Why cosmetics are more than cosmetic

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.


[Cosmetics Europe]

Cosmetic products are not only skin deep. They bring real benefits to people’s lives and contribute massively to Europe’s economy. It is time to recognise their broader contribution, argues John Chave.

John Chave is the Director General of Cosmetics Europe.

“I can’t help feeling that some of the changes are merely cosmetic,” wrote a recent commentator on Emmanuel Macron’s new cohort of parliamentary deputies.  What could he possibly mean? That the new En Marche! representatives come with full maquillage? Well no. As the cosmetic and personal care industry is all too aware, we share a denotation with all that is superficial, insubstantial and even unreal.

What is more, the pursuit of beauty and hygiene is no doubt very human, but easily dismissible as just vanity. And vanity is one form of the sin of pride.

But what if cosmetics and personal care products are important to people in ways which go beyond the surface? What if the motivation for using them is very much more than vanity?

In one aspect, this is very obviously true, since the use of personal care products such as soap and toothpaste (it is not always realised that toothpaste is a cosmetic product) directly prevent disease, and are thus a crucial part of self-care in the narrowest sense. Sun products, also cosmetics, when properly applied also protect from cancer and harmful sunburn.

But the positive impact of cosmetics and personal care products doesn’t stop there.

“I didn’t want anything to cover me up. I only wanted my red lipstick. Every time I had a chemotherapy appointment, I had that red lipstick on… It was my war paint.” The words, self-evidently, are from a cancer patient, a participant in the Look Good Feel Better global programme. The impact of cancer can have severe consequences for a person’s appearance. Self-confidence takes a knock, as if the patients did not have enough to deal with. The impact of Look Good Feel Better, which helps patients cope with changes, is well attested. Patients report that advice on beauty treatment helps them rediscover their ‘real face’, with powerful consequences for their sense of self-worth.

Cancer is an extreme case. But the empowering effects of cosmetics may be a more common phenomenon than we realise. The so-called Lipstick Index (staying on the lipstick theme) records the fact that, against what economics might normally predict, sales of lipsticks boom during economic recessions, even as sales of other consumer goods fall. It can be reasonably concluded that cosmetics cheer us up.

That is not a trivial fact, particularly given that depression is at epidemic levels in the Western world, as the European Commission itself has acknowledged.

This year, Cosmetics Europe set out to test some of these assertions. We decided to ask European consumers in ten countries, from all social backgrounds and age ranges, men and women, what they really thought of cosmetic and personal care products.

The results are rather revealing.

We found that 80% of consumers believe cosmetic and personal care products have a positive effect on self-esteem and social interaction. We found that 72% of consumers feel cosmetics and personal care products improve their quality of life.

We found that more than 90% of consumers thought that good personal hygiene was important or very important in their quality of life (much more important than a rewarding job), and more than 80% thought the same in respect of confidence in their appearance.

This is resounding support for the view that cosmetic and personal care products, far from being trivial and dispensable, matter to people a great deal. They are a substantial element in well-being and quality of life.

What does this mean for policy? Two things stand out. First, cosmetics and personal care products should take their place as part of an overall approach to well-being promotion and self-care. One example would be the importance of cosmetics to older people – healthy ageing has been a priority for DG Santé.

Second, let’s do away with the idea that cosmetics do not bring real benefits to people’s lives. The overwhelming evidence is that they do. The economic contribution of our industry to Europe is massive, but our broader contribution is not recognised enough. The approach of policy makers to our industry should take this into account.

Mr Macron, by the way, has said he intends to restore the confidence of the French people. Now that really is a cosmetic kind of change.