Alex Gazzola reviews the very first FreeFrom Skin Care Awards
For the winners, click here
The FreeFrom Skincare Awards were created to encourage and celebrate the manufacturers of ‘freefrom’ skincare products and cosmetics; free not only from some of the mainstream food allergens (as in the FreeFrom Food Awards) but from many of the chemicals, fragrances and additives that can give grief to those with sensitive and problem skins - and that those who prefer natural and organic skincare products may choose to avoid.
Criteria or entry
However, while identifying food allergens for the food awards is relatively simple, setting the criteria for what would or would not qualify as ‘freefrom’ in skincare was not. Although there is huge concern over some ingredients used in standard skincare products, there is also a wide range of opinion on the safety and desirability of individual ingredients.
Parabens are a prime example of this: considered totally safe in one camp, possibly related to breast cancer in another. Along with our associates, the Beauty Bible, we believe that the jury is still out on parabens but, given the number of people who either need or choose to avoid them, we added them to the list of ingredients which would disqualify a product from entering the awards. Other similarly contentious ingredients on our list included petroleum derivatives, artificial fragrances and peanuts (the most serious food allergen).
The criteria that we finally settled on for the awards are unlikely to match those of any particular manufacturer but we hope will cover most of the needs of ‘freefrom’ consumers.
Besides products with great ‘free from’ attributes, we were also looking for other qualities (specified here), including:
* organic or natural ingredients;
Being the first year we expected - hoped for - fifty or sixty entries. We got three times as many. This presented us with a great deal more administration than we had originally bargained for, especially as we had developed a complex four-stage judging process (see here for details) - but it was fascinating, and we learnt a lot.
The first realisation was that the concept of ‘freefrom’ really does not yet feature very high on the radar of most skincare manufacturers.
On the entry forms we had asked:
* Other than those excluded by the criteria of entry, which other allergens (eg food allergens) is the product ‘free from’?
Around 50% either did not answer these questions or, worse, entered ‘not applicable’. Given that ‘freefrom’ not only featured heavily in the guidelines and criteria for entry, but in the awards’ name, it did make us wonder what kind of a response would be given to a consumer making enquiries about ingredients - hopefully, not “not applicable”!
It is possible that many entrants were treating the awards strictly as a beauty award, and therefore didn’t consider these aspects important, imagining that strong ‘beautifying’ qualities of their products would shine through and impress during judges’ assessments.
Health as well as beauty
But the thinking behind the awards was never primarily about beauty. While, obviously, beautifying aspects come into play, as does the obvious pleasure, and psychological benefit, that using skincare products in a ‘pampering’ sense provides - we were more concerned with issues concerning health, safety, problem-solving, skin sensitivities / allergies, natural and organic qualities, good labelling, skin-beneficial ingredients and so on.
It is also possible that entrants simply did not know whether their products contained food or fragrance allergens, or what their own ‘free from’ properties were, so just skipped the questions. In fact, when we examined the ingredients of a number of these products, we found that they had excellent ‘freefrom’ attributes but had failed to tell their customers - or us!
Without wishing to point fingers, the worst offenders in this area were the entries submitted by publicists or PRs on behalf of skincare clients, which suggests that better briefing and communication between client and publicists about product formulations would be good. We also suspect that allergens, ingredients and ‘free from’ issues aren’t considered important enough yet in the wider consumer landscape. The beauty journalists publicists regularly deal with may rarely make enquiries of this nature. We hope the Awards increases awareness of ‘free from’ and that this situation changes in future.
‘Free From Chemicals’
Good intentions underlie this claim, which appeared on several products, but we would like to discourage it as it suggests that ‘chemicals’ are by definition problematic. All natural ingredients contain chemicals, and we are all made up of them. Water, indeed, is a chemical - ‘dihydrogen monoxide'! So the blanket claim is both meaningless and misleading. If a manufacturer wishes to make a claim of this nature, we would like to see them specify precisely which chemical or type of chemicals the product is free from.
‘Free from’ labelling
As noted above, some products offered good ‘free from’ attributes which we felt weren’t sufficiently conveyed.
Although some products failed to even recognise their own freefrom attributes, we were delighted to see some excellent ‘free from’ boxes and ‘does not contain’ flashes on others - including products from Barefoot, Sukin and Salcura. We hope to see more of these on entries next year as they are enormously helpful for the allergic or sensitive shopper.
We were very pleased to see that two entrants, Premae and Raw Skinfood, stated they are free from a number of the key food allergens, and that our sponsors NATorigin flag up their gluten-free status, as do another shortlisted brand, Sophyto.
However, the sources of many skincare ingredients can be food-based, and these sources were rarely declared on labelling. For example, vegetable oil, tocopherol, glycerine and xanthan gum can all be derived from known food allergens, which may potentially cause reactions amongst those with acute sensitivities and allergies. Our overall winning product, the Qsilica Remove Makeup and Grime Cleansing Gel, included the term “citric acid (from corn/maize)” in its ingredients list - and it is this clarity/transparency that we would like to see on all products, especially where wheat/gluten and tree nuts are concerned.
It is not that we wish to discourage or punish the use of food allergens in skincare products - but we do want their presence (or absence) to be clearly conveyed to the consumer on labelling so that a sensitive/allergic consumer can avoid them if they need to.
Other labelling issues and faux pas…
We were shocked at one product on which we could find no ingredient labelling whatsoever: the product was large, and the label easily spacious enough to allow a detailed listing, and yet it was absent. By our understanding, this is contrary to labelling laws, and the product concerned was disqualified - the only one to suffer this ignominy.
We understand that the term ‘hypoallergenic’ means that efforts have been made to put together a formulation which is free from all or most of the key allergens, including the 26 fragrance allergens which must be declared on cosmetic labelling when present, but nevertheless we would again like to see more specificity concerning the absent ingredients.
Claims of being ‘dermatologically tested’ - isn’t it all? - appear meaningless to us, but if this is an important declaration for reasons unknown to us, we’d be very interested in hearing them.
Some labelling was illegibly tiny - and some products were demoted because of it. People with sensitivities who need ‘free from’ skincare must be able to find, read and understand the ingredients of the product they wish to buy.
We also found that, occasionally, marketing information or other irrelevant text (such as, in one memorable example, spiritual proclamations) were given priority over (the far more important) ingredients, or directions for use. This text ‘noise’ detracts from key messages which sensitive or health-conscious consumers are looking for, can be frustrating, and eats up their time when shopping for products.
The primary aim of the FreeFrom Skincare Awards is to encourage ‘free from’ skincare and improve the availability of effective, safe products to sensitive consumers with skincare issues and those looking for organic and natural products.
Assessing exactly which those will be and what criteria we should apply to them is a delicate balance, and will no doubt change and develop as the Awards progress in years to come. Growing the Awards must be an organic process. We have only just started the learning process so any feedback on the issues raised above would be very welcome.
For further information please email the FreeFrom Skin Care Awards.