What Do All These Labels Mean?

We now live in a world where information is freely available in quantities much greater than we can possibly need. But information is not knowledge. Knowing facts isn’t much use without the knowledge of how to use them. A story I came across made this clear to me.  A gentleman had bought a deodorant specifically because it had a big ‘alcohol free’ splash on the pack, and he reacts to alcohol. But in fact he still had very bad reaction to the product. When he looked at the ingredient list he noticed it contained benzyl alcohol. So, he concluded, the product was not alcohol free at all!

It is easy to sympathise. How many people would know that benzyl alcohol is completely different to the alcohol that is often used in skin toners and deodorants, and indeed in alcoholic drinks. In fact, on looking at the list I saw that there were several other materials that were also alcohols – though they didn’t have the word alcohol as part of their name.

The plain fact is that people on the whole don’t know much about chemistry and they are always going to find the list of chemical ingredients on a personal care product something of a mystery.  It is worth remembering that ingredient lists are there for one reason, and one reason only.  They are there at the suggestion of dermatologists so that people with allergies can identify products to which they are allergic.  They aren’t there as an aid for consumers to work out what the best products are, or as a way of working out what the philosophy of the company behind them is.  They certainly aren’t an invitation to cross check whether the claims made for the product are credible.

So when consumers are interested in what goes into their products for non-medical reasons the ingredient list is at best not much help, and if you aren’t a chemist can be positively misleading.

But there is one approach that has had some success. There are various accreditation schemes around whereby an independent body will assess your product against a set of criteria and if you meet them, allow you to put a label on the pack indicating this is the case.  So in principle it is quite a good way for consumers to be able to make informed choices.  But it does work better for some ideas than others, and not all the schemes are equally valuable.  One thing that it is worth bearing in mind is that these schemes don’t run on moonshine and have to be paid for.  Typically there is an application fee and the label operator receives a percentage of sales.  This means that there is something of an incentive for the accreditor to give a product the benefit of the doubt.  Some schemes are run as charities and don’t aim to make a profit, while others are simply commercial organisations.  They almost all involve site visits and inspections of paperwork, so there is always a level of scrutiny.  This does vary though and the better known ones also seem to be the most conscientious.  Most have quite well developed auditing practices so in general if a company has a certificate it is pretty much safe to conclude that they are indeed meeting the requirements of the relevant standard.

Let’s have a look at some of the specific ones.

Leaping Bunny

This standard has quite a long history but has had a quite a few name changes over the years.  Its basic aim is to prevent cruelty to animals and on the whole I would say that it is the accreditation standard that has been most successful in achieving its aims.  It forbids companies from carrying out animal testing on their products or using raw materials that have been tested.  The standard is regularly updated and is clear and easy to understand.  If avoiding harm to animals is something that you feel strongly about then purchasing products with this logo will reflect your values.  I think it would meet the requirements of most vegetarians.  But if you have very particular requirements it would be a good idea to check the standard.  For example beeswax is okay as an ingredient, which not all vegetarians would accept.

The American animal rights group PETA has a similar standard and logo, but their rabbit looks a bit gormless.

Soil Association/Cosmos/Ecocert

The organic food movement started in the UK in the 1940s and the Soil Association was a crucial organisation in establishing this form of farming.  It was also well ahead of the pack in terms of personal care and cosmetic accreditation.  The standard was proposed and (I think) originally written by an environmental activist called Jan Kusmirek  whose intention was for it to be a source of cash to fund the Soil Association’s activities.  I don’t know how successful it was as a money spinner at least initially.   I remember visiting the office in Bristol during an application.  It was very well staffed and everything was being considered in great detail.  I was impressed at their dedication – but it didn’t look to be very commercial.

I think that there was a bit of a fundamental problem though.  The name Soil Association works really well for organic food.  It works much less well for personal care, where the link between the soil and the product is a bit less obvious.  There was also the  problem that the Soil Association is very much a UK institution and it is not well known elsewhere – and cosmetics are a very international business.  So they teamed up with a European standard with similar requirements and came up with a couple of new standards called Cosmos Natural and Cosmos Organic.  They seem to have made rather heavy weather of all this, with it all taking quite a long time to get set up.  But it seems to be fairly stable now – though there are still Ecocert and Soil Association logos around so I guess it will take a while.  Launching a new name is risky and my perception is that the general public haven’t really absorbed what these standards are all about yet.  But the standards themselves look reasonable enough and if organic is important to you I think you can be confident that a product with this label complies to organic practices insofar as they can be applied in personal care.  The drawback with any organic product is that

the formulator is restricted in what they can use, so performance may not be equal to that of conventional products.

Allergy Certified

There is still a great deal we don’t know about allergies.  But there are a few ingredients that are a bit more prone to causing them than others.  The Allergy Certified team have come up with a standard that minimises the risk of a product causing an allergic reaction  – though inevitably this is not going to be 100% foolproof.  This seems like a very good way of communicating an important product feature that matters to quite a large number of people. It will always be a bit pragmatic as to what constitutes an allergy free product and inevitably some people will have reactions to approved products from time to time. But it is nonetheless a good way that consumers can make informed choices.

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

Regular readers will know the contempt with which I view the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. These guys have no clue about what makes a cosmetic safe.  But even if they did have some kind of insight into cosmetic safety that has somehow escaped the attention of those of us who formulate them for a living  – this standard would still not be appropriate.  If you think cosmetics are unsafe you should be campaigning to get them reformulated across the board not using that information selectively to turn a coin.  Products bearing this label are best avoided.

Natru

Natru’s elevator pitch would probably be something along the lines of ‘a standard that enables consumers to identify natural and organic cosmetics’.  What I like about this standard is that it seems to me to be that it does actually try to give the consumers what I think they are looking for.  My feeling is that people want stuff that hasn’t been messed about with too much and doesn’t harm the planet.  I don’t think many people have really got far beyond that.

The drawback is that as soon as you start looking at specifics it gets tricky.  So for example is a product that contains a lot of water more natural than one that doesn’t?  Do organic products that take up a lot of land have a worse environmental impact than say hydroponics?  You can, and many people do, spend a lot of time arguing about this kind of thing.  But Natru is at least specifically a cosmetic standard rather than one that has been bolted onto the cosmetic industry so if nothing else it has that going for it.

B Certified

This is a new one on me and I don’t have any direct experience of working with it.  The concept sounds like a good one though.  To quote its own mission statement – “B Corps are a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”   Companies can certainly create social and environmental problems so looking for ways for them to do the opposite sounds like a good move.  As always the devil is in the detail so I’ll be keeping my eyes on this one to see how it works out.  But I like the idea, so I hope it works out well.

So overall I would say that accreditation schemes are a useful tool for consumers to make better choices about the products that they want to buy and to put pressure on the industry to move in the direction in which they want it to move.  They aren’t perfect, and they certainly aren’t a guarantee that the product is any good.  In the case of the organic standards they more or less guarantee that the product is not going to be as good as a conventional product.  But they are a sight more  useful than looking at the ingredient list and trying to second guess what the product is all about.

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