The Limitation of Cosmetic Ingredient Claims

It’s All In The Mix

(Original Publication: Euro Cosmetics Journal Vol 22, March 2020)

Working in Claims Development provides me the wonderful opportunity of working with both brands and raw material suppliers. When it comes to ingredient claims there is a running common thread between the two - how do we address the desire for ‘ingredient claims’ and remain compliant with the law and without misleading the consumer.

First of all let me take you into the kitchen…

Most people enjoy apple pie and depending on where you come from, the recipe will vary. So, lets keep it simple: Flour, sugar, butter, pinch of salt, apples, and maybe some cinnamon and lemon juice. To glaze the pastry maybe a bit of beaten egg before baking, and some cream or custard to serve. Obviously, the majority of the ingredients would never be eaten on their own, even the apples could be too sour. While it is known that each of these ingredients have properties in their own right, when they are mixed together, they produce something entirely different, and the proof is always in the eating (and the nice smell too). Sour apples become sweet and juicy, cinnamon adds a unique flavour, and unpalatable pastry components become a savoured delight. Yet it is the entirety of the pie that creates the proof of the pudding.

What has this to do with ingredient cosmetic claims?

Actually? Everything! The composition of a formulation can be likened to an apple pie or whatever other analogy you choose. Each ingredient is unique in its own right and when mixed together, becomes a team ensuring the whole product works in unison, and that ingredients can do their job within the environment they have been formulated into. The raw material supplier knows that their customers formulate their products according to the needs of their own consumers and product strategies (or at least should do). Therefore, the raw material supplier cannot test each of their ‘active’ ingredients in every single formulation that will be sold containing the ‘active’. Furthermore, and apple pie is a case in point, the ‘active’ ingredient may actually change when you formulate it into your product.

Yes, you can prove that your product is chemically stable - at least from the point of view that it does not fall apart, change colour or odour, or start growing bugs. Yet, what about its ‘activity’? This could be enhanced over the study results obtained by the supplier, or even, be less effective. The formulation could be prone to photo-degradation when applied to the skin thus increasing free-radical formation (1), or, it could just change chemically without any impact on the formulation stability itself. Not so pleasant for the skin if you are trying to claim anti-ageing for example. This is one of the reasons why, when a product is hauled in for claims compliance inspection by a particular national authority, they will test the product chemically first, to ensure that what is in the product is what it says on the pack, and what you have registered within your PIF (product information file for EU compliance). Where you have ingredients that are not very stable, such as aloe vera, this can be a problem, as formulators have learned.

Then, you have efficacy to take into consideration. In my line if work, so many brands still don’t get or ignore the requirements for compliance with the claims legislation. They would rather sell their product first and then decide if they will build a body of evidence. Little do they realise that non-compliance with just one of the six criteria (2) means non-compliance with all of them - like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. Relying on supplier data alone is blatantly risky. An analogy would be like buying a new Porsche for example. If Porsche had developed a new pump system which injected fuel more efficiently, but had only tested this in a lawn mower, the potential purchaser would expect it to be have been tested in the Porsche model, in case the engine or worse, fell apart when pressing the accelerator!

‘A claim extrapolating (explicitly or implicitly) ingredient properties to the finished product shall be supported by adequate and verifiable evidence, such as by demonstrating the presence of the ingredient at an effective concentration’ (2).

Yet the raw material supplier can only do so much, and that is just one reason for this claims legislation. Do test the whole product in context of your product strategy and your own consumer expectations. By understanding your own consumers - not those of your competitors, you will get a better grasp on what they actually need. The story is everything for the initial consumer purchase, and is a marketing strength. It is the efficacy of the product which brings the consumer back for those repeat-purchases. If the product does not meet consumer expectations, it will be a clear marketing weakness and failure.

Sometimes the simpler the claims the more complicated it can be to justify them (3). In my workshops I often give the claim ‘moisturisation’ as an example. It can mean so many things, not only to the developer but also to the consumer. What do you mean by ‘moisturisation’, what does your consumer mean by ‘moisturisation’? This is why consumer insight studies are vital before progressing further into the measurements and investigation of ‘moisturising actives’ . More recent trends are of course the so-called ‘green’ claims, and with ‘greenwashing’ rife it is difficult to avoid “noise”. What do you mean or understand as green claims, and what does your consumer mean by them? If you say a product contains organic lavender oil, your consumer will expect proof of the ‘organic’ AND have an expectation that the product because it contains lavender oil will help clam and relax (since this is a known and well-published property of lavender oil). In the EU reporting on claims compliance in 2016 (4), it was stated that: ‘when an ingredient claim is made, the cosmetic product the particular ingredient is contained in, should always have the same efficacy associated by the consumer with the ingredient’. This point challenges some interpretations amongst some experts and competent authorities that: ‘ingredients present at such low concentrations to be efficacious need not be tested’.

My point is, therefore, why formulate them into the product in the first place?

Why even claim they are present, if the consumer expectation is that they will do something, because you have formulated them in the product?

It is clearly misleading to the consumer and contradicts the criterion ‘Informed Decision’ (2).

Furthermore, this practice wastes resources and does nothing for the 'green, sustainable' transparent image the industry is seeking

From my viewpoint, I stand with the French legislators. The French Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control conducted its own investigations (5). In doing so they evaluated 5,600 cosmetic products comprising a total of 1,013 claims . A huge number of these claims, almost half of them (46%) were found to be non-compliant. This majority being related to a lack of, or inadequate documentation supporting the claims.

The French conclusions indicate that efficacy studies do need to be performed with the final cosmetic formulation, and that claims based on the efficacy studies of the ‘active’ ingredient supplier are not sufficient. - which on behalf of the consumer I wholly agree with, and it also makes good scientific common sense too!

Product development pathways have to be turned on their head and re-drawn. Time and money to build a body of evidence has to be a first priority in the product development process, and not at the end - as is commonly the case. Building a body of evidence for a product can no longer be an afterthought. Key steps in any claim development process are: consumer insight, product raison d’être , claim development strategy, body of evidence, and communication. If the developer (marketing and R&D) cannot get these processes right, it does not matter what the trendy claim might be, they may well fail in the overall compliance, and disappoint the consumer.

‘Assessment of the acceptability of a claim shall be based on the weight of evidence of all studies, data and information available depending on the nature of the claim and the prevailing general knowledge of the end users’ (2).

To conclude, it is the consumer who decides the success of a given product. How satisfied they are, will be based on their own unique needs, with one of the most important criteria for all of them being that the product actually has efficacy!

ⒸCallaghan Consulting International

1.Silva, S., Michniak-Kohn, B., & Leonardi, G. R. (2017). An overview about oxidation in clinical practice of skin aging. Anais brasileiros de dermatologia, 92(3), 367–374. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175481.
2. Commission Regulation (EU) No 655/2013 of 10 July 2013 laying down common criteria for the justification of claims used in relation to cosmetic products Text with EEA relevance
3. Callaghan, T. Help! I’m Covered In Adjectives: Cosmetics Claims & The Consumer. KDP publishers, Amazon (Sept. 2019) ISBN: 978-1-687-89860-9.
4. Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on product claims made based on common criteria in the field of cosmetics.
5. La DGCCRF a contrôlé les allégations présentes sur les produits cosmétiques, leurs pratiques de fabrication et les produits pour bébés et enfants.