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‘Hidden ingredients’ in cosmetic products gives a whole new meaning to the term caveat emptor for those with allergies

Tina Patel and Charlotte Tapang consider the changes that are needed to make allergy sufferers aware of hidden ingredients in cosmetic products

Posted on 23 April 2021

Many of us use the same beauty creams, lotions and potions as part of our daily routine - but how many of us know what they really contain?
26 April 2021 marks the beginning of Allergy Awareness week. In the UK about two in 100 children and about one in 200 adults have an allergy to nuts and the number of people with a peanut allergy is growing. Nut allergy is the most common type of severe food allergy. People with nut allergies must take steps to ensure that the food they eat does not contain nuts - from calling restaurants ahead to inform them that they have a nut allergy, to informing airlines, to reading and asking several times if that “sandwich”contains nuts. However, what many are unaware of is that they must also be just as vigilant in the Cosmetics aisle as well. 
Walking down the aisles of cosmetics stores searching for a lip balm or shampoo is something that is a regular occurrence for many of us.  Those with allergies, particularly nut allergies, must be careful that what they are purchasing does not contain nuts. Most people search for ingredients containing the word “Nut” but they are met with an endless and often incomprehensible list of ingredients such as “Cocos nucifera, Litchi chinensis, Anacardium occidentale- which are the Latin names for Coconut, Lychee and Cashew.
Given the numerous benefits that nuts provide the body and skin it is no surprise that many cosmetics contain nuts. However, what is surprising, is that when it comes to labelling cosmetics, the laws surrounding labelling are not as stringent as they are in the food industry. 
When the top eight food allergens are used in food products (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean) the allergens are required to be labelled in plain English (i.e almond, coconut etc).
But European cosmetic regulations require all cosmetics products marketed in Europe to list all their ingredients on their packaging under a specific name identified by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) in accordance with rules established by the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC).  The reasoning behind this is that the ingredients should be easy for everyone to identify in case of allergies or sensitivities wherever they are. 
For example, while the word for Cashew in France is Anacardier, in Spain it is Anacardo and in Greece it is Kάsious, which makes identifying ingredients somewhat difficult particularly if you are abroad. 
By having standardised terms for the ingredients, the identifying process is customer friendly (as the names of ingredients are the same wherever you go in Europe), which in theory makes sense. In practice however, by using the botanical/Latin names for ingredients it has actually made the process of identifying labels harder to read - because few shoppers actually know what they are! 
It would be easy to think that now the UK has left the European Union the labelling on our cosmetics could be changed to the use of “plain English” instead. 
However, the purpose of the legislation is designed to standardise the labelling system and, in that regard it is highly doubtful that the UK government would do this as doing so could potentially disadvantage products made in the UK for export. 
The food industry is currently going through a major change thanks to Natasha’s law (which will come into force in October2021). Any business in England must clearly label all foods packed and produced on their premises with a complete list of ingredients. Natasha’s Law will be introduced to protect allergy sufferers and give them confidence in the food they buy. 
The same change needs to be made in the Cosmetics industry, to ensure that those with allergies can also be protected and confident in the cosmetic products they buy. 
UK Companies need to stop using the defence that “they have complied with European Law (now UK Cosmetics Regulation) by listing the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients” and add the UK identification names in brackets for home consumption i.e a list of ingredients on a shampoo bottle could read Aqua, Prunus amygdalus dulcis (Almond sweet), Corylus Avellana (Hazelnut). 
This way the specific names identified by the INCI have been adhered to and the translation makes the products “fit” for home consumption. Parliament must legislate for this change to protect those with allergies.

Tina Patel
Consumer law Cosmetics Hips Medical devices

Tina Patel

Tina Patel is a partner in the consumer law team.

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