Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Monday, January 15, 2007

Are consumers becoming more aware of products they use? Marcia Helene Hewitt UWA

Propylene Glycol causes a significant number of reactions and was a primary irritant to the skin in low levels of concentrations.

-The American Academy of Dermatologists Inc, Jan 1991

“I have to die of something, so I might as well go to the grave looking beautiful.”
-UWA student-

Are consumers becoming more aware of the products they use?

Recently I was involved in a study using a product, a bottom price range (approx. dollars), multi-purposed moisturiser called, fictionally, Natural, marketed to Southeast Asia and Australia. The client requested evidence based research about their product as well as innovation for the future.

Having been encouraged by Sue Parrot’s methodology (1972) I decided to take a ‘step by step’ approach, although I must admit had a few preconceived notions as to what I would find.

My first response to this project was to remember standing in the snow in Boston, 1970, leafleting about Dow Chemical Company and Dupont, and how the war in Viet Nam was directly related to the profits of these two companies, how they supplied the napalm, and how Revlon and Max Factor were direct subsidiaries. And so I thought, I could never be part of a project (even a fictional one) to increase the sales of a multinational company. However after thinking about it for awhile I realised that there were many other people like me who also did not want to contribute to the military industrial complex, and thought I ‘d start by talking to the lady at the local health food store.

She was very knowledgeable about synthetic chemicals in moisturisers and was quite happy to let me investigate every product on her shelf, about 29 different brands. I found the brand that we use, Tinderbox, made in Western Australia, and other brands along the same line (i.e. moisturisers made without parabens or propylene glycol). I noticed that the types of drawings and graphics for health food products portrayed a different type of beauty than the imagery of mainstream magazines, and looked further into art books to see the romantic era that many of these images are drawn from quite different to the ‘hard-sell beauty’ of magazine advertisements.

I then went to our local chemist, where we have been patrons for over 20 years. Ken knew all about the poisons in the products he sold and photocopied me a page from Martindales The Complete Drug Reference, 2005. He also mentioned that he was much more worried ‘what they are doing to our food’ and was interested to know that parabens were being thoroughly investigated and that some progress was being made by advocacy groups.

In our group tutorial research other things came to light. Asian students contributed very valuable things about Asian magazines having Asian models but that even those models were ‘pan-Asian’ as she described them. I pressed her a bit on that description and asked “you mean Euroasian?” and she said “ yes. “ “ Then it still seems ‘better’ to have European ancestry, or in the Han Dynasty Chinese women were seen as more beautiful for having whiter skin” I went on to say. She hesitatingly admitted that was true. Other students contributed that 90% of people used moisturiser and that men were reticent to ascribe the use of moisturisers to concerns about ‘beauty.’ One student also shared that every guy on his rugby team used moisturisers, and yet another student shared the increased use of cosmetics by a new trend in ‘metro sexuality’. As far as advertising targets went, of the many magazines that I looked into, there were several magazines on the rack about babies and baby care, enticing yet another group of people into using creams and moisturisers.
However, of my test group on the growing awareness and concern of ingredients, all of the participants were concerned. These participants were aged between 20 and 74, both male and female, were all concerned with ingredients and all read the ingredients. The 30% of participants of my survey who I interviewed within our tutorial group were not interested at all in the ingredients, and only one other member of the group found that more than half of his participants were concerned about ingredients. None of the other five researchers found that concern with ingredients was significant. This data concerned me because I didn’t feel that it was consistent with my findings both in the community and within other faculties of UWA, nor was it consistent with findings at Murdoch or East Bentley College of Natural Science. Deciding to compare our research group with other research groups ;and surveys I found articles in Harvard Green Campus newsletter indicating that their on-campus surveys about toxic ingredients showed that over 80% of students were concerned, ( and looking further into the broader European Community found that the Eurobarometer (Environmental Issues and Consumer Associations 2005) showed 90% of students at the University of Frankfurt to be concerned with ingredients in skin care products. (http:///www. In other environmental habits surveys at MIT and Berkely University the ratings were between 80 and 90% of students were concerned with the ingredients of the cosmetics they used ( The
number of advocacy groups such as the one led by Dr. Samuel Epstein (1995) and Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) alone show that the awareness within the global community at large is strong enough to force major companies into compliance. The ingredients in question for the purpose of this paper are sodium laurel sulphate, parabens, propylene glycol and pthalates.

My research led me into nine venues in the Subiaco area: three health food stores, three supermarkets, and three chemists. There were over 100 brands collectively distributed between these nine venues. Looking at over 40 brands and reading each label, I observed that about 95% of the products had at least one of the four chemicals previously mentioned. Comparing my findings to that of the National Industrial Chemicals Notification Scheme (NICNAS), out of 34 leading brands, 4 out of 5 had at least one phthalate, more than half had two or more. (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing 2005)

In the tutorial group research, we discussed types of advertising models, such as Anglo Celtic models who do not portray the ethnicity of the Australian multicultural community at this time. I noticed in 15 magazines that there was only one Afro-American model, and that advertising companies are selling an Anglo Celtic beauty image to other races, creating a form of racial negation in them that leads to another market; one of selling face whitening creams, or hair straightening creams for women of African origin.

. Awareness about ingredients and their toxicity in our tutorial group was much lower than I had imagined, and my lecturer had warned me that this would be true, a fact that I am still having difficulty coming to terms with. However I was relieved that the awareness was sufficiently high among chemists, health food store owners, and UWA students who were in my daughter’s social circle, including her friends from church. Naturopath students with whom I spoke would never have a tube of toothpaste or bottle of moisturiser containing parabens and sodium laurel sulfate in their houses!

