Originally published in EuroCosmetics (www.eurocosmetics-magazine.com), an international cosmetics trade journal, under the title “Do ‘Educated’ Consumers Really Know What They Are Using? An Inquiry Into the Search for Truth” 26 (2018) 42–45 and is reprinted here by permission.
This article examines the question whether, in the age of easy access to information, cosmetic consumers truly understand what the ingredients are that are listed on the labels of their products. It examines certain specific cases where ingredients are a concern and explores more deeply the science behind these ingredients and methods to search for deeper understanding of the ingredients and their safety and efficacy.
Recently, at an excellent seminar on cosmetic formulating, which was attended by several experts in the industry, I heard someone say that “Consumers are more knowledgeable than ever about what ingredients they are looking for and applying.” This was not the first time I had heard this statement. These things usually percolate for some time before they gel and if you are lucky, an epiphany occurs. Sometime later, such a moment occurred for me.
It is true that consumers have access to significantly more information than ever before. The World Wide Web allows for instantaneous access to information on all manner of topics. The plethora of information available on cosmetic ingredients is no exception. Yet, it occurred to me that even with all the access available, many consumers still believe that sulfate-containing surfactants are cancer-suspect agents. They also believe that paraben preservatives may also be cancer-suspect agents. These beliefs are not restricted to cosmetics alone. They believe that vaccines lead to autism and they believe that untested natural remedies are superior to drugs that have passed through clinical studies.
The principal problem in the existence of such belief systems lies comfortably in the fact that, in many cases, the studies that suggested possible problems (like sulfate surfactants cause cancer) are complex, nuanced, and rarely read. Even reputable resources like the National Geographic Society are not opposed to publishing magazines dedicated to clinically untested Herbal Remedies (Nature’s Best Remedies 2015).
This article addresses some of the ideas around what the consumer really knows, and poses the question: “are they taking the time to understand ingredients and claims?” With all the information available to them, are consumers competent, fully informed experts, that enable them to thoroughly assess “windows” of information generated by reading glimpses of information through untrained minds which, I propose, can still result in differing opinions even among credible experts.
With the above foundation in mind, I will take a deeper cut at understanding these belief systems and their impact on consumers. While the thought process is applicable to many areas, I chose to focus principally on ingredients used in cosmetics but will also touch on herbal remedies and nutraceuticals as well.
The Science Behind Sulfate Surfactants
The Google Search … .
Like any normal consumer, I will typically start a search of a topic with a quick keyword search on Google, Google Scholar, or Bing. These databases provide a powerful source of information, at a very quick glance, and in view of the increasing ability for metadata analysis, have become some of the world’s most sophisticated ad-generating sources.
Any search is only as good as the keywords used to conduct it. I have heard that sometimes consumers confuse sulfate surfactants with sulfate, period. So, something like sodium sulfate and any sulfate containing surfactant gets caught up in the hype, and the consumer may reject a product simply because it has the word sulfate in the ingredient summary.
A search for something like sulfate surfactants and cancer can start easily with a search of “Sulfate Surfactants and Cancer.” In Google Scholar, those key words provide about 78,000 responses in 0.07 seconds. The sheer magnitude of responses must indicate there is something going on … right? Clearly, few of us have time to review all 78,000 responses, so we must focus the search a little more. Being scientifically trained, I often tighten up a search by looking at reviews first. My keywords then become “Sulfate Surfactants and Cancer and Review.” This doesn’t help much; the search goes to 50,000 items which is still too much. I tighten it even more. “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Cancer.” Here again, the search provides 62,000 items in 0.03 seconds; impressive but not helpful! So, I try “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Cancer and Review” and obtain 31,000 hits in 0.12 seconds.
What becomes immediately clear is that the longer the search takes the more likely I am getting closer to my true desired search target. But 31,000 hits are still far too many for the average consumer—let alone a trained scientist—to review quickly. Right away we start to see that, maybe, the average consumer isn’t getting all the details. And the devil, it is said, is in the details. What makes the “simple” search I have proposed more difficult is the name sodium lauryl sulfate is a common name for sodium dodecyl sulfate. The typical consumer likely wouldn’t know this and so right away will foreseeably be missing important details in their search.
