Ethics and Personal Care

“Always do right—this will gratify some and astonish the rest.” —Mark Twain

Many disciplines impact personal care, from chemistry and biology to packaging and marketing, but rarely does philosophy arise in discussion. One branch of philosophy—ethics—deserves more attention.

The subdiscipline of applied ethics considers real-life situations, while the specialized fields of bioethics and business ethics have clear relevance to the beauty industry. When you promise to make a consumer look younger or claim that using an antimicrobial product will protect health, are there issues of right and wrong? There certainly are.

A recent brief overview of scientific ethics, On Being A Scientist,1 covers the essentials for academic researchers and also has relevance for the industry. According to the publication, scientists have three types of obligations: to honor the trust that their colleagues place in them, to themselves, and to act in ways that serve the public. The history of bioethics goes back to the beginning of medicine. The ban on dissection in ancient Greece and Rome led to many errors in Roman physician/philosopher Galen’s first century work on anatomy that were not corrected until the work of Flemish anatomist and surgeon Andreas Versalius 1,400 years later. Work on cadavers became common in the 1800s, so more was accurately known about gross anatomy, but work on living organisms was increasingly done on animals such as rabbits, mice and rats that presumably gave results comparable to human testing.

Fast-forward to 1959, when Russell and Burch2 laid down the basic rules to minimize the adverse effects of animal testing. Their rules, the three Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) were considered humane and scientifically sound. They remain the foundation of programs such as the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Perception of a brand as ethical can have a significant impact on that brand’s sales.

The creation of CAAT, through its initial funding by CTFA (now the Personal Care Products Council) was an ethical decision prompted by concern for public opinion. The creation of the Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary, another action undertaken by CTFA, also had an ethical dimension. Strengthening the case for continued self regulation of cosmetics was one reason for the dictionary’s existence, and the resulting increase in transparency to the consumer also had an ethics outcome. Whether actions are taken from an internal motivation or as a response to external forces, they still are founded on ethics.

Real World Ethics

Here’s a not too uncommon scenario:

A senior chemist in the lab makes a new cosmeceutical base with a cocktail of potent new actives that have never been animal tested. The product is then handed to an assistant, who is asked to take it home and try it for a few days to see if any improvement is apparent in facial wrinkles and proffer an opinion on how the base feels. Ethical issues? You might say it happens all the time and that it’s no big deal. It is very hard for the assistant to refuse, so it is essentially a product with an unknown safety profile being forced on a human test subject.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is the classic example of a human testing experiment with questionable ethics. Conducted from 1932 to 19723 on 399 subjects who were mostly poor African-American sharecroppers, the study sought to shed light on syphilis treatments that were not very effective in 1932, and part of the study involved detailed understanding of the progression of the disease. By 1947, penicillin had become the standard treatment for syphilis, but the Tuskegee researchers continued the study, withholding penicillin and information about it. Victims included men who died of syphilis, wives who contracted the disease and children born with congenital syphilis. Only a leak to the press ended the program.

The Tuskegee experiment led to the Belmont Report in 1979,4 (see Belmont Report), which became the basis of all subsequent standards regarding testing on humans. The Department of Health and Human Services now has a “Common Rule” in its Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) that legally codifies the issues and guidelines.5 The cosmetic literature, however, is not rich in ethical reviews, the Carson and Holt study in the Journal of Cosmetic Science being a rare exception.6–7

One example of an ethical issue in the beauty industry centers on antimicrobial products. The FDA has ruled that soap and water are equally effective as antimicrobial products, and, further, these products may lead to the emergence of dangerous superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. In this case, the desire for antimicrobial products is determined more by culture than by health and biological well-being. Does industry have a responsibility to change the values that lead consumers to overuse antimicrobial products? This is an issue that philosopher Kenneth A. Richman has been using in his talks and writings.8

An Ethical Infusion

Ethics infuse every business and scientific activity—from accepting a gift to massaging some test data to support a desired result. Every time a salesman is hired with the implicit or explicit understanding of “moving” business, or a chemist is hired who is intimately acquainted with a competitor’s proprietary information, the boundaries of ethical behavior can be stretched. Nondisclosure agreements, employment contracts with noncompete clauses and companies operating with a need-to-know approach all recognize the necessity that ethical behavior must be reinforced by legal documents and operational precautions.

Many companies have codified their ethical codes or codes of conduct to cover a broad range of concerns. L’Oréal, Avon and The Estée Lauder Companies—to name just a few obvious industry leaders—have all made their ethical guidelines available online, some in multiple languages.9 The guidelines are similar from company to company, indicating the existence of a strong consensus on what constitutes ethical behavior.

Ethics has even become a major trend in MBA programs since the financial meltdown. The New York Times reports: “When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good. Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed ‘The MBA Oath,’ a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to ‘serve the greater good.’ It promises that Harvard MBAs will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their ‘own narrow ambitions’ at the expense of others.”10

The public perception of a brand as ethical can even have a significant impact on that brand’s sales. This was noted in a survey and report The Body Shop conducted in 2008.11 “The ethics of a brand are as important as the price when making purchasing decisions... Even though the current economic climate may be pushing consumers to cut down on their expenditure, the ethical reputation of a company remains as important as the price in North America, suggests the survey…34% said their purchases were based on the ethical reputation of a company.”

The beauty industry has perhaps more obligation than most to be ethical because it promises specific benefits to its consumers, famously promoting “hope in a jar.” And, as essentially a chemical business, the industry has other responsibilities toward safety and regulation. Since both the cosmetics and fragrance segments of the industry have long campaigned for self regulation, the bar is raised even higher for ethical impeccable science. It is not too fanciful to hope that every time a key decision is made, the good of the company, the good of the industry, the good of the consumer and the good of the world are considered.


  1. On Being a Scientist, third edition, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, (Accessed June 19, 2009)
  2. W Russell and R Burch, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, 1959. (Accessed June 19, 2009)
  3. (Accessed June 19, 2009)
  4. Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research, (Accessed June 19, 2009)
  5. (Accessed June 19, 2009)
  6. PA Carson and J Holt, Ethics of studies involving human volunteers, I. Historical Background, J Cosmet Sci 57 215–221 (May, June 2006)
  7. PA Carson and J Holt, Ethics of studies involving human volunteers, II. Relevance and practical implementation for cosmetic scientists, J Cosmet Sci 57 223–231 (May, June 2006)
  8. K Richman, “Ethics and Overcleansing: Is Industry Responsible for the Emergence of Superbugs?” Cosmeceuticals Summit 2009, March 2009 Ethics & Human Safety Testing Science, Regulatory and Toxicology Committee, CTFA, December 2007 Ethics and the Over-use of Anti-microbial Personal Products, (N Dayan and P Wertz, eds) The Innate Immune System of Skin and Oral Mucosa: Properties and Impact in Pharmaceutics, Cosmetics and Personal Care Products. Wiley, forthcoming 2010
  9. (Accessed June 19, 2009) (Accessed June 19, 2009) EL_Conduct.pdf (Accessed June 19, 2009)
  10. W Leslie, A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality, The New York Times (May 30, 2009)
  11. (Accessed June 19, 2009)

Steve Herman is president of Diffusion LLC, a consulting company specializing in regulatory issues, intellectual property, and technology development and transfer. An adjunct professor in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Masters in Cosmetic Science program, his book, Fragrance Applications: A Survival Guide, was published by Allured Publishing Corp. in 2001. A former chairman of the Society of Cosmetic Chemist’s New York chapter, he was elected to fellow status in 2002.

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