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Are Lush products really self preserving? Episode 72

How can products like Lush’s Charity Pot be self preserving? Tune in to this week’s show to find out. Plus – more Beauty Science News!

Claim to fame: How are Lush products self preserving?

This is a popular new feature where we look at the claims of popular beauty products and explain what the claim really means, how the company might support the claim, and most importantly, if the claim really makes enough of a difference for you to buy the product. A listener named Fernanda asked us to review Lush’s self preserving claims for their skin lotions and she sent a link to this video.

What does the claim really mean?

The first step in the process is to make sure we understand exactly what is being claimed. Here’s the claim as it appears on the Lush website.

“Now in a self-preserving formula”

And if you watch the video that Fernanda mentioned you’ll see Helen Ambrosen form Lush talk about the product in more detail. She says the following:

“Lush formulas are balanced to be self preserving.”
“Self preserving means the product keeps its self clean.” 
“It means there are actually dynamics with in the formula that help this.”
“We have not added any materials to it which are perhaps not listed as preservatives to help this in anyway.”
“We rebalanced the formulas so micro organisms haven’t got a window into the product.”

So how could this claim be true? How can a product be self-preserving without preservatives? There are two ways this can work.

Low water activity can make a product self-preserving

First, Helen talked about this notion that their products are “rebalanced” so microorganisms can’t grow and that there are “dynamics” in the formulas that help with this. She’s most likely talking about a phenomena called Water Activity.

Micro organisms are just like people, they need two things to grow: food and water. A bottle of water doesn’t spoil because there’s no food source and a bottle of cooking oil doesn’t go bad because it doesn’t contain any water. Many, if not most cosmetics contain a high level of water and an abundant supply things microbes can feed off of like oily materials and starches. Hence the need for preservatives in most products.

But there is another scenario where a product can contain water but the water isn’t freely accessible to the microbes. This occurs when the water level is very low and/or the water is saturated with salts or other materials that make it inhospitable to microbes. The measurement of this “free water” is called Water Activity.

Fungi require a water activity of at least 0.7 and bacteria require above 0.9. So, if the water activity of these Lush products is below 0.6 or so, pretty much nothing will grow in them and they don’t need to add preservatives.

Our guess is that Lush has “rebalanced” the water activity of their formulas to make them self-preserving. By the way, this approach won’t work for every type of product. For example, sometimes a high concentration of water is needed to disperse other ingredients in a product and some emulsions may be destabilized by adding high levels of salt (which is one way to to lower the water activity.) But Lush could certainly be using this approach in these few products.

There’s also another approach Lush may be using to “self-preserve” their formulas…

Natural extracts may have antibacterial properties

The second way these products can be self preserving is by taking advantage of ingredients which happen to have some antimicrobial properties.

  • Tea tree oil
  • Lavender
  • Rose oil

These natural oils do work but they’re not as effective as true preservatives because they’re not as broad spectrum and they may take longer to take effect. Also, they can be overwhelmed if there is a “gross” contamination. If formula is made under very clean conditions they have a better chance of working. By the way, that’s one of the other factors mentioned in the Lush video: they improved their manufacturing processes which should help this kind of self preserving system.

And, since these ingredients are already in the formula for other reasons (perhaps just provide a fragrance) it’s technically okay for Lush to make the claim that there are no added preservatives.

The problem with self preserved systems

So, by formulating their products with a low water activity, by including materials that have some preservation properties, and my making their manufacturing process is clean and free from contamination as possible Lush can formulate self preserving products. But there’s another problem here which sort of gets glossed over.

How well will the products fair when they are exposed to real world conditions? For example what happens when this Charity Pot sits in your bathroom, is exposed to high humidity, and the water activity shifts upwards so the product is no longer protected? Will it spoil faster?

And what happens after you use the product two or three times, sticking your fingers in it and potentially contaminating the product with bugs that are on your skin? Will the preservation ability of the natural extracts be overwhelmed?

Hopefully Lush has done the appropriate challenge testing to make sure these products will stand up to those real life conditions but it’s certainly possible you may experience a shortened shelf life with this kind of product. Maybe that’s why they sell them in such small containers. We’re not faulting lush for taking this approach but you just need to realize that’s the trade-off when you buy these products that are self preserved.

Beauty Science News

Cotton ball calamity
We received a press release for a line of products by Dr. Mercola. The good doctor says that the products you use to clean your face should be as pure as the product itself. he says that cotton balls, swabs and other applicators can contain “contain traces of harmful residues from pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, dioxins, or other chemicals”

He says that cotton balls are often bleached with chlorine and you know what that means: ” there is a possibility of creating the toxic carcinogens, dioxin and disinfection-by-products (DBP’s) such as trihalomethane.” He goes on to explain that dioxin is the same chemical family as agent orange.

