One of our minor pet peeves at Skins Matter is manufacturers describing their products as ‘chemical free’.
We’d been meaning to write a blog on this for a while, but planning and this month launching the Free From Skincare Awards tends to get in the way of the best of intentions, and we hadn’t yet got around to it. (Some brilliant entries so far from the manufacturers, by the way, which we’ve started to welcome on Facebook … let’s hope they keep coming!)
Yesterday, we spotted that someone had not only beaten us to it, but done a far better job than we could have in summarising how we see the situation.
So step forward Herb and Hedgerow and take a bow. Their blogpost “The Myth of Chemical-Free Cosmetics” makes several important points. (Read it and come back.)
We know it’s an easy mistake to make in passing — we’ve no doubt done it too — and we’re generally — but not always — quite forgiving of it. We can also make an educated guess at what is intended: ‘free from chemicals’, to people who use the expression, might mean free from the kinds of chemicals which have a poor reputation among natural and ‘free from’ skincare lovers and users, and which tend to be used only by the high street brands, and many of the upmarket or fashionable brands. Petrochemicals, SLS, parabens and so on.
Or … do they mean free from ‘toxic’ chemicals? Well, if so, one could ask what is meant by toxic? Poisonous? Damaging? One molecule of cyanide won’t kill you; several pints of water drunk in quick succession might well. It’s a question of dose: an ingredient isn’t toxic, unless administered at a certain level, specific to that ingredient. We have regulations in place — though many might argue they don’t go far enough — to protect against skincare and food ingredients being used at toxic levels. Many ingredients can be used only at certain concentrations for this very reason.
Or do they mean free from ‘unnatural’ chemicals? Well, some petrochemicals could arguably be described as natural … Or is free from ‘synthetic’ chemicals the intended meaning? Or perhaps ‘artificial’ chemicals? Or … We could go on.
The point is that different people may use ‘free from chemicals’ to signify different things — and that’s a problem which is to be expected when terms are, strictly speaking, misused. The consumer is potentially confused, and the term has no clear meaning.
Because much of our work involves allergies and intolerances, and many of our readers — especially those who come to us via our Foods Matter site — have sensitivities, we often get to hear of skincare products claiming to be ‘allergy free’.
Again, sometimes, we can guess what their manufacturers are trying to say: that they’re free of all the 14 key food allergens, perhaps, or that they’re free of all 26 fragrance allergens which must be declared on labelling, or that the products are hypoallergenic. Sometimes it’s clear, but sometimes we do struggle to work it out … And hypoallergenic doesn’t mean ‘allergy free’ anyway — just that the manufacturer has taken steps to not use common allergens.
Can anything be accurately described as ‘allergy free’? Water, perhaps. Salt too. You can’t be allergic to something your body needs — such as a vitamin. But the body can be allergic to any protein component — and most natural / botanical skincare products have proteins in them. The exception, perhaps, is a pure oil or oil blend — although many come with fragrance allergens, and may cause reactions, or just not ‘suit’ certain skin types. There’s always mineral make-up, I guess — is that always allergy friendly? Perhaps a passing chemist can enlighten us?
And because very little is allergy free, you could say that very little could or should be described as ‘free from nasties’ — another expression we see quite a bit. We know there are some ingredients that some might argue do not belong on anybody’s skin, but for many others, what is nasty to one person may not be nasty to another — just like a peanut may be life-threatening to one and be a good source of nutrition to another. Opinions differ too: some dislike phenoxyethanol, and some don’t mind it. Who has the final say on what is ‘nasty’ in ‘free from’ skincare world, and what is not?
We are guilty here too. But, sometimes, you do need a shorthand. It’s not easy when you’re trying to find a way of summarising all the reasons different consumers may avoid certain ingredients — they could be for health reasons, for ethical reasons, for environmental reasons, for religious reasons, for allergy-related reasons … and there are surely more. We’ve not found a succinct way of defining ‘free from’ skincare, unfortunately.
I guess, at the end of the day, we just like to see specificity in ‘free from’ claims. What, exactly, are you free from? We’re not demanding that you be ‘free from’ every questionable or potentially allergenic ingredient — we just would like you to tell us exactly and specifically what you keep out of your products, or else whose standards you live up to — so that those who do have to or want to avoid certain named chemicals or ingredients can easily do so.
If skincare manufacturers can tell us that — then we can tell our readers!