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From antiperspirants containing aluminium to zinc salts in toothpaste: 50 years of the Cosmetics Committee

32/2018, 17.10.2018

External, honorary, independent experts advise the BfR on scientific questions relating to the ingredients of cosmetic products.

On 16 October 2018, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) staged the symposium "50 Years of the Cosmetics Committee: Science in the Interest of Consumer Protection" to mark the 50th anniversary of this body. At its anniversary meeting, the experts discussed scientific questions pertaining to allergic skin reactions to small-molecule substances of the kind that can be found in cosmetic products, hormonally active substances in sunscreen products and methods to determine the protection factor of sunscreen products. "The choice of topics underlines the wide range of expertise that is present on the Committee", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. The outcomes of the Committee's deliberations and its recommendations mirror the very latest knowledge in the area of cosmetic products. "I am delighted that we have been able to draw on this outstanding expertise for 50 years now", adds Hensel. The Committee for Cosmetic Products - as it was then called - had its first meeting back in 1968 on the premises of the former Federal Health Office.

The job of the Committee is to look into topical issues relating to the potential health risks of cosmetic products as well as to discuss the regulations and updating of the EU Cosmetics Directive and its annexes. The expert network should also be on hand to advise the BfR on scientific matters in the event of a crisis.

This year, for example, the Cosmetics Committee looked into the effects of sunscreen products, which play an important role as protection against skin cancer. The Committee members discussed whether the experiment-based determination of sunscreen protection factors might be falsified by the addition of anti-inflammatory substances like bisabolol, as these substances delay the onset of sunburn after exposure to the sun. The deliberations of the committee found that this assumption was without justification.

The Cosmetics Committee also discussed whether oral hygiene products containing zinc such as mouthwash and toothpaste might result in high zinc intake. The subsequent risk assessment by the BfR suggested that regular and longer-term use of mouthwash containing zinc may present a health risk for adults if these products contain zinc at a level equivalent to the maximum zinc concentration stipulated by law. As a result, the BfR recommended that the approved maximum concentrations of zinc in mouthwash be reduced and that toothpaste advertised as being suitable for children should be free of zinc, while products for adults should be labelled accordingly.

Even 50 years after the establishment of the Committee, allergies are still one of the key topics - due to the lengthy period of time for which cosmetic products are in contact with the skin. The Committee spoke out against the use of the term “hypoallergenic” in advertisements for cosmetics, for example, as this is sometimes taken to mean "does not cause allergies", despite the fact that what it really means is that allergies only occur in a small number of people.

The Cosmetics Committee also advised the BfR on the issue of aluminium in antiperspirants and made an important contribution to the understanding of this issue. In its subsequent risk assessment, the BfR came to the conclusion that regular use of antiperspirants containing aluminium over a period of decades might result in increased aluminium uptake in the body - which may, in turn, lead to health impairments at a later point in time. The BfR is not yet in possession of the necessary scientific data that would permit a definitive risk assessment of the long-term consequences of chronic aluminium exposure. One of the main ways in which consumers can reduce the uptake of aluminium from antiperspirants is by not applying them immediately after shaving or if the skin of their armpits is damaged. They can also use deodorants that do not contain aluminium salts.

The BfR is responsible for the management of the Cosmetics Committee. The Committee comprises 16 appointed experts from universities, Land authorities, industry and other fields as well as named independent experts who can be called on when expertise is needed on specific and cross-disciplinary matters. It meets twice a year and has long engaged in close scientific exchange with the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), the expert scientific body that advises the EU Commission on the safety of consumer products. The minutes of all the Committee meetings are published on the BfR website. The actual risk assessments, however, are drawn up solely by the BfR’s own employees, and the recommendations of the Committee serve only as a source of advice for the BfR.

The Cosmetics Committee is one of 15 BfR Committees. Following an open invitation and application procedure, each BfR Committee appoints its members for a four-year term. The members are all scientists who have a proven track record of expertise in their specific field. In their work on the Committees, the Committee members are under an obligation to remain impartial. Existing interests are polled in a transparent process and disclosed in the minutes of each meeting in order to avoid any conflicts of interest relating to specific topics on the agenda.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.


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