Science Beauty Myths

We are living in the age of gross misinformation about beauty products and the development of “panic science” by consumers and special interest groups who just don’t trust big business. Here are some of the subjects of misinformation that are now taken pretty much as fact.

Myth #1-Parabens are unsafe
Parabens are amongst the most studied and trusted ingredients to keep cosmetic products free of germs. They have been used widely for decades in products like creams, lotions, shampoos and conditioners. Sadly, they have become the most maligned ingredients used in topical products, and are often being replaced by ingredients that we know far less about. A bogus study was published years ago associating their use with their accumulation in breast tissue. The study was completely discredited but the harm was done. The consumer misinformation campaigns that followed have caused companies to run from these ingredients and incorporate others that we just don’t have that much experience with. I’m far more worried about the safety of “paraben free” products than I am of paraben-containing products.

Myth #2-Microbeads are killing the environment
The world has decided that these tiny plastic spheres used as exfoliants in scrub products are causing the planet’s environment to go into a tail spin. Some of the most experienced environmental scientists have said the contribution to water pollution from microbeads is tiny. Meantime, it came out in the news in the fall of 2015 that the city of MontrĂ©al Canada was planning to release billions of litres of untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence River. Evidently, this is not an uncommon practice for cities in Canada and US. Nonetheless, countries, states and even counties are running to pass legislation to ban microbeads. I am far more concerned about the cavalier attitude dumping raw sewage into our lakes and rivers than I am about microbeads.

Myth #3-You can get a facelift from a jar
Historically, wrinkle creams did two simple things. They contain a lot of water which immediately hydrates the skin, plumping up wrinkles. Secondly, they lay down a layer of oils and waxes which allows the skin to hydrate itself from within. Modern cosmetic science is working hard to develop bioactive ingredients which are intended to make real change to the skin. If these work, technically they are “drugs”. To their credit, the US FDA recently has gone after cosmetic companies making such claims, and have told them to either remove the claims from their labels or to get their products approved as drugs. And so far, most scientists would agree that nothing in a jar will come close to results produced by serious dermatologic and surgical interventions.

Myth #4-Petroleum Jelly (Petrolatum) and Mineral Oil are bad for you
The truth is, these two ingredients are derived from petroleum. As a result, they have become much maligned in their use in topical products. However, these have proven themselves to be some of the most important and useful barrier agents used in creams and lotions. They are highly purified before use, so much so that they have been used safely on babies for decades. While some companies have decided to use “natural oils”, these can cause allergies and irritation if not highly refined. They can also contain residues of heavy metals and pesticides, and in Canada, the government regulates the amount of heavy metals allowed in cosmetics.

Myth #5- There’s Lead in My Lipstick
A cocktail party wouldn’t be complete without women approaching me wondering if they are going to die from lead poisoning from their lipstick. The question is always “is there lead in my lipstick?” And my answer always is, “yes there is”. Just like there is lead in the air you breathe, in the water you drink, and most likely in every food and beverage product on the earth. Lead is an abundant, “natural” ingredient. In high doses it is poisonous, but at low levels, it’s part of life. The truth is, most things are poisonous at high enough dosages. The US FDA has intensively tested lipsticks and concluded there are no issues.

Myth #6-Natural ingredients are better than synthetic
What do all these chemicals have in common: cocaine, morphine, strychnine, nicotine? The simple answer is they are all natural ingredients. They are also lethal at high enough doses. The same goes with poison ivy and snakebite.

Natural materials are complex mixtures of thousands of chemicals. Many are extremely helpful to our health. Think of all the ingredients in fruits and vegetables. In terms of formulating natural ingredients into cosmetics, scientists worry about these thousands of individual chemicals that could cause allergic reaction or irritation. Natural materials can vary in their composition harvest to harvest, and field to field making quality control difficult. Natural ingredients can also contain residues of heavy metals and pesticides. The bad rap given to “synthetic” ingredients is often undeserved as they tend to be extremely pure and easily controlled.

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Rob Ross-Fichtner is the president of Focal Point research, a medical consulting company whose expertise covers Cosmetics, OTC Drugs, Medical Devices and Natural Health Products (Dietary Supplements). Rob has completed hundreds of regulatory submissions for product registration and approval. He also has many years of experience in R&D, including formulation, stability testing, analytical chemistry and product scale-up and manufacturing. Rob has served as the science columnist for Canada’s Cosmetics Magazine, is a contributor to U.S. publication Cosmetics & Toiletries and speaks worldwide.