01.'Medically approved' claims
What does it mean when a product carries an endorsement suggesting it’s medically approved – and can you trust it?
To answer these questions, CHOICE took a look at:
In an effort to stand out among the plethora of similar products on supermarket shelves, some personal care products carry claims designed to give consumers the added confidence that comes with knowing a medical professional has endorsed the product, implying it’s somehow safer or better than others - endorsements such as “dermatologically tested” or “paediatrician approved”. But what do these really mean? And shouldn’t cosmetics be safe for your skin - or, as one company puts it, "skin compatible" - anyway?
All cosmetic and personal care products sold in Australia are subject to regulations about the safety and labelling of ingredients:
- The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), is part of the Department of Health and Ageing, and regulates the use of industrial chemicals – yes, that’s what cosmetic ingredients are called – and assesses chemicals to ensure they’re safe for people using them, workers handling them and the environment.
- Labelling regulations for the ingredients stipulate that all ingredients – not just those that are known to cause problems for some people – are listed on packaging, and are overseen by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). This can help consumers to make an informed choice about the products they buy and use.
But what all this means is that for most people the ingredients in products won’t cause any hideous reactions and that people with known sensitivities and allergies can avoid certain ingredients by reading the label. For people with sensitivities or allergies to chemicals who are unaware of the problem ingredient, there are no guarantees. Furthermore, while individual ingredients may be safe, they may have a different effect when combined with other ingredients in the finished product.
The most common adverse reaction is contact dermatitis, characterised by reddened, scaly, itchy, stinging, blistered and/or peeling skin. Chemicals in cosmetics can cause two main types of dermatitis – allergic contact dermatitis, which occurs only in some individuals and is an immune system reaction, and and the more common irritant contact dermatitis, which may occur in most or all people, depending on exposure, and is more common than allergic contact dermatitis.
Common allergy-causing chemicals include fragrances, preservatives, and paraphenylenediamine (PPD) found in hair dyes. Common irritants include soaps and other cleansers.
While there are dermatological tests that are commonly used, such as the "repeat insult patch test", there is no set procedure or standard for which test should be used or how it should be conducted, leaving companies to choose the test they feel is most appropriate for their product. Apart from which test is used and how it’s conducted, critics of the testing process argue that it may have been tested on typical rather than vulnerable consumers, or the wrong kind of vulnerable consumer. So “dermatologically tested” on two different products could have two very different meanings, and, at best, means only an absence of proved harm.
Nor does the term “hypoallergenic” guarantee a product won’t cause reactions – there are no national standards governing manufacturers’ use of the term, so it can mean whatever a particular company wants it to mean.
- Soap, including body wash, bubble bath and shampoo.
- Household cleaners, including laundry detergent, all-purpose cleaners, dish detergents, window cleaners, furniture polish, drain cleaners and toilet disinfectants. Wear gloves while using these.
- The fragrances in fabric conditioner and dryer sheets may contain quaternium and imidazolidinyl, described as formaldehyde releasers and known irritants.
- Latex, commonly found in gloves, elastic and condoms.
- Fragrances. Look for fragrance-free products, as “unperfumed” products may still contain a fragrance to mask the chemical smell of the product.
- Parabens, which are preservatives found in many cosmetic and personal care products.
- Acids, such as ascorbic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, malic acid, and lactic acid.
- Para-aminobenzoic acid–based sunscreen ingredients.
- Hair straighteners, which may contain formaldehyde.
- Permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes, which often contain PPD.