Free From “Free From” Part 2

In the first part of this article, Free From, “Free From”, I shared my opinions on the use of various “free from” claims in cosmetics. As a result of the re-emergence of the furore about lead in lipsticks, some further thoughts occurred to me that I would like to share here.

First of all, I will repeat my claim that many companies (but not all) who make the claim “petrochemical free” are not being totally honest. Indeed, I often see examples (in LinkedIn discussions) of companies making this claim and, on checking their website, I find a petrochemical in the first one or two products that I check out. (This happens in around 7 out of 10 cases, and 2 of the other 3 cases don’t list, or list fully, the ingredients at all!) A common “culprit” is cocamidopropyl betaine. This is, in part, sourced from nature. However, the operative phrase is “in part”. The “other part” of the molecule is of petrochemical origin:

Cocamidopropyl Betaine

CAS N° 61789-40-0, Molecular Weight: 342

Synthetic Moiety :Molecular weight : 159

Petrochemical % = 159/342 = 45.2 %

This particular substance is often claimed as natural or “nature-derived”, but almost half of the molecule is of petrochemical origin. This doesn’t make it an unsafe ingredient, but it does make the “petrochemical free” claim entirely invalid. Other “favourites” are sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, both of which exist in nature but are only manufactured from petrochemical feedstock as extraction from nature is uneconomic. They may be “nature-identical”, but they are very definitely petrochemicals. There are many examples of ingredients that are entirely petrochemical in origin, with no “excuse” of them being nature-identical, in products that are claimed to be free of them. In these instances, the consumer is being misled.

Having, in part, repeated myself a little, I will now move on to my next point. The Environmental Working Group and the Campaign For Safe Cosmetics are making a huge fuss about the presence of lead in lipsticks. They are targeting certain large manufacturers and trying to bully them into removing the lead from their lipsticks, read {EWG} {CFSC}. All of this on the basis of an FDA study of 400 lipstick products which is referenced in the EWG and CFSC links. They are making the fuss because they claim that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Leaving aside the veracity of this claim (there IS a safe level; the problem is that there are no studies to demonstrate what it actually is, so we don’t know – and this is very different!), they are taking the “moral high ground” here and demanding that all lead be removed from products. The problem here is that, for one thing, one of their own Compact signatories had two lipstick products listed in the study with around 1.3 parts per million (ppm) of lead and, secondly, no-one has tested other products (amongst Compact signatories) to establish if lead is present in them. It is almost inevitable that many, if not most, products will contain lead at low ppm levels, so they may find that many more of their supporters are selling products that are “not safe”, by their own definition. I hope that someone will decide to check this out – it is an interesting thought. (For more information on the validity of the scare over lead in lipstick, see here.

My final point is regarding my favourite subject – parabens. “Paraben free” is an increasingly common claim amongst companies offering “natural” products. The potential problem here is that several parabens exist in nature. If natural substances are extracted from plants that contain parabens, it follows that parabens may be present in the final cosmetic product. They may only be present in tiny amounts, but they ARE likely to be present. I would place a very large bet that no cosmetic company making “paraben free” claims has actually had their products analysed to prove they are absent. Perhaps they should. After all, if you make a claim for your product, you should be able to substantiate it, surely? Just because you don’t add any particular substance deliberately (e.g. lead!) doesn’t mean that it is not present.

So, to summarise, not only are “free from” claims largely unnecessary, they are often misleading (either completely false, or just inaccurate) and rarely, if ever, substantiated. Are they to be trusted?

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