I work in an interesting world comprising of medicine, nursing and wellness. At one end the scale, my work is very objective, and the other full of subjective potential. I come to this article series with a variety of opinions, and in some areas I am not sure which side to choose, if one at all. Just as what we eat has the potential to poison, does what we put on our skin have the potential to harm us and our world?
Chemophobia, animal testing and pollution are just three of the main ethical battlegrounds in skincare today. Chemophobia is a very grey area, not only does it draw alot of emotion, but because everything around us is chemical- where do we draw the line? New technologies have given us the potential to prevent harm to living creatures on a monumental scale- but why is it so hard to abandon completely? Our latest products may clean our skin, but their production costs, ingredients and packaging might be damaging our ecosystems at an alarming rate.
These debates are more than just battle cries for the warriors; they are essential knowledge for consumers of skincare who fight with their dollars. Skincare has always been very personal, particularly to women, and has been an area where the arguments are very for or against. I studied ethics and philosophy as part of my undergraduate coursework, and I felt compelled to write something meaningful about an industry that provides skin health to vain beauty.
Skincare is more than an object; it is part of an industry that sparks widespread controversy amongst its critics and devotees. It has been the centre of campaigns from animal rights groups. It has begun a war between natural and chemical ingredients, and has been recently highlighted as detrimental to our environment. The uprising of the internet has enabled people to share opinions and facts about their favourite and not-so-favourable products. Unfortunately, the open access nature of the internet has also negatively contributed to debate, with many sources and arguments falling back on unsubstantiated, anecdotal and poor evidence. This problem does not only lie with the scaremongers and the whistle blowers: the industry also is subject to the same pitfalls. This article series sets about to explore the main ethical dilemmas in skincare today: chemophobia, animal testing and environmental pollution.
The skincare and beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar sector across the globe. Skincare products range from supermarket brands to top of the line paramedical products, with newer products regularly hitting the shelves. By 2017, total profits in the US are expected to exceed $400 billion, and skincare represents approximately one third of this figure (Yeomans, 2012). The largest sector of this market is anti-aging products, driven by the baby boomer market. More recently, growth in the Asian market has seen a rise in the demand for pigmentation treatments. As more and more innovative products hit our stores and bathroom shelves, there is a growing concern from a significant portion of consumers regarding ingredients, testing and the impact on our environment.
Part One: Chemophobia
Chemophobia is defined as the ‘irrational fear of chemicals’, but what is a chemical? Technically everything is a chemical, they are just substances. However, most people associate the word chemical with harmful substances like corrosive acids, heavy mineral deposits and carcinogens. However, the very air we breathe and water we drink are also chemicals. Unfortunately, marketing has taken hold of chemophobia and turned it into a money making machine. Associate Professor Stemwedel (2013) notes that chemophobia is a result of genuine public concern over ingredients used by corporations – but is it with good reason? Stemwedel believes so. Some ingredients used in skincare products in the past have been proven harmful, such as lead, mercury and hydroquinone, whereas other ingredients are only suspected carcinogens, irritants or toxins. Some of the most talked about chemicals in skincare today are sodium lauryl sulphate and parabens.
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate [SLS] is a foaming agent used to create bubbles and break down grease. SLS makes products very bubbly, and consumers love things that foam. SLS has been shown to increase skin reactions (particularly the scalp and face where it binds with oil) in client groups with sensitive and allergic skin types (Green Beauty Team, 2012). A proportion of the population may use SLS with no reactivity whatsoever and SLS is not considered an ingredient of concern by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. There are safer alternatives to Sodium lauryl sulphate, and there are plant-based surfactants such as Quillaja Saponaria that can give the same foamy effect consumers love.
