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An industry in crisis

We have to step up our game to help customers make the right choices

By Jayn Sterland, Managing Director of Weleda UK

The beauty industry is in crisis. Toxic chemicals in everyday products are poisoning us and damaging the natural world.

A lack of regulation allows this to happen under the banner of ‘greenwashing’, risking at best confusion and at worst, fraud. It is time for honesty and transparency and for the cosmetic giants to clean up their act.

In the UK we have some of the highest prevalence rates of allergic conditions in the world, with a staggering 44% of British adults now suffering from at least one allergy and the number of sufferers on the rise, growing by around two million between 2008 and 2009 alone. Why is this and more importantly what can we do about it?

Skin is under attack

Let’s start with the skin. Our skin is the largest organ in our body and it has an important job to do. It protects us from the outside world by acting as a barrier to numerous pathogenic threats and helping to eliminate toxins; it regulates our temperature, insulating us against extremes in temperature while balancing the amount of moisture we lose daily; it plays host to 1000+ different microbes (bacteria to you and me); and it even makes life-enhancing substances like Vitamin D.

Yet every day we subject it to a host of unregulated chemicals through the products we use to cleanse and ‘treat’ our skin daily. Within the seemingly innocent products we all have in our bathrooms are hundreds of synthetically created chemicals that often strip away our skin’s natural protection, change the pH and create the potential for damage and irritation.

Hidden within our daily skincare routines are substances your skin doesn’t need and potentially irritating agents to make products foam, sanitisers to kill bacteria (good and bad), petrochemical ingredients, micro-plastic fillers and thickeners, UV filters and sunscreens, artificial preservatives, colourants, fragrances, silicon polymers for shiny hair, anti-static agents...

Where did we go wrong?

It is only since the 1950s and the creation of the internal ‘bath’-room that we have started cleansing so frequently. Since then, we have moved from the weekly bath in front of the fire to showering daily, and this has fuelled the multi-billion pound cosmetics industry. We now use detergents on a daily basis which strip away the natural oils in our hair and body, which therefore require moisturisers and conditioners to replace the oils we have just washed off.

We have discovered the joy of bubbles, many of which are known skin irritants. We want to smell ‘nice’ so we have created perfumes to scent our bodies containing a host of ‘secret’ chemicals. We have special hair cleansing products (the first shampoo was only invented in the 1930s – what did we do before this?), which has led to conditioners, gels, mousses, waxes and sprays we ingest as we use them.

Has it done us any good? Today there are approximately eight million people with a skin disease in the UK. Some are manageable, others are severe enough to kill (British Skin Foundation, 2016). Our ‘needs’ support a £6bn industry and we are spending more money on products but becoming sicker. One of the most worrying set of statistics is that the least likely to suffer from allergies are pensioners – with a 30% allergy rate among this group – whereas women and younger adults under 35 are the most likely to claim an allergy (around 50% – Foods Matter, 2010) while the percentage of children diagnosed with allergic rhinitis and eczema have both trebled over the last 30 years (Gupta R, 2007).

What can we do?

There is a simple reason we don’t want these unnatural ingredients in contact with our skin – “what goes on you goes in you”. We know this from the transdermal nicotine patches used when trying to give up smoking. While many of these chemicals are safe to use in small amounts, if taken as a cocktail or used on broken, stressed or sun-damaged skin they have the potential to pass directly into our bodies and wreak havoc with our finely tuned system – leading to anything from a mild imbalance through to something much more debilitating.

Currently, there is scant legislation to protect us from this chemical cocktail we use every day. It is still legal for products to contain chemicals that are known allergens, many of which we find in industrial end products such as anti-freeze, petrol, oven cleaners, stain removers and paint.

While the EU has the most rigorous cosmetic standards in the world, many of the chemicals have not been tested for long-term human use over generations. We are effectively a live human trial.

So what can be done? Are there alternatives out there that are just as effective and kinder to skin and the environment? Fortunately, the answer is yes. For instance the surfactant Sodium laureth sulphate, or SLES, is a known irritant, causing itching and burning, but also linked to a carcinogen 1,4 dioxane. You’ll find it in many bathroom favourites, such as shampoo, shower gel and facewash, as it creates a foamy lather. But there’s an effective natural alternative derived from vegetable oils and plant sugars: coco-glucoside, for example, is milder but still gives a lovely sudsy lather.

As an industry we need to clean up our act and put consumer health before shareholder profit. We need to be honest about our credentials and stop ‘greenwashing’. Retailers must demand honesty and transparency from brands on the shelf.

There is no legislation stipulating ‘organic means organic’ in the world of cosmetics, and a product that contains parabens can masquerade as organic. This is why it is imperative to only stock natural products certified by reputable organisations such as NATRUE, the Soil Association or COSMOS.

Our industry is now experiencing multi-million lawsuits where customers have become sick through the products sold to them (Eva Echeverria versus Johnson & Johnson 2017). We need to act now. We must take responsibility for our industry, cleaning up our products and our shelves before the beauty industry becomes the tobacco industry of tomorrow.

Let's work together

Jayn Sterland’s Call To Action for UK retailers:

  • Work with brands to create an in-store Clean Beauty promotion

  • Run a focused campaign in-store within a specific time frame, such as Allergy Awareness Week, Organic September or the New Year which is a catalyst for change

  • Help customers to understand the INCI ingredients declaration (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) on packs and guide them through the minefield of greenwashing

  • Research meaningful certification standards and know what they stand for: NATRUE, COSMOS and others that meet your standards

  • Help consumers to understand that they may be better off using fewer products of better quality, with authentically natural ingredients

  • Point out where products are great multi-taskers or money-savers (for example baby products are often less expensive than adult products for sensitive skin, but are equally suitable)

  • Find a reputable ‘bible’ to keep as a reference for customer queries about ingredients, either a printed book or an online website or app

  • Highlight products in-store each season that are ‘free from’ a particular synthetic ingredient, such as parabens or petrochemicals, and communicate the benefits
  • Ask brands for tester products or sachets to sample, to create ‘tester bars’ that introduce customers to products and start the conversation

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