Are consumer watchdog product tests thorough enough?

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Personal care products, Scientific method

A recent spate of disputed consumer watchdog studies on personal care products has raised the question of whether such testing is always thorough enough.

Testing of products by watchdogs on both sides of the Atlantic – including UK-based Which?, as well as the Good Housekeeping and Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the US, have raised questions over the effectiveness of personal care products such as suncreens and anti-aging laser treatments.

Consumers have long turned to the product testing that these organizations carry out as a means of providing unbiased and informed opinion concerning a vast range of consumer products.

Over the years these organizations have garnered reputations for providing in depth, independent scientific analysis, often turning over stones that industry research and developers may have left unturned – which occasionally spurs industries on to crucial improvements.

However, there have been several recent examples of personal care industry experts claiming that consumer product reviews have not been as thorough as they should have been.

More specifically those criticisms have been aimed at the scientific research that has been used to validate these product tests, with industry professionals arguing that testing lacked the necessary scientific depth.

Sunscreens court controversy

One of the most controversial areas has been sunscreens. Which? and the EWG have both published findings from independent scientific research they have commissioned or referenced.

Both organizations have published the scientifically-backed reports in time for the start of the summer season, purporting that manufacturers’ sunscreen claims are often misleading.

Indeed, some of the test results allege that a number of sunscreen products from leading manufacturers fall significantly short of the type of protection that is claimed on the product labels.

Industry bodies, including the PCPC in the US and the CTFA in the UK have been quick to criticize these studies, pointing to inadequacies and flaws in the scientific testing carried out by the consumer bodies.

John Bailey of the PCPC claimed that the EWG analysis in effect misinterpreted existing scientific research on active ingredients and their sunscreen efficacy, stating that:

Scientific expertise is crucial, industry claims

“It [EWG] did not possess expertise in the complex and evolving science of sunscreen formulation and testing and has ignored the weight of evidence in the international scientific community on the safety of sunscreens.”

Likewise, the CTFA countered claims by Which? that sunscreen testing guidelines were open to interpretation, stating that variations were likely to arise from departures from the testing method.

Ultimately both the CTFA and the PCPC argued that the consumer group reports could have caused a great deal of damage in consumer confidence over sunscreens - confidence that many campaigners have been working hard to build up over the years in order to raise awareness over UV-induced skin cancer.

Similarly a recent consumer product test carried out by the Good Houskeeping organization in the US on laser anti-wrinkle treatments infuriated manufacturers of the products.

Laboratory tests carried out by the Good Housekeeping Institute showed that testing conducted over an eight week period proved the laser treatments to have little or no effect on wrinkles.

Fighting back against consumer watchdog findings

One of the laser manufacturers in question, Omnilux fought back against the research findings, claiming that the findings went against a body of peer reviewed scientific evidence, proving the efficacy of the product.

Likewise, the company also criticized the nature of the Good Housekeeping testing, claiming that it was based on a very small sample set with a very limited follow up time.

Obviously it is natural for the industry to defend itself in the light of product testing that paints specific products in a bad light, but in come cases it seems there are real inadequacies and gaps in the research.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is repairing the damage that this kind of unsubstantiated research can do to the industry.

Consumer watchdogs are a vital part of the retail landscape and their findings can often spur industries on to improve product efficacy and safety.

However, if there is existing peer reviewed scientific evidence concerning any product under question, surely it is not too much to expect that consumer watchdog scientific reviews countering such claims are similarly peer reviewed.

Related topics: Formulation & Science

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