Movie star/wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow and University of Pennsylvania dermatologist/public health advocate Bruce Brod agree on one thing: The cosmetics industry needs more regulation.

On her Goop lifestyle-brand website, Paltrow claims that lack of oversight means everyday beauty products are full of toxic ingredients — unlike Goop’s “clean” products.

Brod, meanwhile, says in an editorial that the Food and Drug Administration’s failure to define terms like clean and natural has left marketers like Goop free to demonize safe chemicals while touting ones that are actually more likely to cause allergies and irritation. Botanical extracts that add fragrance — such as lavender and cucumber — are big offenders.

Consumers’ embrace of so-called natural products “has been associated with a new epidemic of contact dermatitis” — itchy skin rashes, Brod and coauthor Courtney Blair Rubin wrote in the current JAMA Dermatology.

Brod codirects Penn’s occupational and contact dermatitis clinic and has chaired numerous committees of the American Academy of Dermatology. He was instrumental in getting Pennsylvania to enact indoor tanning laws and has pushed for safeguards in teledermatology and access to sunscreen for children.

University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Bruce Brod
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Bruce Brod

In the editorial, Brod and Rubin fault a range of players, including the Environmental Working Group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and Whole Foods, for scaring consumers into worrying that many benign chemicals pose threats.

Whole Foods, the researchers note, updated its long list of unfit ingredients to include petrolatum — better known as petroleum jelly or Vaseline — a cheap, nonallergenic skin moisturizer that dermatologists have recommended for generations. The Environmental Working Group warns against sunscreen ingredients, even though there is no solid evidence of harm and sunscreens protect against skin cancer.

Certain preservatives — particularly parabens and compounds that slowly release formaldehyde — are also bugaboos of the natural skin-care movement because of a theoretical risk of cancer and endocrine-system disruption.

One result is that the industry has substituted more irritating chemicals, such as methylisothiazolinone, which caused allergic reactions in 13% of patients in one study.

“In the same way the anti-vaccine movement often fails to acknowledge the success of vaccines in promoting population health, it is easy to forget that the use of safe preservatives such as parabens and formaldehyde releasers is necessary to prevent severe infections ... such as the corneal ulcers reported in the 1970s from inadequately preserved mascara,” the authors wrote.

They concluded that dermatologists need to be educated about the science of skin-care ingredients “so we can explain [to patients] that natural is a marketing term.”

They also “urge the FDA to consider defining clean and natural to prevent consumer misconceptions.”