When engaging in various internet discussions, it is surprising the number of times a commentator will say they don’t trust the cosmetics industry and then cite either the pharmaceutical industry or the tobacco industry (or both!) as examples of why this is the case. This is like saying “I ate an apple once, and it made me sick, so I avoid eating pears at all cost”!
This illogical comparison may stem from a basic lack of understanding of the way in which those three industries operate. Just a few moments’ coherent thought will easily separate out the tobacco industry from the others, as it should be obvious that it is totally different, but I can understand better the assumption that the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries operate similarly. In this piece, I will attempt to identify the differences between all three industries, and explain why comparisons are invalid.
The tobacco industry:
The tobacco industry has a heavy reliance on, well – tobacco! OK, it may be sold in a few slightly different forms – cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco – but it is still just tobacco. If tobacco smoking is unsafe, the industry has no fallback position; in other words they can’t substitute another alternative product. (An attempt was made to introduce a synthetic substitute a few years ago, but it failed miserably.) So it is no real surprise that the industry tried to cover up the first studies that demonstrated a link between tobacco smoking and cancer. I am NOT excusing this – it was entirely immoral – but I can understand the desperation from an industry with no alternative product to offer. There is no doubt that there was an attempted cover-up within the industry, and this has led to many people expressing scepticism over the integrity of the tobacco industry in particular, and scientists in general.
The pharmaceutical industry:
In the last 50 years, the regulatory burden on the pharmaceutical industry has increased massively, and rightly so. Before a new drug (or new form of a drug) is placed on the market, it is essential that all possible efforts are made to ensure it is safe and that it actually works. The downside is that the cost of developing and testing new drugs has soared and the companies now have to devote hundreds of millions of pounds/euros/dollars in order to support the safety and efficacy of their products – with no guarantee that it will actually be safe before that money is spent on the testing (or that it will work sufficiently effectively). This is one reason why so many drugs are so expensive – you are not only contributing to the profit on the actual drug you buy, you are also paying for all the testing carried out on drugs that didn’t make it to market.
The majority of the larger pharmaceutical companies carry out their own product development and testing. The cost of this places enormous pressure on the company to get good results and it must be very tempting to design studies that are likely to place the product in a good light, in terms of both safety and effectiveness. Similarly, it must be very tempting to interpret the results in the best way possible. There is an excellent book on this subject that I recommend highly (Bad Science by Ben Goldacre) – it will open your eyes to the tricks that can be played in the name of science, especially within the pharmaceutical industry. The main point about this industry is that vast sums of money are involved, and a relatively small number of drugs are relied upon to generate the profits required to grow the business and invest in future research and development. I am not claiming that ALL pharmaceutical companies engage in tactics that skew the science, but it undoubtedly does happen – sometimes with disastrous consequences for the safety of consumers (but, fortunately, only rarely).
The number of (important) drugs on the market is probably only a few hundred, and not many are interchangeable. For many drugs, there is no direct replacement (especially in terms of possible side effects), so the product either works, or it doesn’t. This places additional pressure on the manufacturers to get the “right” results.
The cosmetics industry:
There are many thousands of cosmetics companies, ranging from one-man-bands to some of the largest corporations in existence. There are many thousands of cosmetic ingredients available for use in the industry – the most recent edition of the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary lists over 19,000 separate ingredients (from over 4,300 different suppliers). It is an extremely diverse industry – a diversity of product types and a massive diversity of potential ingredients.
To the best of my knowledge, none of the cosmetics manufacturers actually make any of their own raw materials/ingredients (there may be one or two exceptions that may make a few of their own raw materials, but a vanishingly tiny percentage of the total). The cosmetics industry relies on the chemicals industry for their raw materials. The vast majority of safety data (and efficacy data, where appropriate) are generated by the chemicals industry (and academia), not the cosmetics industry – i.e. by the actual manufacturers of the ingredients. The cosmetics industry has little or no input into the studies conducted on its raw materials. Moreover, the vast majority of the studies conducted on cosmetic raw materials are standard toxicological tests, for which there are established protocols, leaving very little room for manoeuvre in terms of being able to design a study to produce “desirable” results. For these reasons, there is very little reliance on any one single ingredient, the only exception, arguably, are the parabens (ok, not a single ingredient, but often treated as one!), for which there are many good alternatives available, as recent history has demonstrated. Whilst there are a small number of highly specialised ingredients that would be difficult to replace in cosmetics, probably 99% of exposure to cosmetics is from ingredients that have several alternative replacements available for use, should there be any concern over safety of any particular ingredient.
The point I am labouring to arrive at is that there is almost no reason for toxicity data on any specific cosmetic ingredient to be distorted, and little or no opportunity for the industry itself to influence the results of toxicity studies. Most of the more important cosmetic ingredients have had their safety assessed by either the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) or the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) in the USA and EU respectively. Both of these bodies are independent of the cosmetics industry; the SCCS is completely independent and the CIR has a majority of independent members. Neither body bows to pressure from the industry to arrive at the “right result” when an ingredient is being assessed for safety.
In conclusion, it is not logical to distrust all scientists on the basis of either the activity of a single industry (in the case of tobacco), or on the basis of the rare mistake that may have been made in the past (such as thalidomide, for example), and it is not logical to compare the cosmetics industry with other industries due to the unique circumstances in which it operates.