Cosmetics, Chemicals and the Truth – SCS/RSC Lecture Burlington House, Piccadilly, London 3rd October 2013

Cosmetics, Chemicals and the Truth
Is it safe to come out from under the pillows and risk some lipstick and shampoo?

A debate about the safety of chemicals in cosmetics chaired by Alice Hart-Davis with Chris Flower  (Director General, CTPA) & Dr Peter Taylor (Pharmacy lecturer, De Montfort University) speaking for them and Jo Fairley (Journalist/Author of the Green Beauty Bible) & Jayney Goddard (President, Complementary Medicine Association) speaking against.

There is something rather Victorian about a public debate.  I feel I should be saying something along the lines ‘have just attended a capital debate on a most fascinating subject in Piccadilly’.  By which I mean that was in the audience for a debate called Cosmetics, Chemicals and the Truth.   It was about whether the chemicals used cosmetics are safe.  It was organised by the Society of Cosmetic Scientists and the Royal Society of Chemistry and was largely attended by scientists, so it was rather brave of the two journalists who dared to put the anti chemical case.

The problem for the pro case was basically what do you say?  Are cosmetics safe? Well it certainly looks like they are.  Not many people go down with shampoo poisoning.  Far from causing cancer, sunscreens would appear to prevent some forms of it.  And whilst I do know some makeup addicts who perhaps do need some kind of treatment, it is hardly for the toxic effects of their lipsticks.  You can never prove a negative.  A hitherto unsuspected risk might come to light in the future.  But for now there is simply no evidence that any cosmetic product causes any particular health risk beyond the unavoidable one of allergic reactions.  And people get allergies to all sorts of things, not just cosmetics.

Chris Flowers and Peter Taylor did a good job of making what is basically a very boring take home message, i.e., there is nothing to worry about as interesting as possible.

The anti case was put delicately and was received politely.  One objection was that the scientific data is hard to understand and gives contradictory messages.  This makes it hard for non-specialists to understand. This is true enough, but not really relevant.  Cosmetics are developed and assessed by specialists.  There is no reason why the toxicity data on cosmetics should be any more accessible than the engineering details of the airbag in your car.

Another problem posed by the antis is that we use a lot of different chemicals many of which are relatively new, and they might interact in surprising and unusual ways which might be dangerous.   Well I suppose they might.  Most of the time the ingredients have been picked specifically because they don’t tend to react.  This is pretty essential if you want to have a good shelf life.  And in fact the chemistry of cosmetic ingredients actually isn’t anywhere near as radically new as all that.  Soap is just modified fat, and a great many ingredients are pretty much made up of building blocks that have been around for longer than humans.

One of the interesting points about this debate was that it was between two people who describe themselves as scientists and two others who describe themselves as journalists. Now I know that writing well is quite a skill. (Regular readers are probably hoping that one day I will acquire it.)  I certainly respect good journalists.  But it was noticeable that both the scientists kept pretty closely to the brief, stuck to facts and avoided speculation.  On the other hand the journalists were quite happy to ask open ended questions and cheerfully threw in references to things like sustainability, questioned the motives of the ‘chemical industry’ and didn’t hesitate to draw analogies from unrelated subject areas.  Jo for example treated us to an anecdote about a margarine company taking legal action against someone who questioned the health benefits of hydrogenated fats, while simultaneously secretly reformulating to get rid of them in their own products.

I don’t know anything about that – but producing an example of a food company getting it wrong is not evidence that cosmetic companies are doing the same thing.

That one was let to pass, but the difference in approach was very stark when Jo suggested that although she conceded that there was a lot of data on individual ingredients there was nothing about their interactions.  We just don’t know what happens once they get into the body where they could act synergistically.  Chris responded with the technically correct but not particularly reassuring observation that the number of potential interactions was very large and so it wasn’t really practical to check them all out.  It would have been quite easy to have responded in kind.  People have been talking about this risk for years, but where is the evidence?  Environmentalists have been preaching doom for decades but people keep living longer.  Natural products have more ingredients in them, so shouldn’t they be banned first?  But that isn’t the way scientists debate things.

As I say I don’t say this to belittle either side, just to point out the difference.  Later on in the discussion the chair, Alice Hart-Davies called for the CTPA to put more work into educating journalists.  I can’t disagree, but it will be hard work I think.  The differences in mind sets, and even how they process the information is so very different.