PubMed: A Deeper Search Approach
For studies of a biological nature, like the impact of sulfate surfactants on cancer, a very powerful search engine is the U.S. Government’s biomedical literature database called PubMed. This search engine has no fee, and houses 28 million citations that can be searched with strategic keywords. In my first attempt, I use the keywords sodium lauryl sulfate and cancer and I set the surfactant terms in quotation marks, so the search engine recognizes only the exact word matches for the surfactant name. This search then provides thirty-three scientific references which is significantly more manageable than what I was finding in Google Scholar. Using the same thinking process and path I used for my Google search, I then further refined the PubMed search by using the word review; and then I find something more useful. A single paper by W.F. Bergfeld et al., titled “Safety of Ingredients used in Cosmetics” that was published in 2005 in the highly cited Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology appears as the only reference (Bergfeld et al. 2005). This is clearly something that will likely help me start an even more significant search. But how many consumers know to use PubMed, or how to refine keywords to get to something meaningful to answer their fears of the question: “Does sodium lauryl sulfate cause cancer?”
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR)
Very significant in the abstract of Bergfeld’s paper is the fact that mention is made to papers published in the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. The CIR is effectively the primary source of important safety data on ingredients used in cosmetics, and a review of the safety around sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) was published in 1983 and is called “The Final Report” (Elder 1983). The title provides a certain sense of confidence that nothing found after 1983 might change assessments of the safety of sodium lauryl sulfate. But the nature of the scientific method requires that claims constantly be challenged and updated. My thoughts immediately go to what does the average consumer know about the scientific method anyway? In fact, this question opens the door to another: “Can the typical, non-scientific consumer really make a professional judgement from this search protocol I have been describing?” Personally, I think not … . And that is true of many searches done on many areas of interest both within the cosmetic ingredient field and far beyond its purview.
In 2015, Bondi et al. published a good review of the safety of SLS and noted that suggestions of SLS being a potential carcinogen are “egregious” and are likely due to “misinterpretation of the scientific literature” (Bondi et al. 2015). Fair enough that the scientific literature might get misinterpreted or misused by folks for certain marketing claims—but what is the consumer to understand if he or she will not take the time to read the CIR’s review or solid scientific papers like Bondi’s? To the consumer it is likely much easier to assume others know better and to seek products that are “sulfate free,” regardless of what that means to their health.
Bondi suggests that there is “no scientific evidence supporting that sodium lauryl sulfate is a carcinogen.” Published in 2015, that seems like a solid statement of fact and should, one might argue, put that concern to rest. Nope. The claim of “sulfate free” is everywhere and only growing more popular by the day. Don’t believe me? Google search “Sulfate Free” and then click on “Images” and see what pops up. It’s almost overwhelming. There’s even the classic red circle with a slash through it with the word “sulfate” blocked out that appears on some products. Either the consumer doesn’t understand the science of SLS or they simply don’t care. That is the dichotomy of the personal care industry. As I have stated earlier, consumers will not, and should not be expected to, understand the science. Yet in this age of easily searched “information,” this information is not that helpful at getting to the truth.
The Confusion Around Talc
In 2015, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel published their findings on the safety of talc and its use in cosmetics (Fiume et al. 2015). Their conclusion was “… talc is safe for use in cosmetics in the present practices of use and concentration.” Very recently, in a trial in New Jersey, manufacturer Johnson and Johnson (J&J) lost a verdict that talc used in their baby products caused a person to develop mesothelioma, a lung disease associated most commonly with asbestos (Raymond 2018). J&J argued that their talc did not contain asbestos, and more that it would be difficult to inhale quantities that would cause such problems. They argued as well that the person may have been exposed to asbestos in other areas such as piping in the school where the person worked. Regardless, the jury found J&J guilty, and they were ordered to pay $37 million in actual damages which increased to $67 million with punitive damages.
