Ingredient apps and the importance of transparency

Ingredient apps and the importance of transparency

Packaging is, more than ever, a vital part of the marketing mix. More specifically, labeling can literally make or break a sale. A new breed of shoppers is avidly checking labels for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ingredients using a variety of apps and websites, plus knowledge gleaned from the plethora of on and offline media and beauty bloggers. We take a closer look at what’s going on and how the market is responding.

We’ve all heard of the phrase “I don’t want to know how the watch works; I just want to tell the time” – basically “I don’t care how it works, as long as it works”. Well, that sentiment might be true for cars or computers, but it certainly isn’t true for personal care and cosmetic products.

Today’s consumers not only want to know how a product will work for them, but why, and which active ingredients are the most suitable for their personal requirements – be that their skin type, or preference for natural and organic.

And to underline the fascination with ingredients, you only have to do a quick search on the internet to find literally millions of links to news items, blogs and discussions on everything from the virtues of retinol to the power of hyaluronic acid. And even the most cursory glance at brand websites, packaging and advertising highlights that individual ingredients are increasingly flagged for their efficacy, rather than the generic promises such as ‘anti-ageing’ or ‘smoother skin’ that we might have had in the past.

Another driver behind our obsession with ingredients is the ‘clean’ beauty movement. Mainly pushed by independent brands using social media as their key marketing platform, ‘clean’ beauty boasts natural, often organic ingredients, while products do not undergo any animal testing.

These parallel movements have also been instrumental in a new campaign which seeks to ‘expose’ brands containing what are considered to be ‘questionable’ ingredients, either because they may be harmful, or because they could cause an allergic reaction in some consumers. As a result, there is now a plethora of apps available for Android and iOS smartphones that can scan barcodes to quickly reveal not only all ingredients in any given product but also which ones might have a question mark hanging over them.

Think Dirty, for instance, encourages consumers to ‘understand the truths in the beauty industry’. Borne out of a desire to discover clean or ‘safe’ alternatives, the app is designed to empower the consumer, allowing them to make an informed decision on what products to purchase. Users simply scan a product barcode to receive easy-to-understand information on its ingredients, covering everything from beauty and personal care to household products. The website also includes a host of ‘verified’ products and recently launched its own beauty box, featuring all hand-picked and clean rated luxury beauty items, as well as many independent brands.

Similarly, the GoodGuide claims to help guide more ‘informed’ buying decisions. The GoodGuide team, according to the site, comprises more than 50 scientific and regulatory professionals with “deep expertise in chemicals and chemical-containing products”. Its team analyzes each product based on its composition, with more than 75,000 rated products currently found on the website.

In Europe, CosmEthics recommends ‘better’ alternatives to the products scanned (assuming they are available). It currently features more than 130,000 products and boasts two million items have been checked by users via the App. Users can flag ingredients that they’re keen to avoid, with the App offering suggestions from ready-made lists including vegan and fragrance allergens, for example.

Focusing on the health and wellbeing of consumers, Detox Me is an app developed by the Silent Spring Institute, an organization dedicated to “uncovering the environmental causes of breast cancer.” This free app is designed to help reduce consumer exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, highlighting which beauty items or household products to avoid. And that’s not all, it allows users to track their progress over time in eliminating ‘toxic’ products and offers tips for choosing ‘safer’ alternatives alongside simple labelling explanations.

Of course, mainstream beauty and skincare brands experiencing scrutiny have been quick to defend their products . They have quite rightly pointed out that there is a risk of inconsistent information provided by such apps, while at the same time highlighting the strict regulations with which ingredients must comply, and how they are labelled.

However, this heightened focus on transparency has naturally had a profound effect on the industry. Aside from seeing the rise of the previously mentioned ‘clean’ beauty trend, this focus on more natural products has also seen global brands launch their own versions of ‘natural’.

For instance, L’Oréal’s Seed Phytonutrients is a sustainable brand with paper packaging, while the company has also rolled out organic products under its Garnier label. Clarins, meanwhile, has gone one step further by buying a 200,000-acre farm in the French Alps to “grow and study plants for the development of skincare and makeup formulas”.

This intense focus on ingredients has resulted in many global brands taking a closer look at their labelling policies. Launched in 2017, Unilever announced a transparency initiative which sees it provide consumers with access to information on ingredients used in its products, going beyond current labelling and regulatory requirements.

In the US, this information is available through SmartLabel – a database of ingredients, allergens, third-party certifications, social compliance programs, usage instructions, advisories and safe handling instructions, company/brand information, along with other pertinent details about a wide range of personal care and cosmetics products, as well as thousands of food, beverage, household and pet care items.

While Unilever has been voluntarily listing fragrance allergens in line with EU labelling regulations, it also encourages European consumers to log into its What’s in Our Products website to discover the company’s approach to developing safe products along with explanations of ingredient types and answers to common questions. Procter & Gamble is in the middle of completing a similar exercise, pledging to share all fragrance ingredients down to 0.01 per cent for its entire product portfolio in the US and Canada by the end of this year .

We certainly don’t believe the intense focus on ingredients is likely to subside; Pandora’s Box is open. Marketers must begin to factor ingredients information into all of their external communications – from advertising to labelling, to keep consumers informed and reassured that nothing is hidden.

This issue, like so many surrounding skincare and beauty today, relies on the value of integrity, authenticity and trust. And, in the eyes of the consumer, transparency is key.


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-19/apps-will-tell-you-if-a-lipstick-is-safe-or-kardashian-filthy

[1] https://news.pg.com/press-release/pg-corporate-announcements/pg-expands-transparency-commitment-include-fragrance-ingred

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