Making sense of the mixed up, mislabeled moisturizer market

CHICAGO -- A study in the journal of the American Medical Association said finding affordable and safe products is getting harder because so many products are not what they claim to be.

The study by Northwestern Medicine means skin care shoppers need to scrutinize labels, carefully read the ingredients and, sadly, not believe some of the marketing ploys used by advertisers to get people to buy their skin care products. This is especially true for people who are worried about skin sensitivities or allergens.

False advertising? Mislabeling? Some go as far as calling it outright deception.

The reality is that no one is breaking the law and the consumer is left trying to make sense of a mixed up, mislabeled, moisturizer market.

Hypoallergenic, all natural and fragrance-free are common buzz words if you're worried about what you buy at the store and rub on your skin. Critics say phrases like that are an advertiser’s playground and the public is paying the price.

According to the new Northwestern Medicine study, researchers found that moisturizers marked hypoallergenic or fragrance free were not.

About 83% of products claiming to be hypoallergenic had at least one potentially allergenic ingredient.

And nearly half (45%) that claimed to be fragrance-free had a fragrance cross reactor or botanical ingredient which could cause someone with allergies or even sensitive skin to have a reaction to some chemical.

Here's the kicker: That one word, fragrance, on any product could actually be a place holder for what could be 100 different chemicals. The manufacturers won't tell you exactly what's in it. They'll tell you it's a trade secret. Even government regulators aren't allowed to know.

Confirming what Dr. Steve Xu has concluded: What you see on the label may not be what is inside the packaging at all. A fact that is as frustrating for him as a dermatologist, as it is for his patients.

"These are fundamental challenges that exist when patients ask us, well is this safe? It's really hard to give them a clear, straight answer,” Dr. Xu, a dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine, said.

They also found that products marked "dermatologist recommended" cost more by 20 cents more per ounce. And the stamp doesn't mean much at all. No government body has defined what "dermatologist recommended" really means. Is it three dermatologists or a thousand? The FDA doesn't set any standard.

The underlying issue is lack of transparency. In Europe, roughly a thousand chemicals in cosmetics have been banned. Here in the states, The FDA has banned less than a dozen.

“Fundamentally we need better ingredient transparency and that doesn't mean that the label you buy is 75 pages long, but at least someone like the FDA has an idea of what's in these products," Xu said.

Right now they don't. Jon Whelan, a tech guy with a financial background, turned filmmaker in New York, made a documentary about this very topic.

"The problem is the companies are not breaking the law. The problem is-the law is broken,” Whelan said.

He chased retailers on the phone. He hunted down politicians in Washington in search of answers--why are Americans exposed to so many chemicals they are not aware of--chemicals that are not labeled on bottles, on packages or in clothes.

The widower bought his daughter’s pajamas from the store Justice one Christmas and the smell of them made him wonder, what stinks?

After already having lost his wife to breast cancer, he wanted to learn more.

"The company said we can't tell you what's in the PJs because it's proprietary. I thought that was kind of strange. So I called the agency that regulates them and they said, we don't know what's in it. I thought if the company doesn't tell me and the regulators don't know, then who does?” he said.

"The fragrance industry expressly said, they don't want consumers to know that the ingredients used in Chanel Number 5 is some of the same ingredients used in their toilet bowl cleaner,” SO AND SO SAID.

Whelan explored chemicals in utero, endocrine disrupters and the long-term effects of chemicals to all of us whether we have a skin reaction or not.

In the film, he even requests a list of ingredients on behalf of a kid having a deadly reaction to a leading body spray popular among teen boys.

"It basically said we can't give you that information because under the current law we're not allowed to. We're not allowed to force companies we regulate to provide us a list of ingredients,” Whelan said.

For people with sensitivities, or worse yet, identified allergies to certain chemicals, researchers said all hope is not lost.

Dr. Xu tells consumers the safest products he recommends are food butters and oils like sunflower oil, cold pressed coconut oil and pure Shea butter. Vaseline is also very low risk, he said, and affordable.

Vanicream and Cerave are two brands he believes are what they say they are inside and out.

"The good news at the end of the day is that it's a solvable problem. In order for it to be solved, more people need to be aware and taking action and calling these companies demanding transparency,” he said.

Whelan even had those pajamas he bought for his girls tested in a lab. Results showed the harmful chemicals he was worried about were indeed found in the PJs.

Prior to the lab work, manufacturers had told him otherwise.

Whelan wants more transparency when it comes to product listing and labeling.

Dr. Xu wants to see a modernization of cosmetic regulation in the U.S.

“Stink! The Movie” will be free to view for our viewers online for the next two weeks. To watch the film, visit