The science on the correlation between asbestos and mesothelioma is solid. The science on the correlation between talc and mesothelioma is nonexistent. But the fact that some talc is known to contain some possible asbestos contamination was sufficient to convince a jury that the baby product was responsible for the person’s disease and the company needs to pay.
While I don’t know what the consumer should believe, I can tell you what they will believe. They won’t take the time to read the CIR Final Report on talc or appreciate the nuanced scientific argument that some talc might contain asbestos, but most does not and is safe to use. What they will read is the headline suggesting that baby powder causes mesothelioma, end of story.
Bilberry and Cardiovascular and Skin Health
In the National Geographic Society book referenced above, one can find on page 42 reference to “Bilberry; A Blue Clue to Cardiovascular Health.” Bilberry is related to blueberries and the fruit is known to contain “anthocyanosides, plant pigments that act as powerful antioxidants in the body.” The article suggests that “Researchers have found that these compounds may help prevent heart disease, oxidative stress, and inflammation.” What the article fails to provide is any references to the research suggested. As an informed consumer, I would need to go and search this myself. So, I did.
Again, going to a scientifically rigorous search engine like PubMed and searching bilberry and cardiovascular, PubMed provides forty-seven references to scientific studies on this topic. The first reference by Habanova et al. published in 2016 is particularly interesting and informative and does reference clinical work on men and women that indicates that ingestion of bilberries has a positive influence on certain targets of cardiovascular health (Habanova et al. 2016). But what appears to be missing in the literature on bilberries is a study that shows that folks who ate a diet rich in bilberries for a long time were able to avoid potential cardiovascular events more than a control group who did not eat bilberries or blueberries or any other anthocyanoside-containing fruits. Does a diet of bilberries help reduce the possibility of a person suffering a cardiac episode? Who knows? But, as a typical consumer, all I need to see is that the National Geographic Society says it might be so and that is probably good enough for me to believe it.
In the cosmetic industry we can see this kind of loose scientific support quite frequently. The correlations between antioxidants and free radical control, and inflammation and aging are growing. But, would a cosmetic product containing vaccinium myrtillus extract (bilberry extract) help slow down the skin’s aging processes? Would the information help people using such a product, containing only the fruit extract, over an extended period (i.e., years), show significant skin aging improvements compared to folks who used a placebo skin cream without antioxidants at all? These kinds of robust, long-term clinical studies are remote.
Cosmetic Ingredient Safety and Efficacy: Yeast Extracts
Many consumers may not be familiar with the way that cosmetic ingredient names are developed. The consumer’s knowledge that ingredient manufacturers submit ingredients to the Personal Care Product Council (PCPC) to obtain an International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) name is probably not that interesting or familiar (Personal Care Products Council Website). For the industry that creates ingredients, and for the informed consumer, the PCPC website is a treasure chest of useful information on cosmetics including product safety data. Many consumers may also turn to websites such as those of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to find information, particularly safety discussions, about ingredients (Environmental Working Group Website).
How About Ingredient Labels?
The ingredient label on the back of a product can be confusing to most consumers. For example, a common ingredient found in many cosmetics is yeast extract. Most consumers would know yeast to mean Baker’s Yeast or possibly more scientifically as Sacchromyces cerevesia. But, what does yeast extract mean to the consumer? What is a yeast extract? How is the yeast extracted? Is it living, growing yeast that are extracted or the more commonly found Baker’s Yeast which is a dormant kind of yeast? The Environmental Working Group unhelpfully defines a yeast extract as “an extract of yeast.” Because it is based on yeast that humans have ingested since our distant ancestors crawled from caves, it is likely quite safe.