Therefore, if you’re using regular cotton balls you’re running the risk of…”Abnormal tissue growth in the abdomen and reproductive organs
. Abnormal cell growth throughout the body
Immune system suppression
 and hormonal and endocrine system disruption.”

The solution of course is to buy his special organic cotton balls which are guaranteed to be free of all these toxins. This is fear mongering at its worst. If we said it once we’ve said it many times the dose makes the poison. Even if there are trace amounts of harmful substances in regular cotton balls I defy Dr. mercola to produce a single credible study that shows using cotton balls causes any of the problems he alleges.

Without that kind of data this just seems like a shameless ploy to get you to spend more money on something that should be a very inexpensive commodity.

L’Oreal gets in trouble again

As a former cosmetic industry insider, I used to believe that the big companies pretty much followed the rules when it came to producing products and supporting their claims. In fact, I still encourage people to be much more skeptical of small companies who can be a lot more loosie goosie with the rules without consequence. If you’re small the government regulators don’t take notice.

But with this story about L’Oreal receiving another warning letter from the FDA, I might have to revise my advice, especially when it comes to product advertising. According to this report the FDA took exception to some of the claims L’Oreal is making about a couple of its skin pigmentation products. The letter to L’Oreal said they were making drug claims for their Rosalic AR Intense and the Mela-D Pigment Control products. It also told them they had better stop doing that.

This situation illustrates the challenge that companies have when they are producing anti-aging products. See, cosmetics are technically only allowed to affect the appearance of the body. So, it’s ok to say something like “this product will reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles” But L’Oreal’s product goes a little bit too far when they say “reduces visible redness and sensations of discomfort.” The part where they say ‘sensations of discomfort’ is what’s getting them in trouble. A cosmetic is only allowed to affect the appearance, not impact the sensation of discomfort.

For their other product Mela-D Pigment Control they claim it’s for “use to treat dark spots and discolorations.” I think the part where they tell people to use it to treat a specific condition is what’s getting them in trouble. If the FDA thinks you are making drug claims then they are going to send you a warning letter.

Anyway, L’Oreal isn’t the only one who has gotten warning letters like these for being a little too aggressive with their claims. Other companies like Avon and Estee Lauder also have recently gotten letters to indicate some of their products are encroaching the realm of drugs.

Remember if a cosmetic is claiming that it will cure or fix some problem like wrinkles or age spots it either doesn’t work as claimed or it is a misbranded drug. In the case of L’Oreal the FDA says the products are misbranded drugs. I don’t know how well (or if) they work.

There are a few things to take away from this story.

First, the FDA does regulate cosmetics. You hear this nonsense all the time that cosmetics are unregulated and it is just not true. If L’Oreal does not fix this problem identified by the FDA they face fines, product recalls and ultimately they could be shut down by the FDA.

Another thing to takeaway from this story is that even big companies try to mislead you with their product claims. So, stay skeptical. Just because L’Oreal says it doesn’t mean that it is true.

Finally, it’s pretty difficult to write claims that say a lot but don’t break the law. L’Oreal got in trouble for claiming their product ‘reduces visible redness and sensations of discomfort’. But the product probably does this. I mean any moisturizer could do this right? They probably thought what they were saying was perfectly fine. However, the person at the FDA who was reviewing their claims didn’t think so and L’Oreal is being forced to change. I guess that’s a good thing. Every so often the big guys need to be reminded that just because they have lots of money for advertising doesn’t mean they should be able to say anything they want.

The government protects us from stupid cosmetic claims. Sort of. 

The FDA recently cracked down 3 products from a company called Cell Vitals. One was a moisturizer that has “antibacterial” and “anti-cancer” properties. Another was a cleanser – a cleanser!- that claimed to strengthen capillaries. The third was a stem cell eye cream that was marketed as being able to activate collagen synthesis and repair UV damaged skin. The FDA told Cell Vitals these are drug claims and that they either had to stop making the claims or apply for a New Drug Application. (Which costs about $3 million to generate data…)

But here’s the problem with the system. That’s not even a slap on the wrist for the company.

If the company is smart they’ll make these claims in some form where they can be very easily and quickly changed, for example on their website. So you can be very wild West and say whatever you want when the FDA tells you to stop you just fire up your web browser and edit your website. It takes almost no time and money to change claims that you only make on the Internet.

If the company is not smart they will put that claim on packaging or in TV commercials. Those both can be very expensive to change.

Is there really a “pink tax” on women’s cosmetics?

Did you ever hear of the Pink Tax? I hadn’t heard of it but apparently this is a ‘hidden tax’ found in cosmetic products sold for women versus those sold for men.

