Free From “Free From”

Over recent years, there has been a massive increase in the use of “free from . . . “ in the selling of cosmetic products, especially in the natural/organic sector of the market. In many (the worst) cases, the promo material gives a long list of what the product DOESN’T contain, but no mention whatsoever of what it DOES contain! This is negative marketing (and the omission of the ingredient list is illegal in some countries), and not everyone is impressed with this tactic. In fact, in Canada, France and South Africa, the practise is banned through the national codes of practise for the industry.

Common “free froms”:

Chemicals (!)

Toxins (or, sometimes  – and incorrectly – “toxics”)


Petroleum products




The list goes on . . . . .

Sometimes, the substances listed as not being present are not even used as cosmetic ingredients!  So why is this marketing method perceived as being so bad that some countries ban it?

Whilst negative marketing itself can be a useful tactic, the beauty industry is supposed to be a positive industry – look good, feel better! To use negative tactics seems to go against the nature of the whole industry, but there is much more to it than this. To proclaim any particular material as being absent implies that there is a reason for its exclusion – because it is not safe –and, therefore, by implication, any product that DOES contain that ingredient is also not safe. This is misleading so, surely, it must be wrong. There are some examples of large companies who have jumped onto the “free from” bandwagon, having some ranges “free from x”, but other ranges containing the ingredient. This gives an even more confusing message to the consumer. Why would any company sell some product that is safe, and some that (apparently) is not? It is also difficult to understand why some companies are far more keen to tell the customer what they don’t put into their products, rather than what IS in there. What are they hiding?

A further issue, worryingly common, is the case where a company claims free from x when, in fact x is present, particularly in the case of “free from chemicals”. This is a particularly ridiculous claim as everything in existence is chemical. What is actually meant is “free from synthetic chemicals”, but in so many cases there ARE synthetic chemicals in the product – it’s just that the company doesn’t really know what they are doing – but the claim sounds good! This particular scenario is not just misleading, it is misrepresentation, which is even worse.

It is perfectly understandable that some people want to make a lifestyle choice and only use natural products – this makes them feel better about themselves, although whether or not this is a valid choice is a very different debate – but should the manufacturer not simply claim “all natural ingredients”, rather than “no synthetics” – positive, not negative (as long as the claim is actually true, of course!)?

Some would say that the customer must able to choose what ingredients they wish to avoid, but this should be possible by being able to look at the ingredient list – not at a “free from” list. “Free from” claims are truly unnecessary, and misleading. I have seen claims of “parabens free” in products that don’t need ANY preservative. If you take this strategy to its natural conclusion, you would end up with a list of hundreds of thousands of substances that the product is “free from”. As someone once observed in a discussion on this topic, you may as well claim “free from old bicycle tires” – it is just as relevant.

Let’s get rid of this insidious “free from” claim, and tell the customers what IS in there – a much more honest way to sell a product!

  • Philippe Papadimitriou

    I definitely have to find the packaging of this one product I bought in 2007. It was a “paraben free” cream with parabens in the INCI list..! :)
    The words were separated by maybe 2cm on the back.

    The case you didn’t mention, Dene, as it seemed impossible to ever even occur! It did occur, ..once at least.

    • Dene62

      If you ever find this pack, Phil, I would love to see a copy, please!

  • Bethany Learn @fit2bmama

    Very interesting. Some people are so slimy. Makes me not want to buy ANYTHING sometimes. Are there any honest businesses out there anymore?

  • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

    This is a fantastic article. It is increasingly bothersome to me because it seems like when small businesses use this tactic, they are just copying what they see large companies do — and they don’t have to. So many amazing small and independent businesses can compete on their strength of the positive things they bring to the marketplace: a local presence, a family business, an inspiring story about how they started their business, the use of locally sourced ingredients, their philanthropic collaborations. The list is endless!

    Eventually, the use of “free from” will be like blah blah blah. Everyone will say it, making it mean nothing (actually, to me, it already means nothing), forcing consumers to do what they should do in the first place — read ingredient labels, educate themselves, and buy direct from people they trust.

  • Joseph Colas

    another great article from dene! the line that gave me the best laugh was: “Sometimes, the substances listed as not being present are not even used as cosmetic ingredients”. on that note i was watching a beauty presentation on one of the home shopping channels(yes, i’m admittedly a skincare ‘ho..) and the vendor of the product, the name i won’t mention, was talking about her product…doing the “our product does NOT contain” list…one of the ingredients she mentioned i recognized as one that wouldn’t even be used in that particular type of beauty product she was selling! i definitely despise the “we don’t use” list when i see or hear it, the implication so clear that those things are inferior at best, dangerous/toxic/undesirable at worst!

    • Julie

      I’ve noticed a lot of misinformation given on those home shopping channels. I’ve even seen one of my own customers on there, saying her products are all natural and organic….and they certainly are not! I was a little shocked at what she was saying! But a lot of people simply don’t care about the truth, they just want to sell product. Frustrating for those of us trying to be honest and make good products.

  • Anonymous

    Great job Dene. I guess these types of labels are similar to our politics, and boy am I glad that’s over for awhile.

  • Bruce

    Sadly we live in a sound bite world. The general public, at least in the US, does not want to read to learn anything, They want one or two words they can yell at their opposition, whether they truly understand what they are yelling does not really matter. I too wish people would read ingredient decs. This industry has always been dominated by the marketers, and most know little to none about chemistry. Nice idea, but it will never happen. I think now you are the dreamer. Not a bad dream though.


    Just wondering, is this a call for reform of the cosmetic regulations?

    • Dene Godfrey

      Welcome back, Bruce – you’ve been away for far too long!

      It’s not a dream – this is not permitted in Canada, France and South Africa, as I stated. It should be possible throughout the entire industry – globally!

