Cosmetic Science; Myths De-bunked

Cosmetic science is a weird and wonderful world of chemistry, biology and sheer damn luck. Creating a successful product takes a lot of blood, sweat, repeat testing, swearing at your emulsification system, and a lot of cackling over a cauldron.

One of my biggest frustrations with the industry is the mis-alignment of knowledge between brands and consumers. There is a huge amount of incorrect information out about the industry; about what is in your product, how it is tested, and what is ‘the best’.

This article seeks to clear up some of the most common myths, incorrect claims and make sure you are more sceptical of click-bait articles telling you that….

1.”Chemical-free products are the best”.

Sorry, what? “Chemical-free”, what does that even mean? The definition of a chemical is a ‘distinct compound or substance’. Everything is made up from chemicals, whether that be solid, liquid or gas. Water is a chemical. The air we breathe is a mixture of chemicals. And yes, the creams you rub on your skin contain chemicals. Anyone who tries to claim “chemical-free” shouldn’t be formulating products as they clearly don’t have a clear enough grasp on science…


2. “Parabens are unsafe”.

Poor old parabens. They work their little socks off to protect our products from a nasty array of micro-organisms, but get thrown in the dirt. In 2004 a study was released that mistakenly linked parabens to an increased risk of Breast Cancer, because their metabolites were found in breast cancer tissue samples. However parabens are fully broken down and metabolised before they enter the blood stream, and are excreted safely by the body. This statement, confirming their safety, was confirmed by P. Darbre, who conducted the misunderstood study. Another fear was that parabens are phytoestrogens (mimic the effect of oestrogen). However, parabens and phytoestrogens are a naturally occurring substance, found in berries, soy, flax, carrots and cucumbers, and in much higher amounts than in cosmetics.  Parabens are 10,000 weaker than naturally occurring phytoestrogens that we consume in much higher amounts through our diet and through medication.

As fellow cosmetic scientist Sam Farmer puts it: “I believe that short chain Parabens are amongst the safest cosmetic ingredients I can use to preserve [my moisturiser]. In fact, if a leave on product does not contain Parabens I want to know what exactly they use as an alternative.”


3. “Natural products are better”. 

Ahh where to begin. Firstly, the definition of what is “natural” is often mistaken; a lot of ingredients used in cosmetics, are found naturally or naturally derived. This means, extracts or particular chemicals are obtained from natural substances. Alternatively, formulators may use “synthetic” chemicals. This means that a substance is chemically synthesised on a large scale- the end product is chemically exactly the same as if it was derived “naturally” and is often purer and of a more consistent quality. Synthesising ingredients can also be more environmentally friendly than extracting them from natural sources, as it prevents ecological degradation, depletion of resources, and can refine waste products from other industries.
Furthermore, “natural” ingredients can contain a higher number of impurities, and this often means a much larger number of allergens. Allergens are  “any substance, often a protein, that induces an allergy”, and a list of the 26 most common allergens appear in the restricted annex of the EU Cosmetics Regulation. These have to be listed on the ingredients list separately from other ingredients (in bold at the end of the list). Tea tree oil, citrus extracts, and lavender extracts are some examples of “natural” ingredients that often cause a histaminic reaction.
So yes, whilst natural products may seem like the best thing, if you have sensitive skin, they probably will cause more irritation than do any good. “Synthesised” chemicals are not scary- they are often purer, of a more consistent quality, and can actually be more environmentally friendly.


Image source: Natural Beauty


4. “Wearing SPF protects my skin from photoaging”.

Photoaging is the cumulative, detrimental effects on the skin of prolonged exposure to sunlight. Typical signs of photo aging are wrinkles, fine lines, loss of skin smoothness, and age spots. As explained in my article about protecting your skin in sunny weather, the type of UV rays, UV-A, that penetrate into the dermis (layer underneath the top layer of your skin), are not protected against by wearing SPF. SPF is a only a measurement of how effective a product is against protecting the skin from burning. UV-B rays are the rays that are protected against using an SPF.  SPF will protect somewhat against burning, and even less against photoaging. The best way to minimise photoaging is to limit sun exposure, and cover up.


5. “The more expensive, the better.”

The general opinion is that if a product is more expensive it is better and of higher quality. Whilst this may be true in some cases, it is important to think about what you are paying for. Packaging is often one of the most expensive components of a product. For example, foundation in a glass bottle will be more expensive, as it costs more to transport and produce, but consumers like it as it has more of a “luxury feel”. Fragrance is also another expensive component, and something which you will often pay over and above for. Another thing that you are quite often paying for is the brand itself and the “prestige”. The top two ingredients for one of the most expensive and revered face creams in the world is water and glycerin…
I’m not saying that cheaper products are better, or vice versa, it’s just important to bear all aspects of a product in mind when purchasing one.


MDMflow is all about the science…


6. “Products in the EU are still tested on animals”.

Testing finished cosmetic products on animals has been banned in the EU since 2004, as set out in the EU Cosmetics Directive. When the EU Cosmetics Regulation came out in 2009, it also banned testing ingredients or combinations of ingredients on animals. Marketing any products that have been tested on animals (even outside the EU) within the European Community, has also been banned since 2009, and made fully illegal by 2013 as the alternative tests were fully developed to ensure consumer safety. Israel and India now have the same bans on testing cosmetics on animals.

It is outside the EU where laws are different and a bit more of a grey area. In the US, it is not illegal to test on animals. Whilst the FDA (the regulatory body in the US for food, drugs and cosmetics) does not insist on testing on animals, it doesn’t prohibit it either. The decision is left up to the manufacturer themselves to perform adequate safety testing, by whatever methods. However, why anyone would test on animals at all and especially when there are so many alternatives available is beyond me.
In China, it is actually compulsory for cosmetics to be tested on animals. This means both domestic brands, and any imported products have to be tested on animals before they are allowed to be sold on the Chinese market. This is why a lot of brands choose not to export into the Chinese market, as the animal testing is out of their control.


7. “There is only one face cream/foundation/shampoo that is the best.”

I have annoying sensitive and dry skin. My sister uses baby wipes day after day and has smooth blemish-free skin. If I even used them for one night, I’d have a rash and break out. Micellar water makes me break out. I don’t get on with expensive products that use loads of natural oils. The point is, there is no one best face cream, foundation or shampoo; what will work for one person will not work at all for another. Everybody’s skin is different, some more sensitive, some more oily. Ask for samples and try out products before you buy a full size to prevent waste. I find the best thing to do is find someone who has a similar skin type and start with their recommendations; my skin reacts the same to things as my mum, so I tend to ask her what works for her. Follow a blog with someone with the same skin type (for me Sali Hughes is the beauty guru on dry and sensitive skin). Be specific in who you ask for advice on skincare and haircare as it is so personal.


I hope this article helps to clear up a few common misconceptions about what is a highly innovative, creative and fast-moving industry. I wish I could talk you all through the science of every single product, because it is often so complex, interesting and a little bit magical.


If there are any topics/queries you have about cosmetic science, feel free to comment below or email and I’ll be happy to give you a science lesson (as best I can)!

Lots of Love,

MDMflow’s resident Geek x

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