I am yet to meet a brand owner or product maker that hasn’t told me how something on their range helps eczema, dermatitis or the like. Eczema is a topic close to my heart as while I have mastered the itch to some degree I’m still prone to way too many bouts of itching and scratching that doesn’t stop until my skin is bleeding and cracked. Not nice at all. So it is with great interest that I hear these claims while wondering what testing the brand owner or product maker has done to validate this. It usually (but not always) isn’t much.
I have been working with the Nature’s Gold brand for about two or so years now and thought that I may as well use this as an example of a validated claim. I didn’t formulate the product I’m going to talk about and other than being paid for the work I do for the brand (this isn’t part of it) I am in no other way connected (no sales royalties etc)…..
Nature’s Gold have a product called ‘Therapeutic Skin Cream”. It contains active Manuka Honey (10% active UMF 20 plus) and has a TGA licence – AUST L 152408. This is no small feat, the AUST L number means that the product has been reviewed by the TGA and deemed to be of a therapeutic quality thus allowing for the claims of “assists in the treatment of minor skin disorders such as eczema, dermatitis, dry and cracked heels and skin, scratches, bruising, cuts and abrasions”. These are the types of claims that I regularly come across in non-listed products, on Facebook, in forums and discussion groups, at market stalls and on the urban grapevine. It may not concern you to hear all of this but I am aware that these claims may cause more harm than good.
It is important to take a step back for a moment and realise that the above ‘disorders’ are just that, problems or disorder in the skin. The skin is there to protect us from the outside world and as such it has to be tough and intact. One thing that eczema and these other disorders have is that they rip that barrier apart, creating holes and weakness that leave us open to disease. A damaged barrier is permeable, can allow things to penetrate. Recently I watched a discussion program about people with allergies and the first lady to talk had reacted badly to a goat’s milk skin cream and developed a serious allergic reaction that hospitalised her. This isn’t a usual occurrence but it is one that is becoming a bit of a worry especially given our current obsession with putting food-like ingredients into products and then promoting them for eczema prone skin. Goats milk isn’t the only product to fit that description, oats, wheat and of course honey are other common examples.
Honey (Manuka and otherwise), Oatmeal, Goats milk and other food-like skin care ingredients can be used in the treatment of skin disorders but they must be used with care and further more in formulations that have been through the scrutiny of the TGA. All of the above can trigger an allergic response in people suffering any of the above because the skin barrier is weakened and damaged and the likelihood of the formula touching viable tissue is greatly increased (the skin cells that we apply cosmetics to are dead except for the lips, the lips are live tissue and must also be treated with care). Problems occur when the allergen comes into contact with live tissue and triggers an allergic response that can leave the individual with anything from redness and itching to an anaphylactic shock. Not good.
Milk products = allergies are usually triggered by the proteins.
Oat and Wheat products = Gluten sensitivity, another protein.
Honey = Could be triggered by the presence of pollen spores or traces of bee sting.
The TGA process looks at the actives (including dose), the excipient (base formula) and the preservative system both alone and in combination to assess the product. The method of application is also reviewed as is the products packaging. TGA listed products also have to undergo stability testing to ensure that they stay within specification (both for active concentration and base consistency) and micro testing must be carried out. Currently under Australian Cosmetic guidelines these things while recommended are not compulsory. Another difference is that TGA products have to be manufactured in a TGA facility.
Material control is much higher at a TGA manufacturer than for a cosmetic house so potential for cross contamination of materials due to how they are handled or stored is minimised. This is key for high-risk individuals. Better material control also means that the ingredients that go into a TGA formula have usually been tested and validated to a much stricter level before manufacturing. This isn’t to say that no cosmetic manufacturer tests their materials – they do – but a TGA manufacturer is under much tighter control and changing supplier, ingredient form or manufacturing plant involves a paper trail process, laboratory and product testing and sometimes a re-submission to the authorities. These measures might seem extreme but for the product consumer it means that the product they buy has been manufactured to a very tight spec and will be pretty much the same batch after batch after batch. Cosmetic product have much more leeway and by default more potential for things to go wrong. Lastly there are fewer materials available to the TGA manufacturer as less have been fully tested so your exotic natural oils and active blends are not likely to be found in a TGA listed product. This may actually be a good thing as some vegetable oils can be powerful penetration enhancers and unwittingly drag irritating ingredients deeper into the skin than you originally intended. This is probably the issue that cosmetic industry newbies overlook the most thinking that their veggie-rich formula is doing nothing but good!
It is important for people targeting problem skin to adequately risk-assess their formulations for potential to cause harm as it is possible to become sensitized to an ingredient after being exposed to it day after day (such as would happen in a skin cream). We see this often with perfumes and preservatives but it can also happen with actives and excipients and is what happened with the above Goat’s milk example.
Getting a TGA licence for your product is a big expense and also means that your choice of contract manufacturer shrinks while your minimum order quantities grow. It simply isn’t practical for small brands hence why I see many start-ups trying to find a way to elbow in and build a brand without upsetting the authorities. As a business owner I respect that and as a cosmetic chemist I also recognise that many of these ‘innovations’ come from the small players who have time and enthusiasm to go outside of the box. That said I do think that newbies and small fish should play with caution and avoid promoting their products for people who are clearly suffering from disordered skin. Starting with deep hydration, moisturisation, skin smoothing etc is a better option, appealing to a safer demographic – 25-50 year olds (babies have more permeable skin and are more likely to lick your product, teens have spots on top of any other condition and therefore have more permeable, damaged skin, they are also less likely to use sunscreen, pay less regard to usage instructions and are more likely to leave lids off pots thus contaminating them. The elderly have thinner more permeable skin also). The strategy that I always promote is to concentrate on building your brand and brand loyalty with a good, safe product then re-invest profits into the brand to get it tested for TGA status, once that is done launch a Therapeutic quality of your every-day product thus leaving you with a product for the mass market and an all-singing-all-dancing version for those who need extra care. This might take one year if you are lucky but it is more likely to be a five-ten year plan.
One of the reasons I started working with Nature’s Gold is that I respected the fact that they had done it right, had put their money where their mouth was and invested not only into their brand but also into the safety of people with problem skin. This doesn’t guarantee that their product won’t be irritating for some and neither does it mean it is safe for everyone but it does mean that the products safety, efficacy and reproducibility have been tested and it passed and that stands for something.
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