      And I don’t think the general public in the USA are too different from anywhere else – it’s the same problem everywhere!

      • Bruce

        I was away on vacation, and then the time needed for a re-immersion into working life.

        I have never seen these laws as written, are they health canada, or is it though a trade regulation, like the FTC in this country? I know Monsanto spent a lot of money suing milk producers who wanted to advertise their milk as BSG Free, and the actually won. I don’t see what is wrong with claiming your product is “free” as long as this is correct. I would like to know my shirts were not made by 7 year old children, or that the people who picked my coffee are getting paid a “living wage”, these being the lifestyle choices you spoke about. I truly feel the person who sells their products should be allowed to say whatever they chose to say about their product as long as it is not false. “All natural”, “Chemical free”, “no synthetic ingredients”( I assume we all know that plants, and animals synthesize chemicals, aren’t they then synthetic?), solvent free (water??) are all meaningless, and for the most part should be avoided. However, the others, Gluten-free, fat free, free of all rational thought.. are perfectly fine , in my opinion, as long as they are factual.

        I hope all is well


        • Dene Godfrey

          All is well, thanks Bruce – I hope you had a good vacation.
          As far as I am aware, this is part of a voluntary code of practise (in all 3 territories I mentioned), but let’s not get food and cosmetics mixed up, because my article was only aimed at cosmetics, and I see the situation in food as being different. The problem with claiming “free from” is the implication that the “victim” substance is not safe. This is different to making a lifestyle choice, such as avoiding fat, for example. Gluten free is a specific health issue – and does not apply to cosmetics. There are new guidelines for cosmetics claims being put together for the USA, but they don’t look strong enough regarding “free from” to me, although there is a little guidance on this matter. To re-emphasise – I am only talking about cosmetics here, though.

          • Bruce

            I understand what you are saying. I’m just not sure why cosmetics should be treated much differently than food, or cars, or furniture. I’m a staunch proponent of free speech, and as long as what you are saying is true, damn the implications, then you should be allowed to say it. It gets way too tricky otherwise. If you write Made in the UK on your product does that mean it is better than products made elsewhere? Right now with the xenophobic ignorance my country is experiencing, Made in the USA is a huge marketing buzz phrase. Negative advertising like negative politics, has found a home, and I don’t see it changing, any time soon. I just wish more people would be honest in both.

          • Dene Godfrey

            I am all for honesty! How about selling paraben-free cars and sofas! Free speech is fine, when appropriate. I don’t see this as the same issue, though. If you follow your free speech argument to its natural conclusion, advertisers could say pretty much anything they wanted. Free speech is surely the right to voice an opinion, not the right to scare people into thinking a particular cosmetic ingredient may be unsafe – in the absence of sufficient evidence? Just because negative advertising has found a home should not mean that it can’t be evicted!

          • Bruce

            Isn’t the whole insurance industry based on selling such fears? (In this country auto insurance is mandated and amounts basically to government supported extortion, but lets not go there) I’m just not sure if stopping negative advertising is even feasible. I would think the place to do it would be on a discussion group about marketing, and not chemistry. I truly think the unsubstantiated claims, and just outright false claims are the biggest issue, then we can try with the implied claims, those will, however, be a much tougher row to hoe.

          • Katherine

            Hi Dene, I love the article, but I wanted to address what you stated about food and cosmetics being different.

            This is absolutely correct for the most part, however what I have learned since writing and rewriting my website material is the correlation between food allergies and cosmetics. Unfortunately, the consumer is convinced that if they are allergic to a certain food then they also cannot wear a certain cosmetic if it contains the same ingredient.

            For example Gluten Free is a very real problem for some and if Gluten for instance is in lipstick, it is then ingested in small increments, and the person whom is gluten sensitive will have a very real reaction. In this regard, I feel the Gluten Free or Free From is important to clarify.

            However, the Mayo Clinic, which I respect in their research has clearly stated that Gluten cannot be absorbed through the skin, so if one has gluten allergies, they need not worry. Same goes for Nut allergies when using certain nut oils or butters in skincare products. They have noted that food borne allergies does not translate to same when using them in a skincare product. If someone has an allergy however to the topical application, then this is a contact allergy which may stand alone to a specific ingredient.

            I personally don’t use “free from” but I do at least let my customers know the source of our vitamin e which is not wheat germ oil and I state our products “do not contain”, rather than free from. I also wrote an article directly about Gluten in cosmetics to clarify the misnomer but many will still believe if they are allergic to a certain food they will have a reaction with their cosmetics. Fortunately I have had success at least, in getting customers to try our products to see for themselves and when they don’t have a reaction they are quite surprised. But it is a well earned customer at times.

            So I just wanted to state, I am not sure how otherwise you would handle this scenario since in some cases certain cosmetics must convey certain ingredients are not involved such as in the case of lip colors, so perhaps it is not so black and white, but for the most part on other ingredients this is a total sales ploy of which I agree and gives the connotation the ingredients our products are free from are somehow unsafe or dangerous to us.

            But I will say this, I had a customer who had a reaction on her skin using a simple formula of olive oil, olive butter, emulsifiers, and aloe and she reacted with a rash. She then went to dinner and had olives on her salad something she hadn’t eaten since she was a child. She called and told me her throat swelled shut so she believes that she can’t use anything with Olives in it now and this is why her skin had a rash. Is she wrong or right? It certainly seems to correlate!

            So can at times certain ingredients exacerbate allergic reactions both inside and out? What are your thoughts?


          • Dene62

            Hi Katherine – you make excellent points, as always! I must admit that I had not considered the gluten free scenario, but the real target for the article was the senseless (mis)use of the term that I don’t feel can be fully justified. I do accept, however, that there may be situations where “does not contain” (why does that sound better – it means more or less the same thing!) may be appropriate.