I was at the Lake Erie SCC meeting the other night and the talk was given by Dr Joe Schwarcz regarding cosmetics, chemicals and the public perception of product safety. He made some great points about a number of hot button issues including lead in lipstick, parabens, phthalates, and more. The basic message is that NGO groups like the EWG have it wrong and the best science supports the notion that modern cosmetics are safe to use.
One of Dr Schwarcz’s main messages was that the public is being misinformed by fear mongering groups and it is up to scientists to set the record straight. Unfortunately, he provided little information about how to do that.
I’ve given this a lot of thought however and put together what I believe scientists can do to combat the unscientific nonsense that is pushed daily by misinformed groups.
Why is this a problem
But before we cover what to do, it’s helpful to discuss why this is a problem cosmetic chemists should care about. First, miseducated consumers will influence market research which could make your marketing folks demand you avoid disparaged ingredients. You may lose control over which ingredients you can use but you won’t lose the responsibility for the results of those decisions. There is no upside for the formulator who is restricted in their ingredient choice for no scientific reason.
Next, your company may lose sales & may be targeted for negative publicity for no good reason. J&J was compelled to reformulate perfectly fine formulations due to unfounded claims by consumer groups. You will likely find that reformulating functional products takes away resources that should go into creating innovative new products. This kind of fear mongering inhibits cosmetic innovation.
Finally, as a formulator you should be educated about the safety of ingredients you use in your formulations. You should be the expert that people turn to when they have questions about cosmetics.
What can you do?
The reasons that so much misinformation gets out in the public and takes hold is because groups that spout this nonsense are learned in the ways of PR, the media finds scare stories more interesting, and there are not a lot of scientists offsetting lies with the truth. The way that you can do your part to start combating these lies about cosmetic and chemical safety is by publishing your own content which tells the truth. Participate in scientific activism. Here are 10 things you can do.
1. Learn what’s true – In starting a blog or answering questions about these topics you should be well versed on what is true. How many of you know about the safety profile of parabens? What would you tell people about the levels of lead in lipstick? As a formulator, you should have ready, science based answers to these questions. The way to learn what science has to say is to do some research in reliable, science-based sources. The FDA Cosmetics site is a great place to start. The CIR is also good as is Personal Care Truth. And you can learn a lot on our cosmetic science discussion forum.
2. Know your competition – While you’re trying to get the correct information out about cosmetic products you should know who the misinformation groups are and what they are saying. Some of the key groups that have wrong things to say about cosmetic products include
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
The Environmental Working Group
The David Suzuki Foundation
3. Start a blog – People learn about things from the Internet and doing Google searches. Having a blog is a great way to get your information to show up when someone does a search. Right now if you do a search for the term sunscreen, the EWG 2014 sunscreen guide is what comes up. This is junk information filled with untruths and misunderstandings of science. The first mostly unbiased result is the 5th spot on the search page, an article by WebMD. The FDA shows up in the 7th & 8th spot but scientifically valid information from the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t even show up on the front page. Similarly, junk information about Parabens is the first thing you see when you search for it on Google. This should not be. Starting a blog and writing about sunscreen, parabens or other cosmetic topics important to consumers will help move these junk peddlers off the front page of the search results. It’s easy to start a blog. Go to WordPress.com or Blogger.com to get started for free.
4. Link to good information – When you write about topics be sure to include links to sites with supporting information using the appropriate words. Do a search for the term keywords to understand better what I’m talking about but basically, Google ranks websites based on the number of other websites that link to them. So the reason that the CFSC ranks high for the term ‘parabens’ is because there are a lot of websites that use the word paraben then link it to the CFSC webpage that talks about parabens. To get the FDA’s website higher for the search term paraben, you should link to it like I did in this post. FDA link to the word paraben. They way to knock bad information off the front of Google is to replace it with good information.
