Free From Claims On Cosmetics


Free From Claims On Cosmetics

My good friend Dene Godfrey wrote an article for personal care truth denouncing the practice of free from the claims on cosmetics. This is very much the kind of thing Dene does, and he did it very well. Normally he beats all oppostion into instant submission, but this time there was a riposte to it from a blog called Skin Matters, which although I wouldn’t call them great friends is a blog I read from time to time and generally appreciate. This response was also very well-written and made some good points. To sum up the debate, Dene asserted that free from claims were not based on scientific evidence and had the effect of alarming consumers about non-existent risks. Skin Matters replied by saying that some people have genuine problems, and there was a need for products to address this. In fact Skin Matters are so convinced of the general goodness of free from claims that they have instigated an award for free from products.

I’m a bit bemused as to what exactly constitutes an award-winning free from product. I’d have thought that any free from claim was equally valid with any other. After all they all contain exactly the same lack of the stuff they are avoiding, so I’d call that a dead heat.

Perhaps it makes sense to some people.

Both the protagonists in this argument expressed themselves them very well and I cannot really do any more than pop the links to the debate below – and particularly draw your attention to a very good comment on the Skin Matters blog post by Perry Romanowski.

But what is the reality about free from claims?

I should say that like nearly everybody else on the scientific side of the cosmetic industry I really hate free from claims. I’m naturally inclined to side with Dene’s viewpoint. But I will also concede the point made by Skin Matters that there is a need for some free from products for those people who have real problems.

But the interesting question is why do they make so many of us so angry?

One thing it certainly isn’t is a question of the big boys in conventional products beating up the little guys in the natural product sector. Free from claims are used by lots of the biggest cosmetic companies on some of the highest selling brands around the world. You tend to associate them more with the natural product sector, but I don’t really think of that as being distinct from the rest of the cosmetics industry. If you’re making cosmetics and selling them, you’re in the cosmetic business. In reality a lot of the natural products are formulated and made by the same people who do the standard ones anyway. And I’m just as annoyed when I see a large company making a free from claim as when a small company does it.
And this isn’t simply about scientific rigour either. A great many claims made for cosmetic products across the whole industry really don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny at all. But they don’t annoy me to anything like the same extent.

I think the reason that free from claims are so annoying is the fact that they play on fear.

And this is where the Skin Matters people don’t understand the situation as well as Dene does. Fear is a powerful emotion. We evolved in a world where a rustle in the bushes was quite likely to be a tiger. It’s little wonder that we are constant look at for things that threaten us no matter how innocuous they seem. We are hardwired to exaggerate the risks we come into contact with. This is something marketers know very well. When they come up with a free from claim they are quite aware of what they’re doing. I know this for sure; I’ve been in the meetings.

So when I see a free from claim on a pack I remember times when I’ve been asked to dig out negative stories on particular chemicals in order to backup scaremongering claims. It just feels like emotional blackmail.

As with a lot of things, it’s not so much what you do as the way that you do it. There are companies that genuinely want to provide products to meet the needs of people who have problems with particular ingredients. And this is a very good thing. So for example there are people who have a genuine and serious problem with gluten. Although as a scientist I doubt very much that there is any cosmetic formulation that would actually provoke any kind of reaction for a person has a genuine gluten intolerance, I can fully understand why they would prefer not take the risk. But that situation is a very different one to simply putting free from on the label just make your product sound different from similar ones. I suppose it is tempting to try and get a powerful marketing benefit without even paying for it. But it is straight out manipulation.

Free from claims are so ubiquitous that you can’t really realistically boycott products that make them, and in any case as I’ve said there are some free from claims that are okay. But I would urge you to take a dim view of free from claims when you see them. The chances are that they are trying to put one over on you and if there is an equivalent product that is being more straightforward I suggest that is where you spend your money.

And here is the YouTube version

Defending Free From … Again

10 thoughts on “Free From Claims On Cosmetics”

  1. Hi Colin,

    Thanks for addressing this topic – I’m always interested in what you have to say on matters cosmetic – and I’m glad you appreciate what we do from time to time too.