One of the main things that has got people interested in cosmetic ingredients are the ingredient lists that have been required on packs.  These are not easy for the average person to understand.  Why, Jo asked, do they have to be in latin?  The answer is that they are there to alert people with allergies to specific ingredients.  They aren’t there for people to carry out their own safety assessments.  That would mean that they would have to read all the scientific papers that we have already established are hard to understand.  It all sounds like rather a lot of trouble to go to when you just want to wash your hair.

Nonetheless Jo suggested that companies should be obliged to publish their full ingredient lists in a more understandable form on their websites.  This encourages openness and transparency.  I suppose this is true.  Having a list of ingredients whose significance can only be worked out by someone with a degree in chemistry and which can only be pronounced by somebody with a diploma in elocution is more transparent and more open.  It just isn’t very useful.

Basically cosmetics should either be safe, or they shouldn’t be on sale.  Cosmetic chemists, and other people involved in the cosmetic industry, are actually rather lucky because safe cosmetics are very easy to make.  As Peter and Chris both pointed out in various ways, the skin is a good barrier and the quantities of cosmetics used are low.

There is also no contradiction between being safe and being effective.  Food scientists don’t have that luxury.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that much tasty stuff is bad for you.  Likewise, it is impossible to come up with safe alternatives for booze and fags that have anything like the properties that make them so desirable.

So I don’t think it is any grounds for bragging by pointing out that the cosmetic industry has an excellent safety record.  It is just one of those things.  Cosmetic safety is not one of the things that consumers have to worry about.   They might not do all they claim.  The adverts might prey on your insecurities.  And they might make you look a bit tarty if you overdo it.  But they aren’t going to make you ill.

This lecture was videoed – indeed it was broadcast live.  I believe it is going to be put on YouTube.  I’ll get a link up when it appears.  My thanks to the organisers for a very lively and interesting evening, and to all the speakers. particularly Jo and Jayney for being prepared to put their points to an audience who were unlikely to sympathise with much that they said.


And here’s the video.

20 thoughts on “Cosmetics, Chemicals and the Truth – SCS/RSC Lecture Burlington House, Piccadilly, London 3rd October 2013”

  1. I am glad you find it all so funny and something to joke about but the chemicals used in cosmetics are killing hundreds of people and that is not a laughing matter.

  2. Hi Colin,

    I note that “organicfred” hasn’t yet responded. Perhaps he has so many from which to chose that he is having difficulty in deciding the best one to post in response to your challenge. Why don’t you carry out your own version of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s £1 million challenge to the first person to develop a “chemical-free” cosmetic, and offer, say £100 to anyone who can prove that a specific cosmetic ingredient has killed hundreds of people?

    As you know, I was also present at that denate, and I think you’ve given a very fair report and an accurate analysis of the pitfalls of some of Jo Fairley’s comments and suggestions.

    1. I was in half a mind to delete Fred’s comment as it looks a bit trollish. He doesn’t sound like most organic minded commenters. We’ll see if he comes back or not. If you are reading this Fred do tell us more about yourself.

  3. Ugh, Fred above seems like a bit of a natural products nazi. I’ve seen so many of them online, running the same tired old arguments about why ingredients in your cosmetics are killing you (funny that they always seem to pick out the innocuous ones like mineral oil or propylene glycol for such shaming), and insinuating that all cosmetic companies want to kill us. All speculation and some outright lies – like you wrote in another article for another site, ingredients like mineral oil and propylene glycol have been assessed by the CIR and found to be safe, and while the CIR is industry-funded, at least their deliberations are presented in full and refer the existing body of scientific work and you can, so to speak, see their working. (In contrast EWG and their friends all bash ingredients seemingly on a whim without a shred of evidence, or “evidence” that is really quoted out of context.) I mean, if you want to use natural products, fine, but what exasperates me about such “natural products only” nazis (as if there is even a common or standardized definition of what “natural” is) is that, on top of advertising their ignorance of chemistry with utmost proudness, they have the gall to suggest that their ignorance should be some sort of arbitrary standard of what we can or cannot use (obviously they are pushing their own agenda, if not these organizations would not be behaving like aggressive lobbies online). It’s frustrating for consumers like me who do bother to look up the science (to the extent that my memory of organic chemistry allows me to), and I for one, want the most effective products available as long as they are safe, and I don’t care particularly if it’s natural or not. I don’t see anything in the literature I’ve read to suggest that anything natural is inherently better than anything non-natural (whatever definition you choose to define natural vs non-natural by), but this is an assumption people like Fred above make. Unfortunately it’s not an assumption backed by science at all. If anything, we have been living better and longer lives than our predecessors precisely because of these “non-natural” chemicals Fred is demonizing (I wonder of he refuses to eat any “chemical” medicine, eat processed food, or drive a car too? I mean, if you’re so hung up on that “natural” topic why single out cosmetics only?).