Parabens are a group of substances used as a preservative in cosmetics. Parabens can be naturally occurring substances in items such as fruit and vegetables, and act as a natural preservative. It has been theorised that parabens are linked with breast cancer, as it is an endocrine disruptor. An often-quoted study in 2004, found parabens present in 19 out of 20 breast tumours (cited in Safe Cosmetics Action Network, 2011). It was also noted that the concentration of parabens does not correlate with the extensiveness of disease. In a larger study, parabens were found in urine and underarm areas, in many persons without breast cancer. Cause and effect have not been proven with all parabens (Safe Cosmetics Action Network, 2011) and some individual parabens have been banned from use in the EU because there is a concern that parabens are endocrine disruptors (MindBodyGreen). Many companies today choose to use paraben free products, as they fear they would lose customers, even though there is no scientific data suggesting abstaining from all paraben use.
Other Chemicals of Concern
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics highlights other ingredients in skincare that are of concern, and many of them are restricted by Australian regulatory authorities. These include:
- Butylated compounds
- Coal tar
- MEA, DEA and TEA
- Synthetic musks and fragrances
Where do we draw the line?
Our bodies are designed to process chemicals, and they are really good at it if we do not bombard ourselves with them, harmful or helpful ones. What is in fact detrimental about chemicals is the ability for our body to process them, and what happens to us when we overload ourselves.
When we think about chemicals, the problem is that we start to associate the moral concepts of good and bad with inanimate objects. A chemical is not innately good or bad. They do not have intentions, they are just atoms clustered together as molecules with lose or tight chemical bonds. When we start to perceive the inanimate world around as harmful, we begin to make decisions based on fear, generating enormous amounts of anxiety. Fear is far more powerful than trust, and negative experiences can outweigh positive ones 3:1.
It is true that consumers needs to be aware of the substances they are purchasing and using on their skin, however; generating unnecessary fear can steer consumers away from products and treatments that may beneficial. Some substances may be accepted to have risks, but also of great benefit. Examples include chemotherapy, UV light therapy and steroid creams. Why is skincare any different? Why have consumers and marketers alike hooked on catch phrases such as ‘chemical free’? There is no money to be had in highlighting chemicals purely due its poor publicity, namely from anecdotal and poor evidence misconstrued like a game of Chinese Whispers.
There are certain ingredients that need to be avoided because they a) they cause a reaction b) are inferior or c) are harmful. Known sensitivities are of largest concern because they can cause serious allergic reactions. Common ingredients that are known to cause allergies are fragrances, colours, SLS and alcohol. Certain ingredients are also used in products as cheap alternatives to better, more expensive products. Mineral oil is a prime example of this. Better bang for your buck can be had in another product. Mineral oil is used to emulsify surface oils and help products bind to the skin. Use of the word harmful is traitorous without defining what harmful really is. Harmful is defined as ‘anything that will damage the body’. In truth, everything has the potential to be harmful given the right dose, even water. This again shows where chemophobia can stem from, and it is important to define the line we are not prepared to cross. Small traces elements of ‘toxic’ chemicals are normal in the body, and do not cause any harm, however some are considered to have no safe level.
Do consumers have a right to know about the source of the ingredients used in their products? Why are we so concerned about the ‘natural-ness’ of our anti-wrinkle creams? or the denatured content of our acne washes? What is it about skincare that has people drawing a line in the sand?
I feel that it is because the responsibility of skincare is on the consumer. If we fail to do the right thing, it is our fault. There is no specialist to blame for making the wrong call on a prescription. The onus is on the consumer, and they pay for it with their time, money and outcomes. Chemicals have been so scare mongered and harassed to the nth degree with poor evidence, that the consumer is convinced that there is a chance of harm. Though the harmfulness of certain ingredients has been well established, the long-term risks and benefits of many ingredients are not defined well enough to make a conclusive call. However, consumers are not gamblers— they want safety, comfort, and natural, reinforced by chemical free slogans that reassure them of their investment.
The Power of Social Media
Commentators, bloggers, marketing and media have the power to influence the public on their quest for skincare knowledge. Most Australian homes have access to the internet and are often the first (and only) source of information for many consumers. Internet bloggers on YouTube and social media have an influence that is estimated in the millions of dollars in profit. One great slogan or bad review can turn sales over its head. Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider the role of social marketing in dispelling myths and setting the records straight when it comes to chemophobia.
