Tuesday, February 9, 2010Learning to read labels

The "Without" mention in cosmetics


The "without" cosmetic is doing well. This specific selling point is more and more often seen on the labels of our products. Beware, it must not be read "without" understanding its meaning and "without" understanding what it deals with, in fact. Some clues.

Reading time
~ 8 minutes

"Without preservative , without Parabens , without Phenoxyethanol , without PEG , without silicone , without phthalates, without glycol ethers, without chemical filters, without synthetic dyes or fragrances , without fluorine, without Alcohol , without animal raw materials , without Paraffin, without Lanolin, without petrochemical derivatives, without SLS,  without artificial sweeteners, without aluminium salts, without animal ingredients , without propyleneglycol, without soap, without EDTA, without allergen that shall be listed on the label , without ethoxylated ingredients, without GMO ingredients, without mineral oil , without …”

True, the list of ingredients that cosmetics may not contain is long! Further, be it for only one ingredient or a full list, the "without …" is prominent. Either on the front label, easy to read or as a logo, or as a selling point on the back label, especially when there is a list with several entries, combined with other mentions ("no animal testing", "recyclable package", "for safe cosmetics", "our ethical commitment", etc!!!).

A not regulated mention

Nothing is mandatory, not even provided for by the regulation on cosmetics. Any mention of what they do not contain is the sole responsibility of the manufacturer, as well as the number of ingredients and the length of the list.

It may happen that the conformity of the mention is checked by the competent authorities (in France, Afssaps or the General Directorate for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control , mainly), with or without success or (bad) surprises.

Nevertheless, these controls, which require a complete analysis in specialized laboratories, take time and are expensive; furthermore, they are not, by far, the main area of the job of these bodies (responsible charge of many duties that they must perform with an obvious lack of means).

When "Without" suggests "Better"

A bit paradoxical: the "without" word comes here with a "plus" meaning. The ingredients that are then fingered out are generally the target of concerns for different reasons (above all, for toxicological or environmental reasons). Therefore, the cosmetic product , which does not contain them, is less prone to be the source of undesirable effects to the health or to the environment, on the longer term; at least, it is the common belief.
With the "without", the manufacturer wants its customer to think the product is "without … risk", and that it can be used with complete confidence.

Widely used by the natural and organic cosmetic industry (which took as target synthetic ingredients that are among the most criticized nowadays, though they are commonly used by the "conventional" cosmetic industry), this mention is now a must-have for the entire industry: "without" is ubiquitous! However, it comes often "without" the guarantee this "without" is useful ("without marketing", by the way, is not an option!).

As it were, one more mention to look at "without" … bowing to fashion. Indeed, it allows for a first screening of ingredients one does not want, but it does not come “without” gray areas …

"Without", yes, but … "With" what?

What is used in lieu of the ingredients pointedly put aside? As other manufacturers use them, they are useful in some kind. The question shall be asked, as the alternatives are numerous and not always among the best.

• "Without" but "with", it is not better or worse
It must be noted that, sometimes, "without" is far from being an advantage. It may seem advisable to ban synthetic fragrances (some of them are fingered out endocrine disruptors ), especially in products designed for pregnant women and babies.
Nevertheless, if the alternative is rich in essential oils , renowned for being allergenic , sometimes dermocaustic or leading to abortion, it is definitely not interesting.

In the same manner, one may like not to be in contact with some preservatives . They are a group of cosmetic ingredients most often linked to undesirable effects , proven or suspected: they may be irritating , allergenic , harmful and/or harmful to reproduction, carcinogen …

However, a product shall be protected from bacteria and microbes proliferation. A means of preservation is then required. It may be based on substances not listed in the official nomenclature as " preservatives ", which allows the manufacturer for using the "without preservative" mention , without lying. Is it a true "plus" when the substitute is a large quantity of Alcohol (listed as a solvent), an efficient antiseptic , but also an irritating , which dries skin, which may be harmful for reproduction (as for the drinkable alcohol)?

•  "Without" is better
On the other hand, the cosmetic world "without" comes sometimes with truly good alternatives.

Let us take fats as an example. A vegetable oil ( Sweet Almond , Avocado, Argan, Sunflower …) is unquestionably far more nourishing for skins than a mineral oil (derived from petro chemistry) or a synthetic oil ( silicones ). It is more environment-friendly … but is a far more expensive ingredient …

Likewise, when PEG s and ethoxylated surfactants (a very pollutant manufacturing process) are banned for foaming agents mild on our skins that are derivated, for instance, from sugar or beetroot, this is a clear advantage for the environment and for our health. The obvious consequence is for our purses; it could be a motto: when better, it is more expensive. Quite often.
This may make some manufacturers use, as an alternative to PEG s, cheaper surfactants … a bit less soft on our skins. Well, back to the previous point!
"Without", OK, but is it a true "Plus"?

"Without", yes, but … why?

Beyond the more or less subliminal message ("without" = "better than the others"), we may wonder whether banning some ingredients is a good idea. We may even go to be sorry they are not in the formula …

• "Without" and it does not matter (or not for everybody)
Some criteria are important for some people, while other people don’t mind.
As an example, a product labelled as "Without any animal raw materials " (which includes eggs, milk, honey …) is important only for vegans.
Nevertheless, a far larger public hears the message that the manufacturer takes care of animals!

•  "Without" and there is a lack
It may happen that the "without" does not come for an unpredictable "Plus", but more for a true "Lack".
Indeed, a cosmetic product labelled “without preservative”, but lacking also of any alternative means of preservation, may be a product dangerous to health, pure and simple. There is nothing to prevent the development of bacteria after contamination. Fungi developing to mould make the product unusable (this may happen very quickly after opening the can or the pot).

"Without", yes, but … was it needed?

Sometimes, mentioning the absence of a given ingredient is only for marketing purposes.

Let us think of a serum for face care, made of a mix of vegetable oils , very useful to nourish and restructure the epidermis . What is needed for its long-term stability? No preservatives (formula with fats AND water need them, yes), but only an antioxidant to prevent them from going rancid.
To tell the truth, it would be foolish to add preservatives in such a kind of product, as they are needless and, further, they could only lower its cutaneous tolerance! Here, the "without preservative" mention is right. As to say it is relevant … It even may be considered as "likely to  mislead the consumer", as per the words of the responsible authorities, as it may make consumers think that the manufacturer deliberately chose not to use a kind of ingredient and designed an alternative formula, when the product is exactly similar to its competitors’.

"Without" … really?

Sometimes, the mention is not just ambiguous, but it is downright misleading.

A joint search by two French agencies , DGCCRF and Afssaps , performed during the second and the third trimesters in 2008, on cosmetics labelled as "Without preservatives" has fingered out 13 products out of 43 that contained substances listed as preservatives in the official nomenclature of cosmetic ingredients.
For three of them, the fraud was obvious: contents found on analysis were the proof that these substances had been put in the formula on purpose.
In the other ten, as the quantities were very low, it is likely that the substances had not been added by the manufacturer, but had been used to preserve the ingredients. Nevertheless, they were present in the finished product. The "without preservative" mention cannot then be considered as true.

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