    Anyway, rant over. I thought your post was well-written, Colin, and I think it would be hard to educate journalists (who often perpetuate such lines of thinking with their crap articles) because most of them are arts and humanities grads who probably went into that field because they had no inclination to do anything science-related. If that’s the background you have, you are going to be suspectible to the kind of strange logic Fred is pushing. Add in the fact that organizations and lobbies like EWG are often extremely willing to engage the media as compared to your harried cosmetic chemist, and it’s not easy to see why otherwise thoughtful publucations who can cover politics and the arts can’t seem to get a simole science story straight. No lie. One of my acquaintances is an Oxford grad (and she’s not even a humanities grad but an engineering one), and I’m so sick of hearing her go on about parabens causing breast cancer. (Goodness, even the authors of that survey said themselves that their own study doesn’t show that parabens cause breast cancer! Talk about taking things out of context. I mean, water is in breast tissue too, maybe it causes cancer? LOL.)

    Okay now my comment is tooo long. I hope it gets through.

  4. Whoa typos galore in my previous comment. Sorry about that – I don’t always check the autocorrect to ensure it’s doing its job (seriously – siople? I meant simple.)

  5. How would you actually go about proving a particular ingredient increases death rates in humans?

    I would imagine it is probably impossible to measure the influence of particular cosmetic ingredients over the lifespan of a human (85 years anyone?!).

    Would people have to use the same cosmetics for their entire life? How would you adjust for environment, work, genetics, diet and disease over such a long period of time?

    I guess animal trials are the only practical way to do it – but they don’t always translate well across species and if they’re not banned, they’re certainly frowned upon these days.

    So I wouldn’t say it was impossible that a particular cosmetic ingredient shortened the lifespan of some people – only that it is probably impossible to know definitively whether it does or doesn’t.

    Taking Organic Fred at face value – have cosmetic ingredients “killed” hundreds of people?

    Almost certainly not, because that would imply that the ingredient in question was the primary cause of hundreds deaths and did so in a short enough time frame to measure its effects. We no longer use mercury or lead in formulations and no-one has marketed a radium cream for a “glowing complexion” for over a hundred years.

    You could point to recent fatalities, such as the case of the girl who had an allergic reaction to suspected cumulative exposure to PPD in hair dye.

    Do I expect Dene to pay me £100 for pointing out this case? I don’t because there are so many unknowns. Was there an underlying medical condition for instance? Many people have allergic reactions to PPD – but this is the only fatality I’ve heard of, so doesn’t come anywhere close to Dene’s threshold of hundreds of deaths.

    Even if there were one or more cosmetic ingredients out there shortening the lifespan of a sizeable group of people, it would be so difficult and expensive to prove that Dene would never have to pay out.

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t evaluate the potential risk of current and new cosmetic ingredients as we learn more about them and as a precaution, reducing the allowable dosage on some and banning a few of them just in case.

  6. Always a pleasure Colin. Just maybe, however, you all are bing a bit too literal and glib.

    As one of those “organic minded commenters” I am compelled to point out that there is a vast difference between the EU and the US in regards to how cosmetics are assessed for safety and, more importantly, how chemicals and cosmetic companies are managed.

