'Medically approved' products

Do products endorsed by doctors live up to their claims?
 
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01 .'Medically approved' claims

medically-approved-lead

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?

Regulation only goes so far

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.

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 PPD.

 
 

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We trawled the supermarket for products that carry claims they’ve been tested, recommended or approved by some sort of medical fraternity. Most displayed claims along the lines of "dermatologically tested", or "recommended by dermatologists", however we also found claims of approval by paediatricians (Curash and Aveeno Baby) and gynaecologists (Femfresh). There are also oral hygiene products endorsed by the Australian Dental Association. Most companies we contacted provided information about testing related to the claims.

While consumers can be confident that the claims are backed up, there was still a wide variety in the types of testing done. For example, while all the products claiming to be dermatologically tested were were patch tested (to ensure there was no dermatological reaction when the product was placed on the skin), others were subjected to more extensive tests, such as photoallergy tests (to make sure there was no reaction when the product-treated skin was exposed to UV light), tests for comedogenicity (pore blocking), and tests for repeated exposure and long-term effects.

Unileveromo

Unilever told us that Omo Sensitive laundry detergent is tested for skin sensitivity by patch testing cloth that has been washed in the detergent at the recommended dosage. Adults with sensitive skin are used for this test, which is designed to ensure that clothes washed with the product are safe on the skin.

The testing is carried out according to a standardised test protocol in Australia by an external testing authority, with the test endorsed by a dermatologist.

Testing on its Rexona and Dove Clinical Protection antiperspirants is carried out overseas (mainly in the US) by an external testing authority. Patch testing is carried out according to a standardised test protocol which that has been endorsed by a dermatologist, with results also assessed by a dermatologist.

Johnson & Johnsonaveeno

A spokesperson for Johnson and & Johnson Pacific told us that tests on its Aveeno and Neutrogena ranges are regarded as large-scale and are conducted by independent dermatologists in non-affiliated laboratories.

The test battery for its Aveeno range includes a repeat insult patch test, photo-toxicity test, photoallergy test and cumulative irritation test. The company's claims of recommendations from dermatologists and paediatricians are based on routine market research surveys asking doctors for specific information on the products that they recommend to patients with common skin needs and conditions. Their unprompted brand responses are recorded, with both Aveeno and Neutrogena consistently listed amongst the doctors’ top recommendations.

The Neutrogena Razor Defence face scrub also has repeat insult patch tests and cumulative irritation tests, with a comedogenicity test as well as a six-week safety-in-use test.

L’Oréal

L’Oréal’s Hydra Sensitive After-Shave Balm claims to have been “tested under dermatological control”. L’Oréal provided detailed results from a battery of clinical tests conducted by dermatologists on men with sensitive skin, showing that repeated use of the product helps reduce redness, irritation and overheating observed immediately after shaving.

nivea
Nivea

The packaging of Nivea Post Shave Balm states “Skin compatibility dermatologically approved”. A spokesperson told us this means that “our cosmetic products have been extensively tested, demonstrated to be safe and suitable for use on skin”. Extensive testing includes repeat insult patch testing to examine acute and cumulative skin sensitisation, photoallergy tests, in-use studies to determine irritation under in-use conditions, a facial-stinging test to determine sensory discomfort and comedogenicity testing.

PZ Cussons

Imperial Leather Handwash has undergone repeat insult patch testing in independent laboratories in Australia and overseas (the UK) to ensure it meets the claim “dermatologically tested”.

Palmolive

At an independent laboratory in the US, the Palmolive Naturals range of shower gels undergoes a series of human skin irritation studies, which are directly supervised by a dermatologist. The testing concludes that the gels are safe for a wide range of skin types and don't cause irritation.

Endorsement schemes

Skin & Cancer Foundation Australia
The Research Unit of SCFA reviews the effectiveness and accuracy of product information and marketing statements, and the supplier of a product that meets the criteria is entitled to place the logo on their packaging, and as well as use it in advertising and promotional material. The foundation charges an annual licence fee for each product, which helps fund research and education activities.

Skin Cancer Foundation
Based in the US, but endorsing products internationally, the Skin Cancer Foundation (not to be confused with the Skin & Cancer Foundation Australia) awards its Seal of Recommendation to products that sufficiently and safely help prevent sun-induced damage to the skin. The manufacturer provides clinical data, which is reviewed by a volunteer committee of experts in the area of ultraviolet radiation and its effects on the skin.

National Asthma Council Australia Sensitive Choice asthma-approved
Products with the blue butterfly Sensitive Choice logo may be better choices for people with asthma and allergies. Requests to join the program are subject to a product review by a panel of medical specialists and other experts. The council points out that being in the Sensitive Choice program “does not represent that the product or service is the best or better than others in a category, simply that the product is acceptable and not harmful based on the evidence available”. The National Asthma Council Australia Sensitive Choice program requires an annual fee, with funds raised through the program used to help asthma organisations continue their work in improving asthma care. Aware Sensitive laundry powder carries the National Asthma Council Sensitive Choice logo, and contains no fragrance, enzymes or optical brighteners - which can cause skin problems for some people.

dental-association

Australian Dental Association Seal of Approval
Found on toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouthwash and sugar-free chewing gum, the Australian Dental Association Seal of Approval recognises products that are safe and effective and ensures that any advertising claims made about the products have been substantiated. Companies pay for assessment and there's an annual licensing fee, which is designed to cover costs rather than raise funds.

Recommended by Swedish Asthma and Allergy Association
The Swedish Asthma and Allergy Association provides information about the prevention of asthma and allergies. It has a product assessment program - with assessments based on research results, analyses and the formula for of the actual product – conducted by its Product Council, which includes specialists in medicine, chemistry and technology. Products recommended by the association are free from allergens, perfumes and irritating substances. Apart from personal care products - including Naty nappies, which are sold in Australia - endorsed products include bedding, architectural interior products and Volvos!

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