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.

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