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June 2013

Negative claims and self-fulfilling prophecies

A TV ad from Holland & Barrett that mentioned ‘paraben free’ particularly annoyed me. Parabens are widely used preservatives in personal care products. A small number of studies have been taken out of context by certain parties, and scare stories about parabens are now rife on the internet. The EU’s independent scientific advisory committee (SCCS) have determined that they’re safe (within certain limits); a decision based on an appraisal of all the currently available scientific studies, followed by a detailed (and documented) risk assessment.

I posted a question on Holland & Barrett’s Facebook page, asking why they promoted paraben free, when the ingredients were deemed to be safe by independent experts. After a lengthy delay, I finally received a private response, stating that they were not implying that parabens were harmful, but they had been asked by customers if they were necessary, and they decided that they weren’t, so they removed them from all H&B products. They didn’t respond to my asking exactly how many “concerned customers” asked the question.

At the same time I submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority, on the basis that the claims implied that parabens and SLS were unsafe and, therefore, competitors’ products that contain these ingredients were being unfairly denigrated. Unfortunately, the ASA saw this in the same way that H&B claimed it was intended, and rejected my complaint.

Whilst all this correspondence was going back and forth I asked members of a cosmetics discussion group on LinkedIn if they would visit their local Holland & Barrett store and “innocently” ask if parabens and SLS were harmful, then report back to me privately. I visited my local store and was told that parabens “blocked pores”. Two others were told unequivocally (in two different H&B stores) that “parabens cause cancer”.

Holland and Barratt are currently running a campaign – Ask our owls that confidently states:

“At Holland and Barratt our staff are qualified in nutrition and supplement so you can ask them pretty much anything. We’re so confident we can answer your questions that we’ll give you 20% off your purchase if they can’t”. 

I’m not sure where ‘making stuff up’ fits in with this policy, but I suspect I could quite easily get some discounts. If I wanted.

I find it very difficult to believe that any “free from” claim can be taken as not suggesting that the missing ingredient is unsafe in some way. Taken in combination with the appalling misinformation that abounds concerning parabens, I believe that this is unacceptable practise. I have even been told, during a discussion in which I was demonstrating the safety of parabens, “if parabens are so safe, how come so many companies sell paraben-free”. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and one in which cheap marketing tactics win over science. That can’t be a good thing.

This is a guest blog by Dene Godfrey, former President of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists.

Earlier this year Voice of Young Science ran its Ask for Evidence – Negative Claims campaign calling on supermarkets to put evidence at the heart of their policies. Members of VoYS have been asking supermarkets for evidence behind claims and policies such as 'no GM', 'no parabens' and 'no MSG' - See further comments about this campaign and read Victoria Murphy’s Guardian blog.

Evidence matters in many of the decisions we make - as patients, consumers, voters and citizens. If you want to know whether a claim made in a policy, newspaper article, advert or product is backed by scientific evidence, ask the people making the claim to provide it.