I have lost count of the number of times, on cosmetics blogs and various internet discussions, that the commentator has urged the consumer to “do your own research”. They are often kind enough to provide some information themselves as a contribution towards this “research”. However, there are two fundamental flaws here:
1) The blogger/commentator is frequently providing inaccurate/totally wrong information
2) The consumer has insufficient scientific background to realise this.
The total absence of “truth filters” on the internet means that anyone can post anything without censorship or, more pertinently, review and correction. Many beauty bloggers have little or no scientific background, yet they pose as “experts”, and the average consumer is often uncritical in their acceptance of the statements and claims made, especially if they fit in with their belief system (e.g. that “chemicals” are dangerous).
“Do your own research” is a pointless, throwaway line because, if the consumer doesn’t understand the science, on what basis is the decision taken as to what to believe is true? It is a sad fact that the vast majority of the books “exposing” the cosmetics industry are written by non-scientists and, unsurprisingly, are full of misinformation, pseudo-scientific nonsense and pure garbage (with a little bit of truth thrown in occasionally, to be fair!). It only takes one mistake in one statement, subsequently repeated elsewhere, for a complete myth to take root. A very simple and basic example is that of formaldehyde. At some point in the past, someone decided to warn others of the dangers of formaldehyde and, to pad out the information, chose to make it look as though they were highly knowledgeable by including some synonyms for the substance. Done correctly, there is no doubt that this can be useful information (assuming that the rest of the content is accurate, of course). The problem here is that, on one occasion, the author misspelled methanal (the correct systematic name for formaldehyde), and wrote methanol, which is a totally different substance, with different properties. In fairness, my spellcheck just corrected “methanal” to “methanol” as I typed here, and this may be the reason for the error (damn you, spellcheck!!!), but such information should be properly checked prior to posting/publishing – in chemistry, a single letter can make a huge difference, as in this instance! This is a relatively minor example in terms of the impact on accuracy, but it serves to demonstrate my point – a single error gets replicated when people who don’t have the correct knowledge, start to dabble in the area.
There was an article on cosmetic ingredients posted on the Care2 website some time ago that contained a large number of errors. The article generated a huge number of comments, mostly from people who were saying that it was a great article, and very useful – it wasn’t – it was borderline nonsense, but the commentators were not sufficiently scientifically aware to realise this. You can see how my own frustration with this shines through if you have the patience to trawl through the many hundreds of comments.
One of the commentators, in particular, took issue with my accusation that most of those responding were not scientifically aware, and accused me of arrogance. He failed to respond sensibly to my point about non-chemists not being aware that triethanolamine is not a nitrosamine (as claimed in the article), and I feel that I got my point across, but I fail to understand how so many people feel they fully understand so much, when they have no training or robust background in science, and feel able to encourage others, similarly ill-equipped, to “do their own research”. This type of phenomenon has been studied by psychologists, who came to the conclusion that “people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent to assay their own incompetence, because the skills which underlie an ability to make a correct judgement are the same as the skills required to recognise a correct judgement”. (Kruger, J. Dunning, D., J. Pers. Soc. Psych. (1999); 77; 6: 121 – 34). This is a general observation that would appear to apply perfectly to the situation I have described.
The sad thing about this situation is that these commentators tend to only believe what they want to believe, in a highly selective manner. They pretend to understand the science, yet they totally ignore the findings of the independent panel of scientific experts that comprise the EU’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) on matters such as the safety of parabens, for example. Amazingly, these lay commentators know far better than established experts!
Rarely is the phrase “the blind leading the blind” more appropriate than in these cases. I could write a book on the psychology of this – I’m not trained in psychology, but that shouldn’t really matter . . . should it?