But what does a yeast extract do to a person’s skin? It is scientifically well known that yeast share many of the same lipid components that human skin does. But does an aqueous extract of yeast cells carry any of these lipid components? Could an aqueous extract carry some water-soluble precursors that might stimulate the skin’s lipid construction? Does an aqueous yeast extract possibly contain proteins and peptides that might function to improve the skin? It is difficult for a scientist to know the answers here, much less to provide useful information for a somewhat uninformed consumer. A consumer would turn over a bottle and see yeast extract and likely pass right over the name, looking for something that they know they do not want to see in the product, like parabens. The consumer places a tremendous amount of confidence in the product manufacturer that the addition of yeast extract does something meaningful to their skin at the concentrations expected.
As a scientist who has worked for many years developing yeast extracts, I can say with some certainty that yeast is an amazing source of unique skin ingredients. Yeasts build lipids within their cell walls that are identical in most ways to human lipids (components like squalene and lanosterol). I know this, but how would a person picking up a jar of cosmetics and examining the INCI name on the box understand this? Does the consumer really know what they are using? I would argue in most cases they do not. It might be argued that the consumer prioritizes as follows: brand name > product fragrance > product feel > product claims > product afterfeel > product INCI listing. The fact that the typical consumer might start with a trusted brand name can make it very difficult for a smaller, emerging, innovative brand to succeed. Thus, the reason that claims like “sulfate-free” typically develop with smaller, niche brands before they migrate to the larger brands. In a way, the industry can become its own worst enemy.
Of course, yeast extract might be only one of numerous ingredients that appear on the label of a cosmetic product. The more significant challenge is that while I know and understand that yeast can provide beneficial properties to skin, I have no idea what the multitude of ingredients in a finished product might be doing. Usually, a good skin cream contains ingredients to grow skin, to moisturize it, to exfoliate it, to reduce oxidative stress and protect it against environmental assault, and most importantly to make it smell nice and feel great. How all these ingredients, comingled into a single product work in harmony—or not—is an even greater challenge to the industry. The FDA defines a cosmetic as being effectively paint for the skin, not really gaining access to the viable skin cells. But even water applied to the skin likely finds its way to the viable epidermis, so questions of efficacy must also deal with questions of penetration. It is said that the dosage makes the toxin. The same could likely be said for cosmetics and nutraceuticals. And because the labels don’t define concentrations, the consumer is left to assume they are getting a “prescriptible” useful dosage of each ingredient. Again, does the consumer really know what they are looking for and applying?
The argument that consumers are spending their time truly understanding what the ingredients in the cosmetics are doing for them is likely flawed. I do not believe that consumers spend the time to search and understand what the ingredients they are applying are doing for their skin. They expect results and a certain quality of experience that comes with a cosmetic purchase. The onus resides with the industry and more importantly with the ingredient manufacturers to make sure that adequate testing is being completed to support claims about safety and efficacy.
- Bergfeld, W.F., D.V. Belsito, J.G Marks Jr., et al. 2005. Safety of ingredients used in cosmetics. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 52: 125–32.
- Bondi, C.A.M., J.L. Marks, L.B. Wroblewski, et al. 2015. Human and environmental toxicity of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): Evidence for safe use in household cleaning products. Environmental Health Insights 9: 27–32.
- Elder R.I. 1983. Final report on the safety assessment of sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate. Journal of the American College of Toxicology 2: 127–181.
- Environmental Working Group. Available online at https://www.ewg.org.
- Fiume M.M., I. Boyer, W.F. Bergfeld, et al. 2015. Safety assessment of talc as used in cosmetics. International Journal of Toxicology 34(1-Supp):66S–129S.
- Habanova, M., J.A. Saraiva, M. Haban, et al. 2016. Intake of bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus L.) reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease by inducing favorable changes in lipoprotein profiles. Nutrition Research 36: 1415–1422.
- Nature’s Best Remedies. 2015. The world of health and healing all around you. National Geographic. Time, Inc. Washington, D.C.
- Personal Care Products Council. What is INCI? Available online at https://www.personalcarecouncil.org/resources/inci/.
- Raymond, N. 2018. J&J loses trial over claims linking cancer to asbestos in talc. Available online at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-cancer-lawsuit/jj-loses-trial-over-claims-linking-cancer-to-asbestos-in-talc-idUSKCN1HC2PL.