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An important part of consumer wellbeing includes protecting them from potentially harmful claims. As such, there are legal obligations in place to prevent consumers from being misled over the function, performance or other characteristics of a product.
All claims made for cosmetics and personal care products, regardless of where they appear (on-pack, online, on television, etc.) or the format (text, images, symbols, etc.), must comply with Article 20 of both the UK Cosmetics Regulation (EC) No. 1223/2009 (for the GB market) and the EU Cosmetic Products Regulation (EC) No. 1223/2009 (CPR) (for the EU and NI markets). They also must comply with Regulation (EU) No. 655/2013 - Common Criteria for Justification of Claims.
Article 20 of the UK and EU Cosmetics Regulations states that “in the labelling, making available on the market and advertising of cosmetic products, text, names, trademarks, pictures and figurative or other signs shall not be used to imply that these products have characteristics or function that they do not have.”
The six Common Criteria for Cosmetic Claims are:
- Legal Compliance
- Evidential Support
- Informed Decision-Making
There are also broad requirements that are not specific to cosmetics and personal care products, but still apply. This includes the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, which was implemented into UK law through the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
Claims are an important way of informing consumers about a product, its effects and benefits, but it is vital that they are accurate and true. The UK and EU Cosmetics Regulations require all claims to be fully substantiated; this means that they must be supported with evidence. This is true regardless of the advertising platform (on-pack, online, on television etc.) and it is the Responsible Person placing the cosmetic products on the market that is responsible for any claims made, including the claims substantiation.
In 2015, the European Commission (EC) conducted a consumer market study(1) on environmental claims for non‐food products (including cosmetic products), which showed that consumers found it difficult to understand which products have the least harmful impacts on the environment. The study also analysed claims on the market, which were found to use vague terms and did not meet the requirements of accuracy and clarity required by the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. Since then, the EC has started to implement measures to improve sustainability and prevent ‘greenwashing’ as part of the European Green Deal.
In October 2020, CTPA held a consumer research group on environmental messaging for cosmetic products (CTPA members can access the webinar here); the research was run by VisionOne, in partnership with Teneo, CTPA’s former public affairs agency. Amongst other objectives, the research provided insight into how sustainability and environmental matters are currently understood and perceived by consumers, and whether it is a driver or barrier to purchase. The research showed that there was much confusion created by conflicting evidence and information, there was a need for a simplified and streamlined system for indicating sustainability of products and packaging and, overall, consumers were looking for greater simplicity and clarity.
In September 2021, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its Green Claims Code(2), to help businesses understand how to comply with consumer protection law when making environmental claims. The CMA also conducted a literature review(3) of various market studies to understand the issues with environmental claims, and how these affect consumer perception.
The Code outlines six principles, in accordance with consumer protection law, which companies must comply with when making environmental claims:
- claims must be truthful and accurate;
- claims must be clear and unambiguous;
- claims must not omit or hide important relevant information;
- comparisons must be fair and meaningful;
- claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service; and
- claims must be substantiated.
According to guidance documents and recommendations from the EC, and in the UK from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), environmental claims should meet the below requirements:
- Reflect a verifiable environmental benefit over the full product lifecycle; or companies should be transparent about which area of the supply chain to which the environmental benefit is related.
- Consumers must not be misled and should instead be educated on the topic, to be allowed to make an informed decision. Relevant information to the consumer should not be omitted.
- Environmental claims should be accurate and based on sound science.
- Companies should avoid making exaggerated claims that are difficult to prove, such as ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘fully biodegradable’, or similar.
- The claimed environmental benefit should not cause or contribute to another environmental problem.
The ASA and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) also published a CAP Code for environmental claims, which can be found here.
There are many types of environmental claims that cover different aspects of a cosmetic product’s lifecycle. For example, referring to the products packaging, formulation, ingredients or manufacturing process, and its impact on the environment. For any such claims, it is important to avoid ambiguity and to present a clear and specific meaning; it is critical that claims do not imply an environmental benefit that the product does not have, nor exaggerate the environmental benefit of the product.
Examples of vague claims that should be avoided include:
- “Green” – Saying a product is ‘green’ could imply that it is good for the planet, however this is an extremely broad claim and substantiating it may be very difficult. All aspects of a cosmetic product must be considered, including manufacture, use, or end of life phase. If a product is considered ‘green’ because, for example, it uses sustainably sourced ingredients, then the claim should state specifically what the sustainably sourced ingredients are, rather than generically claiming that the product is 'green'.
