Do you know what this symbol means? Have you even noticed it before? You will find it on most, but not all, of the personal care products in your bathroom.

In the EU, it is a legal requirement that all cosmetic products carry a symbol telling the purchaser how long it will last after it has been opened.

Europe is a multinational place and so the rules mandate a symbol rather than text. To be fair, in a straw poll I did of people who happened to come into contact with me for a few days, more than half understood the meaning of the symbol. That is 4 did and 3 didn’t. I stopped polling after that because it didn’t seem to be something people wanted to talk about. It is fairly obvious when you think about it, but equally not something you probably want to think about.

Agreeing on a symbol is the easy bit of course. How exactly do you decide how long something is going to last when it has been opened? You will look in vain for any help on this in the official publications of the European union.

So how do the people in the business who have to implement these rules come up with a figure? I suppose it would be possible to come up with an experimental protocol to test it out in the lab. You could take some products and open them. You would then submit them to some kind of typical use routine, and assess how they looked. You could then come up with some kind of specification for what you regard as acceptable, and there you have you period after opening.

I suppose some of the larger companies may have done this. But although it might sound reasonable at first sight, the practical difficulties are quite large. It would involve a lot of time and effort. And given the number of assumptions you would have to make, it wouldn’t be much more than guess work. How long does the average face cream last in a bathroom for instance? Well some disappear pretty quickly, but others hang around for a considerable length of time. Indeed, particularly medicated ones, take on the status of treasured family heirlooms passed from one generation to the next.

So most chemists simply look at their stability data and search their brain’s memory banks. Then they guess. It is an informed guess to be sure, but a guess nonetheless. And frankly, I think that is probably a better way to do it than to try and come up with an objective measure. The EU regulations only talk about safety, and most cosmetic formulations are really really harmless from the get go and are not going to get any worse as a result of use.

One consequence of the way the technical folk come up with the period after opening declaration is that there is a tendency for round numbers to be selected. So you will see 6M, 12M and 24M appearing most often. I would love to see one with an odd number – let me know if you come across one.

Incidentally, there is a get out clause for products that obviously don’t need it. So you won’t see it on single use sachets or hair sprays for example. There are a few grey areas, for example soap bars. I doubt there are too many people around who need help with the decision about whether or not they want to use a particularly old bar of soap. Some soap manufacturers put the symbol on, others don’t. I guess we’ll have to wait for a court case to decide the issue. I don’t imagine that Hollywood will be fighting over the film rights to that one.

In any case, to fully benefit from this piece of legislation consumers would need to either write the date they opened a particular product on it when they do so or make a note in their diary. This might be easier now we have smart phones and the like that can be set up to give an alarm on a particular day. But even so, I imagine that people with this level of attention to detail are not common.

The EU is going through a bit of a rough patch in terms of public opinion at the moment. This isn’t a political blog, but I do wonder if regulations like this aren’t part of the problem.

Author

From the UK, Colin Sanders has been a formulator of cosmetic and topical pharmaceuticals for 27 years. Over that time he has formulated nearly every category of product including shampoos, cosmetic skin creams, pharmaceutical skin creams, face masks, lip balms and so on. Colin has been an active member of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists since 1985, and in 1999, organized the first of the Formulate shows. His degree is in environmental science, and he continues to take a keen interest in the impact of human activities on the planet. Colin regards himself as an environmental activist and all round green. When not in the lab, he writes a blog, Colin’s Beauty Pages, with the intention of entertaining and hopefully informing users of cosmetic and personal care products with some insider insights, a bit of science and his own opinions.

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