The Confounding Nature of Regulating Natural Personal Care Ingredients

More than ever before, consumers are being bombarded with both positive and negative messaging about ingredients used in personal care products. As a result, more consumers are reading product labels and driving demand for safer, and more natural, products in the personal care space.

According to Kline and Company’s Natural Personal Care market report, as of 2013, the global natural personal care market was $30 billion and has grown at a double-digit pace since 2008. By 2018, it is expected to grow to $46 billion.

Another result of this mixed messaging is consumer confusion; specifically, confusion about what makes a product safer, and what makes a product natural versus nature-inspired or pseudo-natural. For the most part, governments have been silent to vague on this topic.

If the messaging is positive about a new natural ingredient then consumers will want products that contain that ingredient; consider the recent keratin, and argan and marula oils trends. Industry responds by formulating products with that hot new ingredient and, in some cases, positions the product as more natural. The reality is the formula may only contain the ingredient at trace levels. Existing regulations do not require a minimum amount of a listed ingredient be used in a product; only that the ingredient be present in the formula.

On the other hand, if messaging about an ingredient is negative, consumers will want products that do not contain it—but they don’t always understand why the ingredient is thought to be “bad.” Industry responds in one of two ways: one way is to defend the safety of the ingredient, particularly if that ingredient has a long history of safe use and there is significant data available. The second way is to reformulate and add a “free-of” claim as it relates to the “bad” ingredient; paraben-free or sulfate-free, for example, which validates the change and creates a new marketing opportunity for those products.

It is in this area where new regulations are emerging. In the European Union (EU), EU Commission Regulation No. 655/2013 has outlined the common criteria for the justification of claims, including the type of evidentiary support required to make cosmetic claims. Free-of claims may not be made if the ingredient is already banned. For example, hydroquinone is banned in the EU, therefore a free-of claim for it is not permitted.

Another example is “Not tested on animals.” Since animal testing is banned in the EU, a free-of claim cannot be made for it. Claims such as sulfate-free on products that would not normally be formulated with sulfates also are not permitted because the claims are based on irrelevant information.

The true debate is over the claim paraben-free. This falls into an undefined zone. Some parabens were banned last year, i.e., isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben, while the safety of others including ethylparaben and methylparaben was re-affirmed. A decision regarding the use of this claim is expected in the next few months.

Debate over the paraben-free claim also strikes at the heart of the ingredient safety debate. While reading ingredient lists on products that claim to be paraben-free, consumers often will find other preservatives like diazolidinyl urea or methylisothiazolinone, whose safety are in question. Diazolidinyl urea is considered a formaldehyde donor, and methylisothiazolinone has been—or is about to be—banned in leave-on products in some countries. Will methylisothiazolinone-free claims be next? Which is safer: parabens or formaldehyde donors?

One thing is clear. As consumer demand for safer and more natural products increases, governments will no doubt increase their enforcement and oversight of the personal care industry.

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