Recently, a television station here in the US went price shopping for cosmetic products at mass market stores like Walgreens, Target and others in the Atlanta area. They apparently were shocked to find that personal care products marketed to women were more expensive than those marketed to men.

One example they give is women’s razors. The Target brand disposable razors (which just happen to be pink) cost $5.39 while the blue ones directed towards men were $4.99.

There were also discrepancies with deodorant products.

I don’t know if this represents some kind of unfair pink tax or is more a reflection of pricing products based on demand or popularity. It is not surprising to me that companies charge more for products that more people want to buy. The pricing of cosmetics and personal care products are not really related to how much they cost to make. If that were the case you wouldn’t have any shampoos that cost more than $4 a bottle.

Cosmetics are sold based on the brand image and the way they make people feel. Men just don’t care that much about their products. And according to consumer research, they don’t seem to place as much importance on how they look. I know some cosmetic companies are just happy to sell any products to men.

It doesn’t surprise me that there is a “pink tax” but there is a simple solution. Just buy the less expensive male products. Those blue and pink razor blades which have different pricing…just buy the cheaper blue ones. The color has nothing to do with how well they work. It seems to me that the pink tax is a self imposed tax. If people don’t want to pay it, there are options.

Girl dies from head lice treatment

There was a terrible story in the news this week about a 18 month old child who suffocated as a result of a head lice treatment. A popular DIY cure for head lice is to put mayo on in your hair then cover it with a plastic bag to suffocate the lice. Tragically, the baby was left unattended and the bag slipped down over her face and suffocated her. So parents, if you’re trying this PLEASE be careful.

Of course that raises the question whether or not this kind of treatment really works. It’s true that if you plug up the little breathing ports on the lice’s body you can actually suffocate them. The problem with this approach of course is that you have to really make sure you smother them in something. According to the journal Pediatrics
 a product called DSP lotion (which stands for Dry-On, Suffocation-Based Pediculicide) uses an emulsion consisting primarily of fatty alcohols to coat the little buggers. The lotion is applied wet and then blown dry with a hair dryer. The resulting film plugs the spiracles and the lice suffocate. In the published testing the treatment was 96% effective.

Mayo might work but it probably won’t be as effective because it doesn’t contains enough film forming agents. And, I presume to make it work properly you would also have to blow dry it on the hair to maximize the shrink wrapping effect.

When women are most fertile they look for more variety in cosmetics

Here’s a pretty ridiculous story. According to new quotes “research” from the University of Texas at San Antonio, women seek more options in partners and in product brands near their time of ovulation.

Now, it’s not surprising that women behave differently according to where they are in their cycle. This has evolutionary significance and on a subconscious level there could be some effects. But to make the leap from mate picking to brand loyalty seems like a huge leap.

So, I had to look up the study to see how they went about supporting this idea. Here is how they did the study.

First, they got a group of 300 women age 18-40 in which they knew to some degree of accuracy their fertility status. They excluded a bunch of people based on things like pregnancy, taking hormonal contraception or having cycles that were too long or too short. That already seems pretty dubious but it’s psychological research so I guess we’ll go with it. From their data they predicted the ovulation day of each participant. Again, this seems pretty sketchy but that’s the kind of thing that passes as science in this kind of work.

Anyway, they next asked participants to choose products from different categories including lipstick, high heels, yogurt and candy bars for a 15 day trip they would take. They were allowed to choose as many things as they wanted from each category. If someone picked a lot of things from a category the researchers thought that was an indication of their variety seeking behavior. Then they did a second activity where they tried to measure the participants variety-seeking mindset. This involves asking women to score agreement or disagreement with 8 statements. I won’t read them all but a couple examples. “I like a movie where there are a lot of explosions and car chases” or “It would be exciting to try some of the new hallucinogenic drugs”

With these pieces of data in hand researchers were able to analyze whether variety seeking behavior and mindset were correlated to where they were in their ovulation cycle. It turns out, statistically speaking there was a trend toward increased variety seeking at high fertility.

There were 3 other studies that they did testing other hypotheses but this all just made my brain hurt trying to read it. I don’t know what to make of it but I’m pretty skeptical that it means anything. They talk of statistical trends and I remember all those dumb trends we’d see in consumer research.

I also don’t know what impact this is supposed to have on brands. Are cosmetic brands supposed to say something like “hey you’re single and ovulating, why not try our new silky hair conditioner”?

This is just another reminder to me of how soft a science psychology and consumer research really is. Here’s a link to the full study.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • The LA Lady March 3, 2015, 12:02 pm

    Thank you for the insight on Lush cosmetics and “organic” cotton balls. That’s the most aggravating: scaring people with scary chemicals that are only scary in large quantities.

