Testing and judging at the FreeFrom Skincare Awards 2017

Every year, to some degree, the Free From Skincare Awards is a bit of a numbers game.

Here are 2017’s: 264 entries (just a few shy of 2016’s total), 120 brands (54 of them first-time entrants), 94 testers, 14 categories, 14 judges, 4 judging days – and only 1 overall winner!

The entries were much more evenly spread between categories than in previous years. Our traditionally large categories (Face Care, Problem Skin and Oils / Serums) were more manageably modest this year, while the typically more humble ones (Men’s Grooming, Fresh & Fragrant, and Hair) upped their game. Lip Balms – previously bundled in with Face Care (Leave On) – was granted its own category for 2017 and we received an excellent batch. All round, there was a terrific spread.

Are we the only Award that encourages greenwashing?!

The testing …
Each tester – most of them former or current Beauty Bible testers, but some Skins Matter readers and product reviewers too – received a bundle of 8-12 products to test solidly for 1 month, with some getting a second batch of around 6 towards the end of the testing period, for another month.

Our testers do a magnificent job; their attention to detail and dedication is second-to-none. They answer a dozen open-ended questions on each product, and score out of 20: 10 for day-to-day usage / ability to do what a product ‘says on the tin’, and 10 for month-long effectiveness and benefits. While we ask for their views on labelling, value for money, fragrance etc, scores focus on how the product works and how it benefits the tester’s skin or hair.

Scoring was high in 2017. Only 40 of the 264 entries averaged a score under 7 out of 10: only 8 under 6 out of 10. The median was 7.8 – which would normally win a medal, quite possibly Silver. Clearly, the shortlisting and medalling thresholds would be higher this year, and it would be down to the expert judging panels to be discriminating, but fair.

The judging …
And those expert judges – most of them cosmetic formulators, brand owners, beauty journalists, allergy bloggers and problem skin sufferers – certainly were, last week …

Their job was not an easy one. They are asked to judge on ingredients, on formulation, on product innovation and versatility, on VFM, on allergy awareness / free-from-ness, on labelling – and their input is combined with that of the Testers to reach overall results.

Sarah (out of shot) scrutinises labels; other judges ponder

While it is very easy and satisfying to upgrade a product for what it does right, it is far tougher to downgrade a product for what it might do wrong. In fact, it can be demoralising. We want products that have performed well with testers to actually do well in the Awards – but they can’t, always. It pains judges, especially when we’re dealing with small or niche brands, which we have always tried to champion.

What were this year’s key misdemeanours? Well, there were a few:

* Not listing declarable fragrance allergens
* Lack of full transparency on ‘parfum’
* non-INCI ingredients list (for instance, identifying the plant, but not which part of the plant)
* suitability for ‘eczema’ – rather than ‘eczema-prone skin’ (i.e. making a medical claim for a cosmetic product)
* alarmist and/or vague free from claims (eg ‘free from nasty toxins’)
* making a free from claim for a product clearly not free from that ingredient or ingredient type
* claiming 100% natural when (permitted) synthetic preservatives were included
* ‘certified organic’ claims – without specifying certifying body or which ingredients were organic

Each of these presented its own problems to judges. Whether to penalise for it at all? If so, how severely? Does one dock 0.1, 0.2 or 0.5 of a point? 1 medal position? 2 medal positions? To de-shortlist or disqualify altogether? To take into account the category? (An error in the Problem Skin category might be more severe than in the Hair care category, for instance.) In many cases, further enquiries have had to be made (many still ongoing) and decisions may depend on responses we receive …

Here is, I guess, where the ‘numbers game’ breaks down. Sometimes, it falls to debate and discussion and acting on hunches – a ‘feel’ for deciding what’s right. Overall, we have tried to be consistent, but with so many variables, and differing judges’ opinions, it is never easy to make tough decisions – particularly in the case of Problem Skin entries, whose testers sometimes had transformative improvements to their skin.

So what can we learn from this?
It tells us that, perhaps, start-up brands are concentrating their efforts on formulation – getting their product recipes spot-on, filling them with incredible natural botanicals – but neglecting other areas, not sticking to the rule book – perhaps not reading the rule book – and not getting their labelling compliant or ‘best practice’.

Decisions can be tough, and can overcome even the best of us, eh Kirsty?

While many have done superbly well, it is the smaller brands who have suffered a little this year, and we will, once the Awards are over in July, give them as constructive feedback as we can.

Results …
We can’t deny, then, that we didn’t end up with some winners which snuck into Gold medal position almost by default. Fine products that they were, one or two products won not because they were magnificent according to our testers, but because they were perfectly good according to our testers – and also made no faux pas according to our expert judges, with excellent labelling and adherence to cosmetic regulations.

So, overall, we can’t always promise the results our participants might wish for or expect, we can promise plenty of worthy winners – and quite a few surprises …

Thank you to all our Testers, our Judges (see them here), our Sponsors (NATorigin, Green People, Beauty Kitchen and Bare & Beyond – for more, see here) – and of course our Entrants, all of whom have been welcomed on our social media channels (see both Twitter and Facebook), who support our Awards so generously, and whose products help and are enjoyed by so many consumers. All of this would be impossible without each and every one of you – and we hope to see as many of you as possible in around six weeks’ time …

The Shortlist for the 2017 Free From Skincare Awards will be announced in early June.
The Winners of the 2017 Free From Skincare Awards will be announced from 3pm on July 7th at the Love Natural Love You Show.
For an insider look at the judging, complete with action pictures, see Michelle’s blog here


  1. Pingback: FreeFrom Skincare Awards – the judging….

  2. Kirsty Mawhinney

    Hi Alex,

    Really enjoyed the article. I especially like the numbers angle. I keep saying it but truly a Skin Care Awards based on integrity. Every brand and product gets a fair shot and is fairly judged by testers and industry experts.

    Thank you again for inviting me to join Free From Skin Care Awards. I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey and look forward to seeing the awards grow from strength to strength and continue to support brands in raising their profile in an extremely competitive and congested market.

  3. Pingback: FreeFrom Skincare Awards 2017: The Winners

  4. Pingback: 3 Fabulous Summer Awards! - Conscious Skincare

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