    In turn I’m a bit bemused that our Awards should bemuse you, though. Replace ‘free from’ for vegetarian. Should an award for the best vegetarian foods be declared a dead heat because they are equally successful in containing no meat / fish? As we’ve said elsewhere, we judge on many different factors – ‘free from’ attributes being just one. Entries are submitted for month-long testing and then subject to week-long round-table judging panels, so it’s tough not to feel disappointed that our carefully and independently judged award is being reduced solely to one aspect, which happens to feature in its name, that critics have chosen to focus on.

    I note that you dislike ‘free from ‘ claims and yet appreciate the need for an MI-free product list on your site. I imagine in your experience this has proven useful to those with MI-allergy – just as in our experience MI-free claims – or other allergy-related free from claims – have proven useful on cosmetics to our readers.

    Other points we’ve addressed on our own blog (and in its comments) which you’ve kindly linked to, so you’ll forgive the reluctance to keep repeating myself.

    All the best,
    Alex Gazzola
    Deputy Editor, Skins Matter
    Co-Founder, FreeFrom Skincare Awards

    1. Hello Alex – I am always impressed by people who have actually done something given that most of us rarely succeed in achieving anything at all. So well done for getting your Free From Award up and running. These things involve a lot of work and I don’t doubt you have undertaken it in the sincere belief that it is worthwhile. But I nonetheless cannot regard it as something I can approve of.

      ‘Free from’ is not like vegetarian. Vegetarian is a clear and distinct category. We all know what it means. I estimate that there are about 200 different chemical types used in cosmetics – and cosmetic formulations rarely contain more than twenty of them. So every cosmetic on the shelf is free from most cosmetic ingredients. And while there are various different reasons for being a vegetarian, all vegetarians know why they themselves are. And they know that they are vegetarians. People with specific allergies to particular chemicals need products that are free of their tormentor. They don’t need products that are free of anything else.

      People allergic to MI have a very real problem with a chemical that is used very widely. It is therefore helpful to provide a list of the products that don’t contain it. But with the exception of MI allergy sufferers, cosmetic formulators and analytical chemists who are tooled up to measure it at less than 0.0003%, its presence is of no interest whatever. Replacing it with another preservative will give a product that is exactly the same from the consumers point of view, though there will probably be more skin reactions to it. MI is not particularly prone to causing reactions compared to preservatives in general. Being MI free is only a virtue to a very small subset of the market.

      So I remain of the opinion that providing lists of products that are free of MI is a lot more useful than embracing ‘free from’- a general and rather nebulous term.

  2. I find free from useful! As I’m not sure what I’m allergic to I tend to avoid the usual suspects and seem to be alright.

    Do you know why African black soap is supposed to be so good for you?

    1. I am afraid I haven’t heard of African black soap so I don’t know why it would be good for you. I’ll look out for it.

  3. Hi Colin

    It’s a mystery to me. I’ve had a look at their list of excluded ingredients and it makes absolutely no scientific sense at all. I genuinely can’t understand some of the exclusions. ‘Natural’ fragrance is allowed Naturals are far higher in allergenic compounds such as limonene, citral, cinnamyl alcohol, geraniol and eugenol just to mention a few. In fact, more than half of the allergens that need to be listed in the INCI list are naturals. There was a biologist and a pharmacist on their panel but all the rest seem to be from the non scientific community.

    This is all fine of course, people are perfectly within their rights to set up whatever business (I presume it is a business and you have to pay to enter) they want. However, I’m struggling to see the benefit to the consumer. Natural is certainly not always better than synthetic, far from it.

    If you have a sensitisation issue then I’d go for a patch test and find out what it is. Simply guessing what it could possibly be just doesn’t make any sense.

  4. Hi Colin,

    That ‘free from’ is not like vegetarian has no bearing on the point I was making, which was that an award should not be judged exclusively on whether or not it succeeds in meeting the entry criteria, or living up to its name, as implied by your ‘dead heat’ shot. I was drawing a comparison, not equating the two.

    You’re right that everyone knows what ‘vegetarian’ means and not everyone understands what ‘Free From’ is. Well, this is where we were with ‘vegan’ maybe a decade ago. This is where we still are with ‘Paleo’, to some extent. I fail to see why ‘non understanding’ should hamper proceedings for those who do understand.

