Where’s the real fear when it comes to ‘free from’ skincare?

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.

The article on Cosmetics Design Europe

The article on Cosmetics Design Europe

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.

Great 'free from' products - and past winners of the FF Skincare Award

Great ‘free from’ products – and past winners of the FF Skincare Award

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?


  1. What Allergy?

    I’m so confused by their stance on this that I don’t know where to start exactly. Anyone with a nut allergy who has reacted to arachis oil in cosmetics and products intended to sensitive eczema skin will know how horrendous the reactions can be. Just imagine having a bath in nuts! It wasn’t pleasant. It’s not about fear at all it’s about choice. People who aren’t interested in these claims probably don’t even recognise them. There is also the people with sensitive skin. This isn’t an allergic reaction per se but an irritation. Many ingredients in cosmetics and skin care products do this for me and I’m learning what they are. Parabens are one of them, so I want to know if something is paraben free. Why is that even an issue? Why are we even having this conversation? I’m so appalled by this argument from the industry panel and am totally fed up with their attitude. I am fed up of dealing with ignorant people who judge me for being too fussy and thinking allergies are not serious business. I can show a picture of hives on my back after using some skin cream. No idea which ingredient but the reactions are very real. What other condition can you belittle and bully and dismiss in this way? They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

    I have the same arguments with those in the wine industry, most so called experts not even aware that some wine can contain milk, once educated will then bleat on about how there would be so little left as to have no effect on the person with the allergy. You try telling that a coeliac who has drunk wine from barrels sealed with wheat or corn paste. My skin goes bright red all over if I drink wine with milk in it. It also makes me feel quite unwell and that nothing to do with the amount drunk. It is not enough to give me anaphylaxis but it makes me sick and ruins my night so why shouldn’t I have the right to check, choose and decide what to drink accordingly. Just last night I got right royally wheated on a night out drinking. I knew I’d had the wrong drink ordered; lager instead of the real ale I knew to be wheat free. Within a few minutes of drinking it my tummy was hurting and it’s been painful morning today but I think most of the ‘wheat’ has now left my body!

    OK rant over.

    1. Alex (Post author)

      “Why are we even having this conversation?” is a question I can’t quite answer myself. It does seem crazy. There is occasional misuse and abuse of free from labelling, but that’s no reason to ban it – in the same way that some people misuse and abuse public parks, all-you-can-eat buffets, free parking, the welfare system and email, to name a handful of useful things which spring to mind – which also should not be banned!

      1. Sue

        I think we all know why we are having this conversation – because the chemical giants that make up the industry don’t want Free from and neither do their lobbyists or trolls, it’s not good for their business – its not about what’s best for the consumer at all…

        1. Alex (Post author)

          It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the larger, mainstream beauty giants aren’t keen on free from for that reason – but if this were true, I’m surprised they consider it such a threat. It’s still remarkably niche – far more so than say gluten free food in the food world. We don’t see Hovis getting upset about gluten-free labels ….

          1. Sue

            To a degree the reasons some choose Free form is niche, but for others its a choice about health as well. Putting Free from parabens, BPAs etc may well make others want to check out the reasons why this is. There are many substances in everyday mainstream products from that I choose to avoid for health reasons only and a desire for good health isn’t a niche. To quote the Breast Cancer UK website – 50% of us born after 1960 will now get cancer in our life time – so I personally think we’re all going to need all the help we can get.

          2. Sue

            P.s. Keep up the good work!

          3. Alex (Post author)

            I think this is where we perhaps diverge slightly in opinion. I don’t believe the case against parabens to be proven, and have some sympathy with the view of those who believe the anti-parabens movement has been alarmist. Other breast cancer charities are reassuring, for example: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/cancer-controversies/cosmetics-and-toiletries#Cosmetics0

            Thanks for the support!

      2. Soul of Nature

        I completely agree with you. just because something it’s misused it doesn’t mean that it should be banned, just regulated more strictly

  2. Pingback: Defending Free From … Again

  3. Sue

    The sample you give is a company that gets it funding for researching a cure for cancer, it has nothing to do with researching prevention. Only 3.5% of UK cancer funding is going to towards researching prevention currently. Breast Cancer UK and other cancer charities that specifically research prevention tell a very different story from those researching a cure. Cancer is just one of the health factors I consider when buying. Given the limited research and knowledge around the risks I feel no need to expose myself to any more chemicals than absolutely necessary and our planet certainly doesn’t need them either. At the end of the day it’s consumer choice, and Free from labelling helps customers make that choice. Stay safe!

    1. Alex (Post author)

      Everything is a chemical. There are the same amount of chemicals in a parabens-free product as a parabens-containing product – and we’re not sure the alternatives to parabens have been tested to any degree greater than the testing for parabens, for safety. The weight of conventional scientific opinion is that parabens are safe, do not cause cancer, and I am fully inclined to believe them. Thanks again.


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