Personal Care Companies Say It’s Not About What’s In Beauty Products These Days, It’s About What Isn’t

Image courtesy of gumby liberation organization

We’re used to seeing beauty product labels that tout special ingredients — this one has added vitamins for soft skin, that one uses a certain oil to calm frizz — but the new trend these days is focused more on what isn’t in those items.

Personal-care product makers are putting ingredients like parabens, sulfates, and phthalates on their “no lists,” the Wall Street Journal reports, putting the emphasis on what’s not in their products.

That way, consumers don’t have to worry, marketers say, as the labels eliminate the process of trying to figure out a complicated ingredient list.

“It really is the time for what’s not in your skin care,” Marla Malcolm Beck, chief executive and co-founder of Bluemercury, a specialty beauty chain owned by Macy’s, told the WSJ.

She says the trend toward knowing what ingredients are in personal care products is a reflection of consumers’ growing interest in food labeling. For example, the Bluemercury private-label skincare line M-61 has two no lists: a short one for the front of the product, a longer one on the back.

And people are looking at those personal-care product labels, according to the 2015 Values & Lifestyles Survey from consulting company CEB: folks 31 to 51 — older millennials and Gen Xers — are the most likely to read them, CEB says.

Calling out what isn’t in a product isn’t always the best way to go, as many companies that push products as “all natural” have found out the hard way: the Federal Trade Commission put the smackdown on five companies it said were falsely promoting products with synthetic ingredients.

Last September, customers filed a class-action lawsuit against Honest Co., claiming Jessica Alba’s personal care company hasn’t been exactly honest over its claims of using “natural” ingredients, accusing the organization of deceiving consumers by selling items that actually contain unnatural and ineffective ingredients.

It’s important to note that the scientific community is debating the specifics of exactly which ingredients to leave out: some studies have identified certain chemicals as hormone disrupters, while others have been linked to cancer, or infertility.

“We don’t know how certain ingredients are absorbed over a lifetime,” one dermatologist tells the WSJ. “A small amount in many, many products—how does that add up in your body?”

There’s no regulation of “no lists,” so some groups are taking a stab at it on their own, including the Environmental Working Group, which started releasing its own product verification seal. About 225 products from 20 brands now bear that seal.

But even with that kind of information and brand websites that lay out ingredients clearly, shoppers are confused: the WSJ cites a survey from last year that shows 77% of product users said among products making natural or organic claims, it is “hard to tell” which “were actually natural and/or organic.”

Just because you see an ingredient’s name on one of those lists doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know whether or not you’ll react to it, however, as we learned last year from a young girl who had an awful, rashy reaction to the common preservative methylisothiazolinone in her shampoo, which was labeled “natural” and “hypoallergenic.”

‘No’ Lists on Labels Make Shoppers Say ‘Yes’ [Wall Street Journal]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.