This growing awareness about toxicity is surely reflected in the fact that two major cosmetics companies, Revlon and L’Oreal, have agreed to eliminate chemicals suspected of causing cancer, birth defects and infertility from their products. For example The Breast Cancer Fund, part of a broader coalition called Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, is talking to major multinational companies including Procter & Gamble, Schering Plough, Aveda, Avon and Este Lauder about complying with EU standards in the United States. (Ginty, 2004) This same group has already won agreement from 50 natural-products companies, including Avalon Organics and Aubrey to comply to EU standards. (Kay, 2005).

Although this product is marketing in South East Asia and Australia global trends in marketing will make this product available to the world market, which is increasingly critical of toxicity in cosmetics, and environmentalist activities in both Europe and the United States indicate an increasing probability that there will be greater regulatory control in Australia, and therefore, this product, both for its name Natural, and its ingredients, could in the future be in breach of new regulations.

Whilst the product Natural advertises itself as 97% natural, it will probably be held accountable for the other 3%. The label natural holds true in the sense that it contains almond oil, wheatgerm oil and shea butter, but it also contains sodium laurel sulfate and parabens. This type of labelling is also being called into question within state organizations such as the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme. [].

Alternatives to synthetic chemicals

Since the client has requested suggestions to improve their product, I found a number or trade fairs who were marketing improved versions, environmentally safe and allergy free, to the global market.Current trade fairs show a trend towards paraben free products. (Natural Products Expo West, 2005). Since more and more studies link paraben based preservatives with breast cancer including the research of Dr. Nicholas Perricone. (2002), a New York Times best selling author, it seems a reasonable suggestion for the client company to remove all hydroxybenzoates from their product. Many personal care manufacturers are reformulating their products to use alternative preservatives such as vitamins C and E, phenoxyethanol, grapefruit extract, caprylyl glycol from palm kernel oil and benzoin gum. There are a range of products popular in Asia, and in fact obtainable in Asia, derived from coconut and acai; oils, milks and flours from coconuts are making a resurgence, following information that unlike other palm oils, coconut oil is a medium chain triglyceride that breaks down faster in the body and helps improve thyroid function. Coconut flour is low-carb, high fiber and gluten-free. Acai, an Asian fruit rich in antioxidants, is appearing in more and more products ranging from juice to moisturisers. (Natural Products Expo West, 2005).

Evidence that products that promise youth, beauty and sexual attractiveness may actually impair fertility and increase the effects of ageing, is contained in a new briefing from Women’s Environmental Network (WEN). ‘Getting Lippy: cosmetics, toiletries and the environment’ (2002) exposes the widespread use of synthetic chemicals, some of which are linked to fertility problems, cancer, allergies and other health effects. Harvard University studies (2002) have also linked chemicals in cosmetics to decreased sperm count.
The cosmetics industry is big business – 90% of Australians (as our research group concluded) use cosmetics and many women use more than 20 different products as part of their daily routine. (Ethical Consumer Magazine 2005).
Most modern cosmetics are “complex mixtures of industrially produced synthetic chemicals” and: “Individually these cosmetic products contain very small amounts of chemical ingredients – it is the cumulative and combined effect of applying these ingredients in the many everyday products which comprise our daily routine that gives cause for concern.” (Ethical Consumer Magazine 2005).
In a random check, WEN found preservatives (parabens) suspected of mimicking the female hormone, oestrogen, in 57% of products.
There are a number of viable companies who are no longer using parabens and other synthetic additives: Akamuti, Dr. Hauschka, Essentially Yours, Green & Organic Ltd, Green People, Hempgarden, Pure Nuff Stuff, REN Ltd, Simply Soaps, Spiezia Organics Ltd, Weleda (UK) Ltd) The Body Shop, Tinderbox WA that have said they don’t use two sets of ingredients. – (Ethical Consumer magazine 2005).


The number of new cancer cases is growing twice as fast as the population in Canada: as of now, 44% of Canadian men and 38% of Canadian women will be affected during their lifetimes. Dr. Dominique Belpomme, cancer specialist and author of the book Ces Maladies Creees par l’Homme [Man-Made Illnesses] deems that 70% of all cancers are of environmental origin in the largest sense of the word. He asserts that the norms set by governmental regulations as thresholds for doses of toxic products “are, in fact, too high to avoid the outbreak of cancers.” (Belpomme,2004). 4,900 people died in the last five years in Australia from skin cancer (, 2005). The use of moisturizers is now central to the study of skin cancers, and there appears to be increased funding for further studies in major universities, such as Harvard University.(http.//


The research on our client’s product, Natural, advertised as 97% natural, but containing parabens and sodium laurel sulfate, provides information that it possibly could be forced to re-label in the future. The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, known as NICNAS, has the power to press legal charges and could do so. At this point in time the product will continue to sell as it does, through supermarket venues, and there are presently no regulatory bodies that could contradict this. However it is of major interest to note that Revlon and L’Oreal have chosen to comply with European Union standards, and since global marketing is increasingly viable, the odds are that Australia will follow suit shortly.

Therefore my suggestion as a researcher would be to begin to modify the product for the future, using some of the non-synthetic ingredients used by other companies and are easily obtainable from Asian countries, the by-products of coconut being one. This would not involve an increase in the company’s current spending, and in fact, might increase sales in the next 1-5 years, as pilot research shows and international studies show an increasing awareness about product ingredients and cancer related incidents. The Australian Medical Association will undoubtedly be involved in this issue within the next few years, and will more than likely put even more pressure on cosmetic manufacturers.

Marcia Helene Hewitt
Anthropology UWA
Student no. 0436125.


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