5. Write about the right things – When you are writing your blog you should make a list of topics that you want to help change the public’s perception about. I would suggest things like parabens, preservatives, pthalates, sulfates, sunscreens, or any of the other villified cosmetic ingredients. The more you write about these things, the greater the chance your page will show up in a search result and the more likely someone will find out what is true.
6. Participate in Social media – Having a blog is great but many of these conversations are happening on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You should set up your own accounts on these websites and start producing content. You could just repeat things from your blog but you could also respond to what other people are putting out. Getting a digital conversation going is the best way to combat misinformation. There are more social media sites beyond the ones I’ve suggested but those are the main ones. Youtube is also a great place to produce content if you want to make videos.
7. Correct Wikipedia – Wikipedia is an excellent source for many topics but for controversial ones it is less reliable. Since anyone can update a Wikipedia entry you should go through and update topics that are filled with misinformation. I know I had to fix the Cosmetics entry because it was filled with inaccuracies that seemed to have been placed there by the EWG. There is an art to updating a Wikipedia page however so be sure to following these best practices guidelines.
8. Rebut bad information – There is a skeptical plug-in called Rbutr which you can update on any page you find that has misinformation. Start using it to correct things that are mistaken on the web. It is not having a huge impact at the moment but it may in the future.
9. Stay informed – Finally, stay informed about new findings in the cosmetic area. When there is new information about the safety of parabens or sunscreens or anything else you should know about it. Don’t be afraid to reverse your opinion either based on new evidence. We are scientists and it is ok to be wrong. It is not ok to be wrong and not correct your mistakes when you discover you’ve made one. Information is always changing and if something you wrote a few years back is no longer applicable be sure to set the record straight. This is the primary difference between fear mongering groups like the EWG and scientists. The EWG will never reverse their opinion on parabens despite the fact that science has demonstrated that they are safe.
Publishing Tips for Working Scientists
1. Watch your behavior – Remember that anything you write on the Internet will potentially be there forever. Avoid calling people names, being insulting, swearing or writing or producing anything that you will regret in the future. If you are searching for a job now or in the future, potential employers will look at your online activity and use that in their assessment of whether they want to hire you. If you use your blog to mock natural product formulators don’t be surprised if it is harder for you to find employment with one of those producers. Some people may not worry about this but you might not want to add this extra hurdle in your way of future job prospects.
2. It can be emotionally draining – Being more visible on the Internet will open you up to more criticism. Even if what you say is true there will be critics who will call you names, question your ethics, question your intelligence, and call you evil. I learned this after being on the Rachel Ray show and getting highly criticized in their comments section. They seem to have removed it now but there were some mean things said about me. Here is a recap by another blogger. But don’t be discouraged. People will say things to you or about you on the Internet that they would never say to you in real person.
3. Don’t waste your time & energy – You’ll need to learn to let some arguments go. Avoid the temptation to be the one to finish an argument. Respond once or twice to someone then move on. No one is really interested in having their mind changed. You respond to effect people who may be lurking and reading the discussion but don’t ever think you are going to change the mind of the person you’re communicating with. Most likely, you won’t no matter how good your information is. There are people in this world who will never believe humans cause global warming and parabens are safe to use as preservatives.
4. Know your company’s policies – Perhaps most important is that you should know your company’s online policy. And if they don’t have one assume that anything you write will be seen as representing what your company is saying. You can put a disclaimer on your stuff like “thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and the author alone and do not represent those of any past, present or future employers.” That may help but some companies don’t want you to be writing about cosmetics at all. In these cases, I would encourage you to post using a pseudonym. I did that for years on the Beauty Brains until I was able to leave my corporate job. As the employee of a corporation you are not really free to write what you want without any possible repercussions. This is true of a blog, social media accounts and forums. If you are not independent be very careful about what you say or start writing anonymously.
Well, that’s all I have for the moment. I hope some of you take some of these suggestions and start fighting the tide of unscientific nonsense that has swept through the Internet. Perhaps we can fight the fear mongers and use the truth to remove them from the limelight.