Moisturisers with “fragrance-free” and “hypoallergenic” labels on them would naturally seem like a great option for individuals with skin problems. The truth is; however, these marketing claims are not necessarily what they appear to be.

What recent findings reveal

A study conducted by Dr Steve Xu and his colleagues at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that an appalling number of best-selling moisturisers have some form of potential skin allergen. In the study published by JAMA Dermatology, researchers analysed the ingredients of the top 100 best-selling moisturisers sold by some of today's giant retails. Based on the findings, approximately 45% of the products studied which were labelled as “fragrance-free” in fact do contain some form of fragrance. In addition, 83% of the products claimed to be “hypoallergenic” were found to contain potentially allergenic chemical in their ingredients.

Xu had been prompted to carry out the study due to the lack of evidence-based recommendations for such products. “I found myself really struggling to provide evidence-based recommendations for my patients,” he says. Consumers should also not simply take the label “dermatologist-recommended” for granted – as there is no proof on the exact number of dermatologists recommending the product. “It could be three dermatologists, or a thousand,” says Xu.

Current situation and regulations concerning cosmetic products

Lack of policy and strict regulations can be a major factor that contributes to the issue of cosmetic products having false and misleading labels. In the US, for instance, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require cosmetic products to pass the same regulations, which apply to drugs, in order to be sold in the market. Although the FDA has rules on how the cosmetic industry should label products, companies often will not list all of the ingredients – claiming that due to the highly competitive market, such information are “trade secrets” that cannot be revealed.

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Health (MOH) had recently identified three cosmetic creams containing scheduled poisons. This happened after the ministry identified eight other cosmetic products found to contain such poisons, two weeks prior. The widespread sale of unregistered cosmetic products in Malaysia has led to the establishment of the Cyberforensic Division by the MOH earlier this year. This is done in addition to the proposed amendments to laws and regulations governing the sale of such products.

Advice to raise consumer awareness

The current situation regarding the prevalence of putting false and misleading claims on cosmetic products including moisturisers is a legitimate concern and cause of worry, particularly for individuals with skin problems. “Many patients may be allergic or skin-sensitive when it comes to fragrance and other potential irritants. One should be able to trust that if a product says it’s hypoallergenic that it won’t irritate the skin,” says Gary Goldberg MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City.

In Singapore, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has reminded consumers to be wary when purchasing cosmetic products, especially those bought online. Health care professionals in general, and especially pharmacists and dermatologists, should provide appropriate advice to the public concerning the need to be more alert and cautious about labels seen on moisturisers and other cosmetic products. Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, recommends looking for the seal of the National Eczema Association when purchasing such products. “If the product has the seal, it means it has been evaluated and deemed appropriate for sensitive-skinned individuals and those with eczema,” he says. Furthermore, Goldenberg advises consumers to consult their dermatologist who can help guide them toward using the right products. MIMS

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