Ingredient ban in skincare is a hot and highly controversial topic. Just ask a cosmetic developer about ingredient bans at dinner and you’ll never hear the end of it.
Things you need to know about ingredient bans
There is no such thing as a universal world-wide legislation on cosmetic safety. Generally, all states act independently and make decisions based on the recommendations of local expert commissions. These recommendations and these decisions are influenced by a variety of factors, from expert qualification to local manufacturers’ lobby; it isn’t always possible to say whether there is any scientific basis behind a ban.
European Union banned 1372 ingredients so far, while the US FDA only 11, which has prompted a lot of outrage online. Chinese FDA, however, is stricter than European; not all skincare made in EU satisfies Chinese safety requirements despite stereotypical opinion of Chinese manufacture practices. Japanese legislation differs from Chinese, European and the US — Japan has its own list of banned ingredients and so do Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam.
Why is ingredient ban practice not universal?
First of all, legislation in different countries is based on different principles. European legislation is based on preventive measures: anything that is suspected to be potentially damaging for the skin or environment can be banned. The USA acts on the assumption that only the ingredients with scientifically confirmed harmful effect should be banned. Chinese law simply does not allow the use of any ingredients that are not in the state ingredient database, because they are manufactured outside of China and haven’t undergone the complete panel of tests required. Second, national industry and market characteristics, the interests of manufacturers, importers and exporters are of course a factor. Finally, the experts in different countries can interpret research data differently!
The largest number of banned ingredients comes from hair and nail products, not skincare.
Hair dye traditionally applied rather harsh ingredients and some substances that 30-40 years ago were widely used for chemical perm are now banned as well. It isn’t just the consumer who is protected by these bans, but also the employees of hair and nail salons who were in contact with harmful substances and had to breathe their fumes throughout their working shifts for 46 to 48 weeks a year. Some substances can be completely safe if you come in contact with a small amount of it a couple of times a year, but if you breathe them in 8 hours a day, day after day, they can cause harm. Same reasoning is behind the ban on some nail products, primarily the ingredients of nail polish, solvents and fixative solutions for acrylic nails. Why won’t American law ban them too? The US legislation is inherently less paternalistic and when no harm for the consumer is involved, the law simply warns the professionals about the hazards of working with certain products, acting on the assumption that an adult person is capable of making their own decisions about their life and health.
A large portion of banned ingredients is aromatic substances used in the manufacture of perfumery. These bans are not always fully supported by society: perfumers believe them too strict, while perfume lovers yearn for old, less strict times and vintage scents. Every ban affects the ingredient manufacturer, and as a rule they’re small traditional enterprises, family firms dating back centuries. It is perhaps the most sensitive aspect of ingredient ban in the name of consumer health and safety. Did you know, for example, that essential juniper oil is banned in perfume manufacture? As well as fig leaf oil, black mustard oil, Peruvian balsam essential oil (until very recently a component of many dermatological products), verbena oil, sassafras essential oil and a few others. Sure, most banned ingredients are substituted by synthetic versions and many perfumers claim that the substitute has only boosted their creativity and success.
The reason for ingredient ban is almost always its irritating effect or increasing the skin’s photosensitivity, and therefore using them in skincare is unsafe as well.
Have any ingredients been wrongly banned?
Ironically, the law is less strict than public opinion. Parabens are not officially banned anywhere, and even the strictest EU legislators agree that when used in small (legally regulated) dose parabens remain some of the safest and most effective preservatives and cannot cause endocrine or other health problems even theoretically. Same is true for aluminium. Curiously, it is the same group of experts that is behind both the anti-paraben and anti-aluminium campaigns stating they were potential health hazards. The safety of aluminium in reasonable doses is confirmed by research and no law is limiting its use as of now. However, fewer and fewer manufacturers dare to include these in their formulations. The word parabens has become a deal breaker for the consumers. Too many people now believe that parabens are dangerous and it seems impossible to change their minds.
To protect consumers from unwarranted anxieties, this summer the EU law prohibited the use of words free from on cosmetic labels.
Indeed, if you put these words before a list of banned ingredients, it would not make much sense as these are illegal to use in skincare anyway. (It is the same as writing not tested on animals, as European products are not tested on animals by default, it has been legally prohibited for several years now.) At the same time putting free from before a list of perfectly usable safe ingredients is breeding ungrounded fears in society. If an ingredient is permitted for use in cosmetic formulations, it has undergone a complete series of tests, including various kinds of toxicology tests and a test on possible damage of cell genetic material.
Many questions remain, however. Is hydroquinone banned in EU, Japan and Australia for good reason? In the USA skincare with up to 2% hydroquinone is sold over the counter, while solutions with 4% hydroquinone are prescribed by dermatologists. The cytotoxicity of hydroquinone even in small (the ability to damage irreversibly and destroy skin cells) has been confirmed, which was the primary argument for its ban. The side effects and complications of hydroquinone application are very common, but American experts believe that most of them were associated with individual reactions or unnecessarily prolonged application, while hydroquinone does in fact effectively lighten the skin and it would be a pity to not be able to use it anymore.
Essential oils and perfume ingredients make the skin more sensitive to UV rays and are a common cause of skin irritation and pigmentation, but to be fair there are plenty of other photosensitising ingredients even if these are banned. In particular, everyone’s favourites, such as retinol and most of its derivatives, as well as most AHAs, make the skin more sensitive to UV and even with the use of sunscreens can cause pigment spots. So why are essential oils banned and acids are not?
A recent enquiry into phenoxyethanol, which by the way did not lead to its ban, but ruined the ingredient’s reputation, is connected to a tragic accident when hundreds of little babies suffered from poisoning, because nursing mums applied cream with phenoxyethanol and chlorhexidine to treat their cracked nipples. Phenoxyethanol in skincare is safe to use in concentration >1%, this is confirmed by numerous studies and tests. However, when it is applied to the breasts and nipples of a nursing mother (and some of them used up to 30-50 ml of cream a day!) and the cream gets into their babies mouths, it poses a real threat to the babies health. Whose fault is that? The manufacturer of phenoxyethanol who didn’t have enough foresight to prevent this? Or a cream manufacturer who didn’t think of the application method of a particular product and the implications of that? Should phenoxyethanol be banned? I hope not. A few years ago preservative was banned in the EU, methylisothiazolinone (MIT), while still in use in the US. However, during the active anti-paraben campaign, it was MIT that was offered as a safe alternative with many added benefits! As soon as MIT began to be widely used, however, the consumers’ contact with this ingredient increased and its irritating effect has become apparent. At first the legislators considered limiting the concentration, but eventually a complete ban was issued, which was quite a blow for some manufacturers who had to rework and adapt their formulations — yet again.
No one has all the answers. I certainly don’t.
Scientific progress allows us to study skincare ingredients more thoroughly than ever before.
Most banned ingredients were included in cosmetic formulations prior to the development of research base, the bulk of data on skin condition and the concept of safety expertise per se, so today we rectify a lot of past mistakes. Let’s just hope that we’re not throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. The good thing is that most bans are issued not spontaneously, but with care and after real expert consideration. The downside is that often the media discussions of ingredient hazards have no grounds and the press and social network power is exploited to rile up the public opinion.