01.'Medically approved' claims
In an effort to stand out on overcrowded supermarket shelves, some personal care products carry claims designed to give consumers the added confidence of knowing a medical professional has endorsed the product. Endorsements such as "dermatologically tested" or "paediatrician approved" imply this product is somehow safer or better than others, but what do these really mean? And shouldn't all cosmetics be safe for your skin – or, as one company puts it, "skin compatible" – anyway?
Read on to understand the limitations of some of these endorsements, and remember: this article is CHOICE approved.
The limits of regulation
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), part of the Department of Health and Ageing, regulates the use of industrial chemicals – yes, that's what cosmetic ingredients are called – and assesses them to ensure they’re safe for the people using them, the workers handling them and the environment.
- The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) oversees labelling regulations that stipulate all ingredients – not just those known to cause problems for some people – are listed on packaging. This is to help consumers to make an informed choice about the products they buy and use.
So these regulations generally will protect people with known sensitivities and allergies, as they can avoid certain ingredients by reading the label. But for people with an as yet unknown sensitivity or allergy, there are no guarantees. Furthermore, although an ingredient on its own may be safe, it may be unsafe when combined with other ingredients in the finished product.
The problems with "dermatologically tested" and "hypoallergenic"
The most common adverse reaction to chemicals in cosmetics is contact dermatitis, characterised by reddened, scaly, itchy, stinging, blistered and/or peeling skin. There are two main types of dermatitis caused by cosmetics:
- Allergic contact dermatitis, which occurs only in some individuals and is an immune system reaction.
- 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.
Critics of the testing process also 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.
Common household irritants
- 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 paraphenylenediamine (PPD).