‘Free-from claims are based on fear and should stop‘ reads the headline of a report from Cosmetics Design Europe, which is drawn from remarks made by an industry panel at a recent In-Cosmetics Summit meeting.
Are they? I don’t read ‘free from animal derivatives’ and quake in my shoes. ‘Alcohol free’ is not a message which incites the fight or flight reflex in me. ‘Free from artificial fragrances’? I remain free from trembles.
More to the point, none of these messages give me the impression that animal derivatives, alcohol in cosmetics, or artificial fragrances are unsafe, as the CTPA, and other commenters in the article, appear to assume applies across the board.
To criticise a labelling term – a mere expression of English – is to fail to recognise (or perhaps admit to) the actual problem. That problem is the abuse or arguable misuse of the ‘free from’ term, not its existence. Examples? The nonsensical ‘free from chemicals’, for instance. The alarmist ‘toxin free’. The lazy ‘free from nasties’. We disapprove of all.
Other examples are perhaps subtler. We are uncertain about ostentatious displays of ‘free from’ labelling that could be argued to be capitalising on trends or public misunderstanding. For instance, while we support ‘gluten free’ labelling on skincare on the basis that many are genuinely concerned about it, on balance we feel it would be better incorporated discretely among other free from messages, which is why we had mostly positive, but not exclusively positive, views about the launch of a gluten-free skincare line last year.
What about parabens? This preservative is the one that appears to get the industry’s back up the most; it’s the homeopathy of the skincare world, that polarises like no other. We have no reason to believe those approved for cosmetic use are not safe within the limits permitted, but recognise that many wish to avoid them. We neither approve of parabens scare-mongering, nor can criticise brands for excluding them. Most importantly, as far as we’re concerned, is the fact that you can be allergic to parabens: they appear on key contact dermatitis testing panels.
Why is industry ignoring those with allergy?
And it is because of the subject of allergy that we are most frustrated at the comments made. Judging by the article, the importance of free from labelling to those who react to skincare ingredients was not taken into account at all. Neither were the views of those with religious, ethical or environmental sensibilities acknowledged – for whom such expressions as ‘free from alcohol’ and ‘free from animal derivatives’ and ‘free from petrochemicals’ are invaluable. None of these is about fear. A ‘nut free’ message on either food or cosmetics does not send the non-allergic individual into a Macadamia-induced panic attack. We all recognise that that notification is not meant for us.
As they are the ones who seem so concerned about it, perhaps the mainstream cosmetics industry and their representative trade bodies should focus their efforts on education: on who ‘free from’ labelling is for, and who it is not for. While they’re about it, perhaps some education is required closer to home, given the past president of the UK Society of Cosmetics Scientists’ baffling claim that ” … a free-from claim is not a scientific one” – which is an insult to any skincare brands who submit their products for laboratory (yes, science-based) testing in order to demonstrate and support a particular ‘free from’ status.
Criticising the system merely punishes those who find it invaluable as a shortcut to ploughing through sometimes impenetrable lengthy lists of ingredients. Tarring the whole of ‘free from’ with a brush of fear is an arrogant stance to take: a blinkered position that blindingly supports the big guys over the small guys, the mass consumer over the niche or allergic consumer. The latter are not always afraid: they’re concerned only with living their life healthily and as they choose. ‘Free from’ helps them, and we support it.
In reality, the only real fear I sniff in all this is that of an industry seemingly fearful that small brands producing ethical, natural and ‘free from’ products are gaining an increasing foothold in consumer consciousness. What’s that all about, I wonder?