I get a steady stream of enquiries from journalists. Their questions are usually fairly similar. They ask about the safety of cosmetics, and lose interest quite rapidly when I tell them that they are. “Stuff you’ve never worried about before is still nothing to worry about” is not really the makings of a great headline. But I did get one that was a bit more interesting than most the other day. Who does the research on cosmetic safety? Obviously, there might be a story if all the research on cosmetic ingredients is carried out by cosmetic companies, or paid for by them, then maybe something sinister is being hidden. Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy?
Well it was at least a different angle. But what is the answer?
It is a bit of a mixed picture. Some cosmetic companies spend money checking out the safety of their ingredients. Some of that money goes into my pocket so I am very happy about that and I wish they’d do a bit more. I don’t think it is unduly cynical to at least be aware that this kind of research is likely to be biased in the direction of what the client wants to hear. Industrial research is a commercial activity and you can’t ignore the fact that scientists need to earn a living as much as anybody.
The EU’s SCCS – the Scientific Committee On Consumer Safety – funds some, as do governments directly. (Mainly Denmark where this kind of thing seems to interest them.) I’d guess the bulk is spent by the big chemical manufacturers and the relevance to cosmetics is only one of the factors under consideration. The vast bulk of the data actually used in the assessment of the safety of cosmetic ingredients is general information from the scientific literature. You also get the odd bit of academic work done by researchers who are just curious. For example the work on parabens that caused all the trouble was a personal initiative by the scientist in question. The microbeads story arose in a similar way. Environmental groups like Greenpeace occasssionally commission studies that are generally of a very high scientific standard. Some studies are also commissioned by the scaremongering groups such as the EWG – and these tend to be pathetic. I don’t remember any particular bit of work done on cosmetics by the EWG. But they don’t have very high standards – their attempt at a survey of chromium five levels in US drinking water being particularly laughable.
I think a more interesting question is who SHOULD be funding research into the safety of cosmetics. The cosmetics industry is not a particularly unusual one in terms of the money it makes. The return on investment is respectable enough, but it isn’t spectacular. People often focus on the high profit margins relative to the cost of actually manufacturing them. This is something that is very true. A bottle of Chanel No 5 must cost less than a pound to make but retails for a lot more than that.
The reason that this doesn’t translate into huge profits is quite simply that while the selling price is high and the cost to manufacture quite low, the cost of advertising and promotion is extra-ordinarily high. If you want to sell people a skin cream it turns out that you have to put a lot of effort into persuading them that your one is better than the very similar offering from a competitor.
It seems to me that a simple tariff on cosmetic advertising would easily fund a rolling programme of safety testing of raw materials and finished products. This could be done in such a way as to ensure that the industry is not able to influence the results. I doubt if it will be very interesting from a scientific point of view. I really don’t think there are any skeletons in the cupboard here. But there is enough concern among the public that it would be good to set their minds at rest. The cost would be a small reduction in the number of adverts for cosmetics being run. I could live with that.