    This goes in two directions:

    Chemicals: In the US we haven’t changed the laws on toxic chemicals since the 1970s. I remember asking a friend at an Estee Lauder company if they were given the 1,4, dioxane content of ethoxylated ingredients they purchased and he replied that until they started to demand it, sometime in the past 5 or 6 years, the answer was no. Only in Calif. do we have any limits on the by-products of broadly used chemicals (and even then some one may have to bring a law suit to get the chemical on the list) so…in this light I think it is much harder to answer questions about safety. If you do not know what is in your raws, hard to know the downstream effect. Downstream comes right back upstream in terms of environmental impact. Until people are clear about that complexity, any discussion of safety is only partial in its scope. The environment is the issue – and the choices you make as a formulating chemist contribute to that impact. Just walk down the street in any major city and think about how much product is going down the drain at any moment. Int he EU the REACH system will, as it is implemented and as data is collected, begin to bring changes that none of us have anticipated. They’ve just begun to look at chemicals in the EU managed environment.

    Second part – as a result of the internet there are 1000s of crafters making some scary products. As a raw material provider I get those phone calls: people who think that Vit. is a “preservative” or people who have no idea that bacteria grows in the presence of water or people who have no idea that oils go rancid and produce rather awful allergens and, in some cases, toxins. Safety? No way. These people are making it up as they go along and, I do believe, in some cases they make unsafe cosmetics. So while you have this discussion you are really only taking again about a set scope of producers.

    So – while it is easy to be light and breezy about “safety”, the environmental issues impact all of us and the internet is just downright scary!

    1. Hello Gay,

      When I said that Fred wasn’t typical of organic minded commenters I was thinking that most of them have a lot more to say than he/she did, which made me think that possibly he was just trying to wind me up. We’ll see if he ever comes back.

      1,4-dioxane is not what I would call an environmental problem personally. It is not a molecule that is likely to build up in the food chain and it is easily broken down. But I entirely agree with your point. In the short run the big problem with chemicals is the people who have to make them, but in the long run it is their environmental impact that is the big issue. We cannot after all, get them back out of the environment once they are there. DDT was banned decades ago but it is still around.

      With regards to craft scale producers, I don’t doubt there are people out there doing crazy stuff. But how are you going to stop them? If they don’t know what a preservative is they are not likely to read the cosmetic regulations. I have to say my personal experience is that the poeple I have had contact with doing that kind of thing are remarkably well informed and responsible. But maybe I just attract that kind of person.

  7. The amateur hobbyists we encounter tend to be scarily well informed!

    There are many brands out there who lack any knowledge about ingredients or formulation as they outsource everything.

    We frequently meet retailers who are exasperated with brands who don’t know the basics of even their own products and so cannot equip them to sell.

    You can ask them if the ingredients in their products are safe and environmentally friendly and it is a bit like asking the head waiter if the steak is good….the answer is always yes!

    There might be some beginners out there, but they’re not going to have wide distribution of their products….so this isn’t an issue that affects the wider industry.

  8. The question of whether individual raw materials shorten or lengthen the average life span is solvable in principle. If you could assess the use levels of a sufficiently large test levels over long period of time, slotting the data into a linear regression model could probably be done with an Excel spreadsheet. You might want to splash out on a copy of MiniTab just to make the report look a bit slicker. A couple of million quid on the study over 30 years should do it. If of course, there actually is any effect to measure.

    I think the reason nobody would do it is that the overwhelming likelihood is that it would show nothing. Over the last hundred years our use of personal care products has vastly increased, and so have lifespans. So if you look at it objectively there isn’t any particular reason to doubt personal care products in general. In fact if anything they may have been one of the reasons we are living longer. Even if there is some harmful effect from exposure to some ingredients it might be totally overwhelmed by the benefit of coming into contact with fewer germs.

    But the chances are that the biggest factor is diet. We are richer so we eat better. This is probably the explanation for our long life spans and everything else is insignificant in comparison.

  9. Hi Colin,

    I have no experience in developing clinical trials, but I wonder if you’re being a bit optimistic in concluding that all you need is 30 years and an excel spreadsheet to work out if any cosmetic ingredients, whether by themselves or in combination, could be affecting death rates?

    I saw Ben Goldacre do a talk on publication bias where he mentioned the antiarrhythmic drugs problem – where prescribing these drugs to heart attack patients led to the deaths of over 100,000 Americans.

    If no-one could tell that 100,000 extra people died for over a decade due to a specific drug – is it really feasible to spot a few hundred people dying earlier over three decades? That is, if anyone was actually looking.

    There are some ingredient companies doing small scale clinical trials on their ingredients. How many of them would actually publish a trial that showed their ingredients didn’t work – let alone caused harm?

