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”)

Parabens

Petroleum products

Synthetics

DEA

TEA

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!

Author

Dene Godfrey has been involved with preservatives for cosmetics since 1981, from both technical and commercial angles and has a degree in chemistry. Dene worked for one of the largest manufacturers of parabens from 1992 – 2002, and currently works for a UK company involved in the distribution of ingredients for cosmetics, health care and food. The Boots Company, 1973 – 92, Dene spent 11 years working with bronopol, although he was also involved in the initial development of Myavert C, now known as Biovert – a well-known “non-preservative”. Latterly was responsible (as Technical Manager) for the operation of the Formulation Laboratory and the Microbiology Laboratory. As Technical Manager when at Nipa Laboratories, Dene was responsible for development and sales of new preservative products, mainly into personal care. Developed the Nipaguard range of preservatives and co-patented a preservative system based on phenoxyethanol and IPBC. In 2002, Dene founded MGS MicroPure (as Technical & Sales Director) to compete with the giants of preservation, establishing the Paratexin brand name in the UK and several other markets (EU/ global). MGS MicroPure ceased trading in 2005. Since 2005, Dene has been employed by a major UK distributor of personal care ingredients, with his focus primarily on preservation systems. Dene’s articles are based solely on his personal opinions, observations and research, and are not intended to represent any official position of the part of his employer. Dene obtained a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from the Open University in 1996. He also obtained the Professional Certificate in Management from the Open University in 1997. He has been an active member of the UK Society of Cosmetic Scientists since 1992, and has served 4 terms on the SCS Council, and is involved with the SCS Social Committee from 1993 to date; from 2004 – 7 as Social Secretary. Dene has presented papers at many SCS meetings and was President of the SCS (2009/10)

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