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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > November/December 2019 > Do Cosmetic Consumers Really Know What Ingredients They Are Using? An Inquiry into the Search for the ‘Truth’

Do Cosmetic Consumers Really Know What Ingredients They Are Using? An Inquiry into the Search for the ‘Truth’

Do cosmetic consumers truly understand the ingredients listed on the labels of the products they use?

Reprinted from EuroCosmetics.

This article examines the question whether, in the age of easy access to information, cosmetic consumers truly understand what the ingredients are that are listed on the labels of their products. It examines certain specific cases where ingredients are a concern and explores more deeply the science behind these ingredients and methods to search for deeper understanding of the ingredients and their safety and efficacy.


Recently, at an excellent seminar on cosmetic formulating, which was attended by several experts in the industry, I heard someone say that “Consumers are more knowledgeable than ever about what ingredients they are looking for and applying.” This was not the first time I had heard this statement. These things usually percolate for some time before they gel and if you are lucky, an epiphany occurs. Sometime later, such a moment occurred for me.

It is true that consumers have access to significantly more information than ever before. The World Wide Web allows for instantaneous access to information on all manner of topics. The plethora of information available on cosmetic ingredients is no exception. Yet, it occurred to me that even with all the access available, many consumers still believe that sulfate-containing surfactants are cancer-suspect agents. They also believe that paraben preservatives may also be cancer-suspect agents. These beliefs are not restricted to cosmetics alone. They believe that vaccines lead to autism and they believe that untested natural remedies are superior to drugs that have passed through clinical studies.

The principal problem in the existence of such belief systems lies comfortably in the fact that, in many cases, the studies that suggested possible problems (like sulfate surfactants cause cancer) are complex, nuanced, and rarely read. Even reputable resources like the National Geographic Society are not opposed to publishing books dedicated to clinically untested Herbal Remedies (Nature’s Best Remedies 2015).

This article addresses some of the ideas around what the consumer really knows, and poses the question: “are they taking the time to understand ingredients and claims?” With all the information available to them, are consumers competent, fully informed experts, that enable them to thoroughly assess “windows” of information generated by reading glimpses of information through untrained minds which, I propose, can still result in differing opinions even among credible experts.

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