- “Clean Beauty” – We may ask, what exactly does ‘clean beauty’ mean? There is no legal definition of ‘clean beauty’. Often it is used to describe products that contain natural and organic ingredients. If this is the case, then the claim should specify this and refer to natural and organic ingredients used, rather than stating a vague and meaningless claim. There is an ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) standard on natural and organic, specifically relating to the cosmetics industry. ISO 16128-2 provides guidelines on definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic ingredients and products; if a product or its ingredients meets these criteria, then it should be able to substantiate any natural and organic claims. Find out more about Natural Ingredients. Sometimes the claim ‘clean beauty’ is used to imply that a product is ‘safer’ than products containing ‘chemicals’. However, it is important to remember that everything is made from chemicals, even water, and no products are made without chemicals. All cosmetic products placed on the UK and European market, including those with 'clean' and/or natural/organic claims, must comply with strict laws which are in place to ensure human safety and to protect consumers from misleading claims concerning efficacy and other characteristics of cosmetic products. All cosmetic products placed on the UK and European market must be safe.
- “Environmentally Friendly” and “Ocean Friendly” – Consumer perception of Environmentally or Ocean ‘friendly’ is likely to be that the product has no impact on the environment or the ocean and its life. Much like ‘green’ claims, environmentally or ocean ‘friendly’ claims are broad and ambiguous, meaning that they are likely to mislead the consumer. Such a claim is very difficult to substantiate and should be avoided.
- “Reef Safe” – Sunscreens that claim ‘reef safe’ often make this claim based on the assumption that avoiding certain UV filters is better for coral reefs; however, this assumption is not based on sound science, and claiming sunscreens are ‘reef safe’ is misleading to the consumer. As a result of a 2016 study, past media reports have suggested that the UV filter Benzophenone-3 (also known as Oxybenzone) can affect coral reefs; however, the study was carried out in a laboratory and does not replicate the natural environment, and it does not make a link between the use of UV filters in sunscreen and damage to coral in our ocean. There is no proven link between the use of UV filters and damage to coral in our ocean. More information on sunscreens can be found in CTPA’s consumer-facing website: thefactsabout.co.uk
Claims and advertising play a huge role in consumer wellbeing, and it is important that consumers understand exactly what is meant by a claim, and that all claims are backed up by reputable and robust scientific evidence.
CTPA has further advice in its Environmental and Green Claims Guidance which can be accessed in the Publications section of the website.
- “Cruelty Free” and “Animal Friendly” – Cosmetic products sold in the UK and Europe are not tested on animals. This is true whether or not the product makes a ‘cruelty free’ or ‘animal friendly’ claim. The ban on animal testing of cosmetic products in the UK and EU came into effect in September 2004 and testing of cosmetic ingredients has been banned since 2009. It has been illegal to test cosmetic products on animals in Europe since these times. In the UK, testing of cosmetic products was banned in 1997 after a voluntary initiative by industry which led to all licences for testing cosmetic products to be withdrawn. More information on animal testing can be found in CTPA’s consumer-facing website: thefactsabout.co.uk.
- “Free From” – Some products claim to be ‘free from’ specific ingredients or types of ingredients. ‘Free from’ claims may easily result in the denigration of safe and legal ingredients, creating uncertainty in the minds of consumers. Consumers should not be led to believe that a cosmetic product with a ‘Free from’ claim is safer, this cannot be true. Legally, all ingredients used in cosmetic products must be safe. If there were a safety issue with any ingredient, it would be banned or restricted for all cosmetics. Not only may such a claim mislead the consumer on the safety of a cosmetic product or ingredient, there is also a risk that people may look to such ‘free from’ claims instead of looking at the ingredient list if they happen to be allergic to certain ingredients which they need to avoid. The ingredient list is a legal requirement, and if an ingredient is not listed, it will not be present in the product, regardless of any ‘free from’ claim. It must be remembered that the ingredient list is there to enable people who have been diagnosed as allergic to particular ingredients, to avoid products which contain them. CTPA’s position on the use of ‘Free from’ claims, including claims with a similar meaning, for cosmetic and personal care products, is available in the Policy section of the website. More information on ‘free from’ claims can be found in CTPA’s consumer-facing website: thefactsabout.co.uk.
There are several governing bodies in the UK that play a role in enforcing claims, these include:
- The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – The ASA is the UK’s independent advertising regulator, which ensures advertisements across UK media adhere to the advertising rules.
- Ofcom – Ofcom is the ASA’s co-regulatory partner for broadcast advertisements and regulates communications in the UK.
- The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – The CMA is the UK’s competition regulator, which works to prevent anti-competitive business activities.
- Clearcast – Clearcast is a private organisation responsible for clearing advertisements on most media channels.
- Trading Standards (TS) – TS works to enforce consumer protection laws and investigate unfair trading and illegal business activity.
- EC – Consumer Market Study on Environmental Claims for Non-Food Products
- CMA – Green Claims Code
- CMA - Making Environmental Claims: A Literature Review