    People who live ‘free from’ understand ‘free from’. People who work in ‘free from’ understand ‘free from’. It seems that chemists are bit bamboozled by ‘free from’, so here’s a handy guide.

    ‘Free from food’ is food which is free from one or more of the most common ingredients people need or want to avoid – such as gluten, nuts, eggs, milk. – which might ordinarily be present. Previously, the ingredients were the 14 nominated food allergens, but more recently the sector has grown to incorporate food colourings, sugar and a few other non-allergen ingredients.

    We have ‘free from’ food aisles in supermarkets. ‘free from’ consumers know that if they are an ingredient-avoider – of any kind – that is, allergy sufferers, vegans, coeliacs, religious, or other – they’re more likely to strike lucky in the free from aisle, although it’s no guarantee, because allergens are permitted. They have to be permitted, or there’d be little there, as most products use at least one allergen.

    Free from foods typically contain 5, 10 or 20 ingredients too. And there are thousands of food ingredients out there. So, yes, every food on the shelf is free from most food ingredients. But that is no obstacle to understanding what is meant by the term defined above – at least, not to consumers or those involved in ‘free from’ food – who also understand that food outside ‘free from’ may well be suitable for them.

    We see it analogously in skincare. Again, I’m drawing a comparison.

    ‘Free from skincare’ is skincare free from some of the ingredients that in our experience consumers most commonly need or want to avoid – such as allergens, animal derivatives, synthetic fragrances, and so on. This is the definition we operate on. Reasons for avoidance are as varied as they are for food – allergy, sensitivity, ethical considerations, personal taste etc. NB. Not all these reasons concern science.

    If you’re an ingredient(s) avoider, you’re more likely to find what you want or need by looking at the ‘aisle’ that is our Free From Skincare Awards – this is because entries have to meet our criteria of excluded ingredients, chosen not to be an exhaustive or complete list of any kind, nor to make any scientific statement, but to set a certain ‘standard’ and qualifying threshold that was neither too strict nor too ‘lenient’, to increase the likelihood that entries meet the needs and wants of as many ‘free from’ consumers as possible. As in food, some allergens / ingredients people may wish to avoid are permitted (but regularly reviewed). They have to be, or there’d be too few products to make a viable award. As in food, consumers may also find what they want or need elsewhere.

    It is that straightforward.

    People have questioned our science but we’re not making any real statements of science. We’re not saying mainstream cosmetics are dangerous, or that chemists are wrong, or that a permitted ingredient is less allergenic / unsafe than any named excluded ingredient.

    Likewise, ‘free from’ food manufacturers, ‘free from’ food aisles, and the ‘Free From’ food awards are not saying nuts are toxic, or food technologists are wrong, or that corn is better than wheat.

    ‘Free from’ folk understand all of the above. It’s the critics who don’t appear to.

    A lot has surprised me about this argument. That chemists are commenting so vigorously on what they appear to have not taken the time to understand is perhaps what has surprised me the most.

    All the best, Alex.

    1. Alex, I think the chemists understand very well. The use of free from claims is one of the more blatant examples of using chemophobia to sell products, and in the process demonise chemicals. If you are a chemist this is a pretty horrific thing to do. It is not surprising that some of us react very emotionally. You are hitting at some of our most deep seated values. I suspect even when you get what sound like very calm and rational responses like the one Chris Gummer made on your blog post, there was probably a period of intense anger at an early stage. I am sure you regard yourself as helping to make the world a better and safer place, but some of us regard giving prizes to scaremongers in much the same way that Roman senators probably felt when the emperors were giving laurel crowns to barbarian chiefs.

  5. Hi Colin,

    Love your detailed and articulated article.

    I too find it uncomfortable how easily manipulated we are by fear. I am not addressing those that NEED to avoid certain products for health reasons, but your regular men and women who are warned against certain foods, chemicals, etc. You should know what you eat or put on your face, but it seems that we are in a spiral where rumours amount to more than facts.

  6. Hi Colin,

    No, no anger towards Chris, and no such lofty ambition about our niche and modest award – which is not about safety, as I’ve said elsewhere – having any role in the ‘world’.

    All the best,

  7. hi Collin you’re my fav blogger coz u provide readers with excellent info and fab judgements. i do appreciate your hard work. long live my idol:))))

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