out to get us. The advertising for the most part I believe is toxic especially the pornographic way they get the models to pose. Its not healthy to depict women again and again as always ‘available’ and ‘wanting it’ but thats not the cosmetic chemist’s fault.

  9. A wonderful article, I’m a big fan of Ben Goldacre and I wish far more was published on the actual facts in these cases. People may still make the same decisions, but at least they’d be doing it for the right reasons.

    I was actually surprised at how much the Daily Mail MMR articles affected peoples behaviour – didn’t realise people took it that seriously! When I worked in a molecular oncology lab we had an entire whiteboard dedicated to ‘things that cause or prevent cancer according to the Daily Mail’ and we had to start attaching sheets of paper to the bottom!

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