At last year’s annual SCC scientific symposium in New York, Dr Joe Schwarcz gave an excellent talk about cosmetics, chemicals and the public perception of product safety. He made some great points about a number of hot button issues including lead in lipstick, parabens, phthlates, and more. The basic theme is that non-science based groups like the EWG are mistaken and that the best science supports the fact that modern cosmetics are safe to use.
One of Dr Schwarcz’s main messages was that the public is being misinformed by fear mongering groups and it is up to scientists to set the record straight. Unfortunately, he provided little information about how to do that. Communicating cosmetic science to the media and public is not something most chemists know how to do. But I’ve spent the past 7 years doing this and have a few suggestions about how any scientist can combat the unscientific nonsense that is pushed daily by misinformed groups.
What can you do?
The reasons that so much misinformation gets out in the public and takes hold is because groups that spout this nonsense are great at PR, something that scientists don’t learn. The media also finds scare stories more interesting and not many scientists are available to offset lies with the truth. You can do your part to combat these lies about cosmetic and chemical safety is by publishing your own content which tells the truth. Participate in scientific activism. Here is how.
Being an activist scientist
Step 1 – Learn the issues – When writing or talking about controversial topics you should know what is true. How many of you know about the safety profile of parabens? What would you tell people about the levels of lead in lipstick? As a formulator, you should have ready, science-based answers to these questions. The way to learn the science is to do some research in reliable, science-based sources. The FDA Cosmetics site is a great place to start. The Cosmetic Info.org is also good as is http://www.cir-safety.org/. And you can learn a lot on our cosmetic science discussion forum.
Step 2 – Know your competition – While you’re trying to get the correct information out about cosmetic products you should know who the misinformation groups are and what they are saying. Some of the key groups that have wrong things to say about cosmetic products include
▪ The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
▪ The Environmental Working Group
▪ The David Suzuki Foundation
Step 3 – Start a blog – People learn about things from the Internet and doing Google searches. Having a blog is a great way to get your information to show up when someone does a search. Right now if you do a search for the term sunscreen, the EWG 2014 sunscreen guide is what comes up. This is junk information filled with half truths and misunderstandings of science. The first mostly unbiased result is the 5th spot on the search page, an article by WebMD. The FDA shows up in the 7th & 8th spot but scientifically valid information from the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t even show up on the front page. Similarly, junk information about Parabens is the first thing you see when you search for it on Google. We need to change this. Starting a blog and writing about these topics will help move these junk science peddlers off the front page of the search results. It’s easy to start a blog. Go to WordPress.com or Blogger.com to get started for free.
Step 4 – Link to good information – When you write about topics be sure to include links to sites with supporting information using the appropriate words. Do a search for the term keywords to understand better what I’m talking about but basically, Google ranks websites based on the number of other websites that link to them. So the reason that the CFSC ranks high for the term ‘parabens’ is because there are a lot of websites that use the word paraben then link it to the CFSC webpage that talks about parabens. To get the FDA’s website higher for the search term paraben, you should link to it like I did in this post. FDA link to the word paraben. They way to knock bad information off the front of Google is to replace it with good information.
Step 5 – Write about the right things – When you are writing your blog you should make a list of topics that you want to help change the public’s perception about. I would suggest things like parabens, preservatives, pthalates, sulfates, sunscreens, or any of the other villified cosmetic ingredients. The more you write about these things, the greater the chance your page will show up in a search result and the more likely someone will find out what is true.
Step 6 – Participate in Social media – Having a blog is great but many of these conversations are happening on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You should set up your own accounts on these websites and start producing content. You could just repeat things from your blog but you could also respond to what other people are putting out. Getting a digital conversation going is the best way to combat misinformation. There are more social media sites beyond the ones I’ve suggested but those are the main ones. Youtube is also a great place to produce content if you want to make videos.
Step 7 – Stay informed – Finally, stay informed about new findings in the cosmetic area. When there is new information about the safety of parabens or sunscreens or anything else you should know about it. Don’t be afraid to reverse your opinion either based on new evidence. We are scientists and it is ok to be wrong. It is not ok to be wrong and not correct your mistakes when you discover you’ve made one. Information is always changing and if something you wrote a few years back is no longer applicable be sure to set the record straight. This is the primary difference between fear mongering groups like the EWG and scientists. The EWG will never reverse their opinion on parabens despite the fact that science has demonstrated that they are safe.
Publishing Tips for Working Scientists
Now that you’ve got started here are just a few tips that will help you along the way.
1. Watch your behavior – Remember anything you write on the Internet will potentially be there forever. Avoid calling people names, being insulting, swearing or writing or producing anything that you will regret in the future. If you are searching for a job now or in the future, potential employers will look at your online activity and use that in their assessment of whether they want to hire you. If you use your blog to mock natural product formulators don’t be surprised if it is harder for you to find employment with one of those producers. Some people may not worry about this but you might not want to add this extra hurdle in your way of future job prospects.
2. It can be emotionally draining – Being more visible on the Internet will open you up to more criticism. Even if what you say is true there will be critics who will call you names, question your ethics, question your intelligence, and call you evil. But don’t be discouraged. People will say things to you or about you on the Internet that they would never say to you in real person.
3. Don’t waste your time & energy – You’ll need to learn to let some arguments go. Avoid the temptation to be the one to finish an argument. Respond once or twice to someone then move on. No one is really interested in having their mind changed. You respond to effect people who may be lurking and reading the discussion but don’t ever think you are going to change the mind of the person you’re communicating with.
4. Know your company’s policies – Perhaps most important is that you should know your company’s online policy. And if they don’t have one assume that anything you write will be seen as representing what your company is saying. You can put a disclaimer on your stuff like “thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and the author alone and do not represent those of any past, present or future employers.” That may help but some companies don’t want you to be writing about cosmetics at all. In these cases, I would encourage you to post using a pseudonym. As the employee of a corporation you are not really free to write what you want without any possible repercussions. This is true of a blog, social media accounts and forums. If you are not independent be very careful about what you say or start writing anonymously.
Well, that’s all I have for the moment. I hope some of you take some of these suggestions and start fighting the tide of unscientific nonsense that has swept through the Internet. Perhaps we can fight the fear mongers and use the truth to remove them from the limelight.
Perry Romanowski is the Vice President of Brains Publishing and founder of http://chemistscorner.com