Scientific Activism for Cosmetic Chemists (and Others)
The best science supports the notion that modern cosmetics are safe to use. Unfortunately, misinformation gets out in the public and takes hold because misinformed and fear-mongering groups are learned in the ways of public relations, the media find scare stories more interesting than legitimate science, and there are not a lot of scientists offsetting lies with the truth. The best way to combat lies about cosmetic and chemical safety is to publish truthful content and participate in scientific activism. This article, slightly modified from the April 2015 issue of the American Oil Chemists' Society's Inform Magazine, suggests ways to do that. Although written specifically for cosmetic chemists, much of what I suggest can be implemented by any knowledgeable person who is interested in consumer protection.
Cosmetic chemists should care about this problem for at least three reasons:
- Misinformed consumers will influence market research that could make your marketing folks demand that 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 formulators who are restricted in their ingredient choice for no scientific reason.
- Your company could lose sales and be targeted for negative publicity for no good reason. For example, Johnson & Johnson 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.
- As a formulator you should be educated about the safety of ingredients you use in your formulations. You should be the expert people turn to when they have questions about cosmetics.
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 Cosmetic Ingredient Review is also good, as is Personal Care Truth. And you can learn a lot from the Cosmetic Science Forum, a discussion site for cosmetic chemists.
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. The key groups that have wrong things to say about cosmetic products include the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CFSC). the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and the David Suzuki Foundation.
3. Start a blog.People learn about things from the Internet and doing Google searches. Blogging is a great way to get your information to show up when someone does a search. At the time I wrote this article, a search for the term "sunscreen" pulled up the EWG 2014 sunscreen guide. This is junk information filled with untruths and misunderstandings of science. The first mostly unbiased result was the 5th spot on the search page, an article by WebMD. The FDA showed up in the 7th and 8th spots, but scientifically valid information from the American Academy of Dermatology didn't even show on in the top ten. 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 Web sites based on the number of other Web sites that link to them. CFSC ranks high for the term "parabens" because many Web sites that use the words "paraben" or "parabens" link to its page about parabens. The way to lower Google visibility of bad information is to replace it with good information. To get the FDA's Web site higher for the search term "paraben," you should link the word "paraben" to the FDA's parabens page.
5. Write about the right things.When writing your blog, you should make a list of topics that you want to help change the public's perception about. I suggest things like parabens, preservatives, pthalates, sulfates, sunscreens, or any of the other vilified 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 people will see what is true.
6. Participate in social media.Having a blog is great, but many of these conversations are happening on social media sites. The main ones are Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You should set up your own accounts on these Web sites and start producing content. You could just repeat things from your blog, but you could also respond to what other people are putting out. Generating digital conversations is the another good way to combat misinformation. 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 consistent. Since anyone can update a Wikipedia entry, you should go through and update topics that contain 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 follow its best practices guidelines.
8. Rebut bad information.A skeptical plug-in called rbutr can be applied to 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.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 based on new evidence. It is OK for scientists to be wrong. But it is not OK to be wrong and fail to correct mistakes when possible. Information is always changing. 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 and scientists. Even though science has demonstrated that parabens are safe, I doubt that EWG will ever reverse its opinion.
10. Follow these tips for working scientists.
- 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 search for a job , potential employers will include your online activity 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 place this extra hurdle in the way of future job prospects.
- Don't let emotional drain get you down. Being more visible on the Internet will expose you to criticism. Even if what you say is true, critics will call you names, question your ethics, question your intelligence, and call you evil. I learned this after discussing shampoos and similar products on the Rachel Ray show and getting highly criticized in their comments section. The comments have been removed, but you can read a recap by another blogger. People will say things to you or about you on the Internet that they would never say to you in real person. But don't let this stop you.
- Don't waste your time and 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. People are not really interested in having their minds 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 directly communicating with. Most likely, you won't—no matter how good your information is. There are people in this world who will never believe that humans cause global warming or that parabens are safe to use as preservatives.
- Know your company's policies. Perhaps most important is that you should know your company's online policy. If your company doesn't have one, assume that anything you write will be seen as representing what your company is saying. A disclaimer along the lines of "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" may help, but some companies don't want you to write 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 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.
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.
Perry Romanowski publishes Chemists Corner for cosmetic chemists and The Beauty Brains for the general public. He has been formulating cosmetic products and inventing solutions to solve consumer problems since the early 190s. He has also written and edited many articles and books, taught continuing education classes for industry scientists, and developed successful Web sites. His latest book is Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry 3rd Edition, published by Allured. This article appeared originally in the October 20, 2014 issue of Personal Care Truth or Scare.
This article was posted on May 17, 2015.