Organic v Natural v Harmful
Organic pesticides are harmful too as the very nature of a pesticide is to kill. The suffix cide means ‘the act to kill’ i.e. homicide, genocide, regicide, suicide, vaticide and infanticide. Any form of pesticide is able to cause harm to our bodies. The words organic and natural give no indication of the safety of a skincare product on the skin. No matter if consumers are choosing organic, natural or not, the safety is in always in the product testing.
Regulation of Skincare Ingredients in Australia
The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme is a government body that has regulation jurisdiction over products that:
- Protect the body
- Alter its odours
- Perfume it
- Change its appearance
- Cleanse it
- Maintaining it in good condition
NICNAS has labelling requirements for cosmetic and skincare products. It lists prohibited and regulated ingredients, and uses the Cosmetics Standard 2007 as its guide. In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has minimal regulation of cosmetics, and deals with therapeutic grade sunscreens and acne treatment products.
Looking for More Information
Consumers should always have the ability to find out more product information if they want to. If you are curious about the ingredients in your skincare, start first by familiarising yourself with ingredients. A few resources suggest that if you cannot pronounce the name of the ingredient it should not be on your skin. I would suggest that this is naive and is in fact disempowering to the consumer. If knowledge is power, this method does not provide you with any more knowledge.
Is DHMO (dihydrogen monoxide) safe on your skin? The internet recently back-lashed against chemophobia with a campaign on DHMO, stating that this harmful substance was responsible for nausea, vomiting, burns, death when inhaled and metal corrosion. The campaign also highlighted that DHMO is found in tumour cells, cleaning solvents, acid rain and industrial waste. Indeed this chemical name for water can be hard to pronounce as some other nastier ingredients, but it does not mean it is a toxic skincare ingredient.
Independent organisation Safe Cosmetics Australia [SCA] offers certification for ‘toxic free’ cosmetic products and a list of toxins to avoid. Unfortunately, this resource does not cite any references and therefore the quality of information presented is difficult to assess— this appears to be common amongst internet resources on skincare ingredients. International organisation Campaign for Safe Cosmetics appears to present a balanced report of cosmetic ingredient hazards and research.
When searching for information, consumers need to read with an objective eye. Consumers need to watch out for emotive sentences that provide no factual information, such as ‘ingredient x also used in floor cleaner’. These types of sentences only serve to play to the reader and inconclusive phrases such as ‘may alter DNA’, ‘possible carcinogen’ and ‘may be toxic to organs’ can generate fear amongst consumers.
Another note of concern when reviewing internet sources is the use of the word ‘known allergen’. Allergies are an immune reaction, and every person has the capability to be allergic to a number of substances, regardless of population trends. Consumers need to look for conclusive and emerging evidence that draws strong links between dangerous ingredients and illness, not allergy.
There are many ingredients in skincare products that would be best left off skin, but generating unnecessary fear about chemicals illegitimates genuine concern. Consumers should be concerned about known carcinogens and other harmful ingredients. Generating fear over possibilities is simply anxiety. Companies have a statutory obligation to disclose their ingredients to consumers, though in the end, consumers have the ultimate responsibility to consider what they put on their skin, and spend.
If you have questions about how to care for your skin make an appointment to see our skincare specialists. Contact Us Today!
Green Beauty Team. (2012). Toxic ingredient glossary, Green Beauty Team.
NICNAS. (2014). Cosmetics, NICNAS.
Safe Cosmetics Action Network. (2011). Parabens, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Safe Cosmetics Action Network. (2011). Chemicals of concern, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Stemwedel, J.D. (2013). When #chemophobia isn’t irrational: listening to the public’s real worries, Scientific American.
Mind Body Green. (2014). Why beauty products are toxic & what you can do about it.
Yeomans, M. (2012). Global beauty market to reach $265 billion in 2017 due to an increase in GDP, Cosmetics Design.