One-way Communication in Personal Care

One of the funny things about writing columns like these is the fact that there is hardly any reaction to what is written. But when I meet people during my trips around the world, it is clear that many are reading what I write. They may disagree, since I am as provocative as possible to get readers to write to me, and think that “this time he's gone too far" but it seems that readers' level of tolerance is infinite, and I cannot enthuse them enough to react vehemently. However, this column is being read, demonstrating the power of the written word. Where is this going, you may ask? I want to talk about communication, a topic I have been concerned with lately.

The personal care industry communicates often, organizing conferences, talking to one another, and filling cosmetic journals, magazines and periodicals with writings. The objective of the industry, when push comes to shove, is to sell--but if the industry wants to sell, it would make sense for the industry to talk to customers, the users of our products, instead of to each other. Marketers of suppliers talk to the manufacturing world or techies, and marketers of these manufacturing companies talk to the ultimate customer, a nontechie. So, here, with these thoughts in mind, I embarked on a process that will decrease my popularity: investigating the effectiveness of one-way communication.

I recently attended the SCS Cosmetic Science Symposium in Chepstow, Wales or England. The border was on the grounds of a golf course that surrounded the hotel and even the staff was not sure of where the border was. It felt like the perfect place to discuss the boundaries between cosmetics and drugs and “us and them.” In this scenario, the cosmetic scientists ("us") were the good guys and the cosmetic consumers were the bad guys ("them"), brainwashed by tabloid journalists.

Tabloids are newspapers that perhaps you and I do not read but that are read by our neighbors--and we all have neighbors and are also neighbors to someone else; therefore, we all read these things. Of course, we never look at the scantily clad pictures of women but we undoubtedly read the highly interesting articles informing the public that they should buy natural cosmetics, that chemicals are bad for them, that our products should be chemical-free and if that is not possible, they should be at least fragrance-, preservative- and paraben-free.

Because you and I are both cosmetic scientists, we know that this is propaganda, but where is this propaganda coming from? Many assign blame to the journalists that write incorrect pieces about our industry and how we do everything wrong. It is, however, not the journalists that are to blame for this slam against the personal care industry but rather the industry itself. Wait a minute. Are we responsible for our own mess? The answer is: Yes.

Taking the paraben issue as an example, someone who was trying to sell an alternative to parabens performed a study where the oestrogenic activity of a paraben was shown. I will not even go into whether the study was performed correctly or not, but did you know that a single piece of sashimi drenched in soy and wasabi produces more oestrogenic activity inside the body than a lifetime's use of parabens? The Japanese happily continue to enjoy their sashimi and have continued to produce offspring, whereas the personal care industry immediately jumped the bandwagon of commercial success and decided to ban these products because a scientist with a not-so-hidden objective to sell his or her alternative to parabens decided to tell the press-at-large that they were feminized by the outrageous exposure to these parabens.

Instead of telling the cosmetic world and our cosmetic marketers that the campaign against parabens is merely propaganda, the industry allows them to insist on paraben-free products. We give them what they want and in doing so, indirectly admit that we were wrong for all these years.

A comparison with the normal world would be to close zoos because tigers, lions and snakes could break out of their cages and do us utter harm. But whereas these animals come with a high hazard and zero exposure, parabens are accompanied with high exposure and a zero hazard. As a consequence, in both cases, the risk (the product of exposure and hazard) is zero.

You’ve got an idea about the problem by now. Journalists are not cosmetic scientists and will follow the story that needs to be written. They would like to have the right and correct information but we are not willing to give it to them, simply because we assume they would not understand. We as cosmetic scientists need to stand up and take the time to explain things to them. Journalists can be your best friends and it is perfectly OK for them to be critical. Even better, you should want them to be critical. If we would start telling them that what we really do is make better products every day, they might write differently. How many journalists for the general public are members of the SCC, the SCS and similar IFSCC-affiliated member societies?

If only 1% of cosmetic scientists would speak to the general public and explain what we are doing, most of the unjustified scare stories that currently dominate the cosmetic public news could be avoided. Is it one-way traffic or will we all drive the same road and in the same direction? Don’t you think it is time to start talking to the public and the journalists instead of ignoring them?

Communication is the first step to education and that is what is needed. Let’s talk, educate and embrace from the beginning; let's select individuals from the consumer side as our friends and companions. Or am I having yet another noneffective one-way communication?

Prof. Johann W. Wiechers, PhD 
Technical Adviser, Allured Publishing
Independent Consultant for Cosmetic Science, JW Solutions
Gasthuispolderweg 30
2807 LL Gouda, Netherlands

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