    I’m not suggesting that there are cosmetic ingredients out there causing the deaths of hundreds of people. I’m just pointing out that no-one is looking.

    Instead statutory bodies in consultation with scientific committees look at the potential risk of ingredients like parabens, formaldehyde, hydroquinone, phthalates etc. and implement over-cautious restrictions on their use to minimise (and hopefully eliminate) any potential harm.

    This is often done in the teeth of opposition of the companies who sell and use these ingredients who quite rightly point out that there is no definitive proof that they cause harm or death – but that’s the point – we don’t want to get to the stage where we have the proof.

    1. Although I am a big Goldacre fan I don’t know the details of that particular study. But how difficult something is to find out depends a lot on the complexity of the data set you are looking at and how hard to define your end point is. That was the problem with working out if tobacco caused lung cancer. It was easy enough to prove a correlation between tobacco consumption and shorter life. The problem was pinning it down to a causal link between actually smoking and getting cancer. The ‘cosmetic chemicals causes excess deaths’ sounds pretty easy to prove if it is true. You just have to identify high use and low use groups and watch them for long enough to see what age they are buried. The practical problems are quite big but soluble.

  10. Aha – soluble solutions – is that an in-joke?

    Perhaps the correlation between increased cases of malignant melanoma and high sunscreen use will be tested to easily prove or disprove a causal link.

    I’d maintain that it’s a lot more complicated than you’re suggesting – but happy to be proved wrong (and collect on Dene’s bet!).

  11. My understanding is that there is concern beyond people being lulled into a false sense of security, staying out in the sun too long.

    Similarly, there were issues with incomplete UV protection in some sunscreens.

    In both cases, it isn’t the fault of the cosmetic ingredients – just over exposure / lack of protection to the sun.

    However, there are separate ingredient issues (and ingredients + UV) I’m aware of:
    – Retinol in sun screens.

    – Nano particles in sun screens. I’m not aware of any studies suggesting a direct causal link between nano materials in cosmetic products and cancer incidence. Have you addressed nano particles Colin?

    – Oxybenzone and other chemicals in sunscreen products.

    On the less serious end of the scale my colleague has blogged about Vitamin D deficiency in people who use sunscreen all year round as well as skin irritation. I was also aware of a Japanese study a few years ago about the interactions of parabens and UV light. I don’t know what became of that?

    Perhaps it is time for an update on sunscreens? I know a couple of companies in the natural end have launched zinc oxide non-whitening SPF products, but using “micro particles” rather than nano.

    The problem you’ve got here is that using sun screen prevents cancer. So no-one is going to say, don’t use sun screen, even if there is cause for concern about some ingredients. It is a bit like the electronic cigarette debate – no-one really knows if they are safe, but we know for sure that normal cigarettes cause cancer.

    1. Thanks for that link Ed. I hate experiments like that. You breed a strain of mice with a set of genes that wouldn’t survive in the wild for five minutes, put them in an artificial environment and expose them to a protocol that bears no relation to how they would actually behave. You measure an end point that can’t reflect what you are actually interested in. Then you extrapolate the results to a totally different mammal. If a correct conclusion is ever drawn from such a study it is more down to luck than science. With regards to that particular one, given that they have shown that the base is affecting the outcome, which surely makes any effect from the active being investigated questionable to say the least.

  12. Hi Colin

    I had a question I wanted to ask at the event but realised it was more of a statement, so kept quiet.

    Sometimes the marketing departments within the industry don’t help. Phrases like ‘Cashmere Technology’ tries to pull the wool (literally) over the consumers eyes. If you treat people like idiots there will be a reaction. Made up marketing phrases and terminology creates a mistrust of the science and this then makes it very difficult to present the facts, the damage has been done. This has now led to the current situation where consumers will trust the views of commentators who have no scientific qualifications, over and above anyone within the cosmetic science community.

    Due to the fear brand owners/cosmetic companies have, to draw a line in the sand and stand up to the mis informed journalists and bloggers, it has led us to the situation where I have been told by the sales person in a high street store that SLES and Parabens cause cancer.

  13. Ed,

    Just to be clear, I am not offering £100 – I was suggesting that Colin did (he can afford it more than I can) – just in case . . . . . . . 😉

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.