    • Randy Schueller March 3, 2015, 12:32 pm

      You’re welcome, LA. There are a lot of companies out there trying to scare you into buying products.

  • cris hamilton March 3, 2015, 7:30 pm

    Love the cotton ball story…glad to hear it. Just bought a gigantic bag at Cosco for a couple bucks. You guys rock.

  • ArgonOilsIsTheNuRadium March 4, 2015, 12:03 am

    TY for the insider look at LUSH. I would love more on other companies like RoC and Olay!

    Perry is right, Lush does have shorter expiration dates on some of their product, but to be fair, most of it smells intoxicating. And I soooo agree about the added preservative argument w/lush. I feel, like their customers could grasp the concept of a product containing an ingredient to preserve it, but not it being a bad preservative like formaldehyde (source NTP studies). Anyways, yeah every company does word weaseling.

    And if you guys get free samples, wheeeere do I sign up? do you guys need a quirky intern? 😀

    I sooo said something on the Beauty Brains discussions somewhere about L’Oreal. I love it when I’m extra, extra right.
    I think I found something similar to that story like that on MaryKay.
    I’m just …shocked the FDA is doing something. Now, while they’re getting OCD on labeling, they realize they can get AR on safety too, and conduct testing if they see fit? Jussayin. Lol, sorry I’m commenting as I hear this. 😛

    You guys are so adorably awkward when commenting on anything about a woman’s cycle. Randy wanted nothing to do with that until “explosions and car chases” Perry kinda reminded me of Peter from the Brady Bunch with a bit of voice wavering. It was fantastic. I am practically in tears with this bit. YAY study links! <3 I'm glad there's links cause I missed entirely what you guys even were talking about, I was laughing so hard @ you two!

    • Randy Schueller March 4, 2015, 7:14 am

      Thanks AOINR! (I’ll check with Peter Brady on the intern question.)

  • Daniel Asher March 4, 2015, 4:41 am

    I renamed Lush a few years ago unfortunately I had to call it Thrush ! I have been perplexed by this company for a long while . Seeing the staff pour artificially coloured body wash in jugs and producing huge amounts of un natural foam I just can’t understand . The smells that come from the shops no one can tell me they are all natural ? so with artificial fragrances and foaming agents it’s no wonder when I used a product once I developed the dreaded you know what xxx ps amazing book and I adore everything you do x

  • Kevin March 5, 2015, 2:15 pm

    Dr. Mercola is a snake-oil nut. He even sells tanning beds!

    • Randy Schueller March 5, 2015, 2:47 pm

      Tanning beds??? At least I hope he sells a sunscreen too!

  • Kevin March 5, 2015, 3:09 pm
  • Tonya March 5, 2015, 3:56 pm

    I enjoyed all the articles. I like Lush products and buy it often. Especially at Christmas for gifts since all the girls in my family like their various products. So I was glad to hear that what she said about self-preservative nature of Lush products was at least a possibility. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  • Fernanda March 6, 2015, 6:04 am

    Thanks guys for answering my question! I promise next time I’ll record it instead 🙂

  • Elizabeth March 16, 2015, 6:30 am

    Your site is interesting and seems to have some useful information. However, there is no need to be so dismissive of psychological research. Like any discipline, there is both good and bad behavioral research, rigorous and non-rigorous. Pointing out the faults in a poorly designed study and using it as justification to make a blanket statement about an entire field is problematic.

    • Randy Schueller March 16, 2015, 7:59 am

      Fair point, Elizabeth. Thanks for weighing in!

      • Elizabeth March 17, 2015, 6:56 am


  • Andreas April 2, 2015, 4:10 am

    Regarding Lush and self-preservation.
    From a pharmaceutical/apothecary point of view, formulas containing for example ethanol, glycerol, or propylene glycol are, at high enough concentrations, so called self-preserved (mostly due to decreased water activity but also metabolic feedback-inhibition). At least some of their products are ‘preserved’ that way though I’m not entirely convinced that they do it always right…

    • Randy Schueller April 2, 2015, 7:54 am

      My understanding is that you need approximately 70% of the the alcohol/glycol to make this kind of system work. For most cosmetic products that’s not practical.

      • Andreas July 21, 2015, 12:50 pm

        40-70% ethanol kills most microbes (not spores though) whereas a ~20% solution (depending a bit on the other ingredients) suffices to stop them from growing (which is usually good enough).
        Glycerol at >20% and propylene glycol at >10% do the same (there’s a certain chance of surface contamination one has to be aware of). This is fine if the product is used within 3 to 12 months depending on the formula and Lush products are often fresh ones which shouldn’t be stored for long anyway.

        • Randy Schueller July 21, 2015, 1:24 pm

          True but it’s tough to formulate a cream or lotion with high levels of ethanol.