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Toxic Marketing: Manipulating Beauty Consumers with Fear

March 02, 2020 4 min read

Toxic Marketing: Manipulating Beauty Consumers with Fear

Terrorizing Beauty Consumers with Irrational Ingredient Anxieties 

We all know parabens cause breast cancer. 

But how did we come to know this? And are we certain what we know is true?  

Scary Health Reporting

Fear is the first operating principle of health reporting. The media knows we are suckers for scary headlines. Two of the most clickable kinds of stories are studies about everyday things that cause diseases. 

You know them all too, well. 

High cholesterol. Good cholesterol. Bad cholesterol. Alcohol consumption. Butter. Margarine. Red meat. Carbs. Fat. Salt. Sugar. Vaccines. Organic. Non-Toxic. Chemical-free. Preservative-free. Coronavirus. Parabens.

Making any sense of alarmist health reporting is nearly impossible because:

  1. There are way too many spooky health studies and reports for any normal person to make meaningful judgments about what they really mean. 
  2. The proliferation of people, entities and organizations sharing and spreading scary health studies has increased geometrically with no reliable means to weight opinions.    
  3. Reports often reach contradictory conclusions. Coffee is good. Coffee is bad. Salt is the silent killer. Actually, it’s fat. Scratch that. It’s sugar. We don’t know what to believe which causes stress and anxiety as we attempt to make lifestyle choices.
  4. Institutional Distrust – Not long ago we relied on health and science authorities to analyze and make judgments on studies, research and scary health reports. However, if there is no accepted voice of authority, if we cannot or will not accept the scientific jurisdiction of public health entities, then truth becomes relative.

In short, our fears are constantly triggered by an overload of frightening health information. But with no authoritative mechanism to reliably assess the threat, we can neither comfortably dismiss the alarm nor assuredly choose a fitting strategy for mitigation. As a result, we typically exist on an anxiety continuum that ranges from vague to acute. Or we dispatch with concerns by confidently latching onto an interpretation that most comfortably fits into our biases and worldview. 

Which brings me back to parabens.

One of the most common chemicals in beauty products is hydrogen oxide, often referred to by its chemical name, water. Bacteria love the stuff (as do yeast and fungi). In the lab, if we mix a batch of cream with no preservatives it only takes 2-3 days for it to be contaminated with all manner of bacteria including harmful ones like E.coli and Staphylococcus. These rascals will make you sick.

Cosmetic chemists use preservatives to prevent your favorite lotion or potion from becoming a teeming zoo of disgusting microbes. Since about 1960 parabens have been the preservative of choice to prevent bacterial contamination in countless billions of beauty products sold all over the world. Few cosmetic ingredients have been used more widely or been more rigorously tested for safety and efficacy than parabens. 

But we can’t use them anymore.

The Parabens Hysteria

In 2004 a report in the Journal of Applied Toxicology noted the appearance of parabens in a breast cancer tissue sample and further asserted that parabens were estrogenic. The methodology of the study was later repudiated and its findings subsequently retracted. 

But in the intervening period parabens had their reputation savaged. Bloggers and vloggers across the internet churned out loads of scary stories about how one of the most common ingredients in personal care products causes breast cancer. Print and broadcast journals threw gas on the fear fire with frightening headlines and scoops. “Next on the six-o’clock news, can your beauty products give you cancer? The ingredients you need to watch out for?”

Into this climate of cosmetic anxiety companies were founded to stoke women’s fears about cosmetic ingredients and, of course, to provide safe alternatives. Companies like Beauty Counter publish scary lists of ingredients women should fear. They created and fund so-called public interest organizations and non-profit groups ostensibly to campaign for safer cosmetics and the banning of ingredients they consider harmful. 

In reality these pressure groups seek to create uncertainty and fear by casting aspersions on the motives, methods and science behind organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the FDA. If they can disqualify the referee then truth is whatever they say it is. Their message: you can’t trust the ingredients in other products so you should buy ours. We care about you. 

I have utmost contempt for any company – but especially one owned by a woman – that sanctimoniously seeks profits by manipulating women with junk science and fear-based marketing. 

For the time being product formulators and cosmetic chemists can’t use parabens. Consumers have morphed into a mob of modern day luddites ready to smash or boycott anything that does not conform with their internet PhDs in chemistry. 

The irony is that the parabens hysteria is making products less not more safe. In the lab we’re forced to seek alternative preservatives that don’t have a 60 year track record of safety and efficacy. 

I urge consumers to question why they believe this ingredient or that ingredient is harmful. Question where you’re getting your information, why you believe it and whether the source has an agenda. 

Sooner or later parabens and other “banned” cosmetic ingredients will get a proper scientific hearing and this fever of consumer anxiety will break. 

Until then, please pass the butter.


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