Glass meets Lene Stiil, co-founder and CEO of AllergyCertified

WHEN I connect with Lene Stiil over Skype in March, we’re both rather busy, albeit in our respective corners of the world. Stiil, co-founder and CEO of AllergyCertified, would have a lot of excuses up her sleeve should she have wished not to speak with me – heavily occupied preparing for the Allergy Awards held in Amsterdam, not to mention managing the running of the company besides, it makes it all the more warming that her demeanour is calm, welcoming and unhurried.

Glass caught up with Stiil to learn more about why AllergyCertified is such a necessity in the modern age of beauty, why natural products aren’t as good for us as we think, and the ingredient in your make up that could be triggering a reaction

AllergyCertified founders, Ewa Daniél (left) and Lene Stiil (right)

When did you start AllergyCertified?
I founded it together with a toxicologist, Ewa Daniél, and started working on it in the autumn of 2014. We launched the label itself in February 2015, so we’re just over three years old.

Why did you decide to start the company?
When I was working with Ewa at the Danish National Allergy Research Centre, we kept saying to the board members that we should make an international label, because when you are a product owner and you want to expand your market, you have to go outside Denmark. It’s complicated going outside Denmark as a Danish label, so that was one reason, the other being that a lot of women contacted us complaining about having allergic reactions to their make up, usually due to perfume formaldehyde and a high nickel concentration in make-up products.

Ewa and I asked the board if we could develop criteria to start certifying make-up products, as eliminating make up from the equation was completely unrealistic – women won’t stop wanting to use it, so it made sense to expand the product groups that we actually certified. I don’t know whether it was because many of the board members were men, but they essentially said that if you couldn’t handle the make up, then you just shouldn’t use it – that was the message we got. It clearly wasn’t going to happen, so I said to Eva, “Well if they’re not going to do it, then we have to do it.”

You refer to it as a label, but it could also be described as an assurance of exceptional standards when it comes to beauty products. How does the process of becoming AllergyCertified work?
For each product a company wants to be certified, we need information like the ingredients list and CAS numbers (chemical abstacts service). The CAS number tells us what kind of ingredient is used, say aloe vera for example, and allows us to see if it is aloe vera that we can accept or not. Then we need to know the concentration of each ingredient because allergies are highly dependent on ingredient concentrations, not just the presence of certain ingredients themselves.

If a certain ingredient is contained within a product that someone may be allergic to, does that automatically disqualify it?
If you have an allergy to phenoxyethanol, for example, then there’s a specific concentration that will trigger an allergic reaction, and if the formulation is below this concentration, you can still use the product even though you already have an allergy. The last thing we ask for is a technical data sheet, which describes each raw material used in the product.

The issue with raw materials is that if you make a product, you get the raw materials in big barrels and you don’t necessarily use the whole barrel in one production. That means the raw materials need to preserved and stabilised, so some of the ingredients they use to do this can be allergenic. That is why we need the information about what impurities have been added to the raw materials and how have they been preserved and stabilised.

You really look at every aspect of the product then. So that’s the process to be considered for certification – what requirements does a product have to meet in order to become endorsed by AllergyCertified?
We have very specific criteria, such as not allowing perfume of any kind, artificial or natural, and no essential oils. Then there are some specific preservatives we can’t allow, such as methalisotolnia MI, formaldehyde or formaldehyde donors because they are allergenic. It’s difficult for us to make a complete list of all the criteria because our risk assessment is concentration dependent, so if we were to make a complete criteria list, we would have to say “you’re allowed to use this ingredient in this concentration as long as you don’t use this ingredient in this concentration” because our risk assessment is based on all the ingredients and how they work together.

Because of this, the criteria would literally be never-ending. What we can do is advise the brand owners on what to look out for and what not to use. We do have both positive lists and negative lists that they can read before they start formulating products. We also ask them to contact us as soon as possible in the process, so that they don’t fully develop a product, only for us to tell them we can’t certify it because they came to us at the end of the process.

AllergyCertified founders, Ewa Daniél (left) and Lene Stiil (right)

How many of the products you are presented with go on to become AllergyCertified?
I would say that maybe 5 per cent of the products we receive we can’t certify. That’s because when brands contact us they’ve done their homework and have spoken to either our toxicologist or our other engineers, so they already have an idea of what it is we allow. I’m always a bit sad when we can’t certify a product because the people who have contacted us are very disappointed and it’s a lot of work for them to go back and reformulate. If we say no to a product, it means a slower process and a slower way to spread this idea about why to choose skin friendly and the ability to choose it.

We have started making a yearly document about the products we cannot certify to give our clients, dermatologists and also the rest of the world an idea about what circumstances mean that we cannot certify a product. It’s quite interesting to see why we can’t certify certain things and what happens afterwards. Sometimes a brand owner says to us, “I didn’t know that my product had an allergenic ingredient in it. I will substitute that with another preservative and get back to you again.” Other brand owners just won’t certify their product and carry on with their formulation as it is.

Now that we’ve gone over the specifics, what are your favourite products that you’ve certified?
I don’t think I have a favourite because when you have tried so many products, it’s a bit … overwhelming. One thing about this I find interesting is geography. I’m so happy every time we get a brand from a country where we haven’t certified before or we have only certified a few brands. That means it will become easier and easier for the consumers in that country to find products that are skin friendly.

For me, that’s really important because skin allergy is one of the most common chronic diseases. A total of 27 per cent of the adult population in Europe are allergic to one or more ingredients. This means that there is a need for these products because if you already have an allergy, it’s so nice for you to go into a shop and pick up a product that you can actually use without worrying about having a reaction.

The AllergyCertified logo

Many people think that “natural” or “organic” products are the safest choice – what are the common misconceptions about organic products?  If it hasn’t been certified yet, what are the signs to know that something you’ve picked up really is safe to use?
Natural and organic products are complicated because a lot of people conflate natural and organic as “safe” when it comes to cosmetics. We’re so used to thinking of them as good for us in terms of food, so we think the same applies to cosmetics. This isn’t the case. We’ve made a brochure to show people a list of the 26 most allergenic perfumes. This is a list made by the EU and out of those 26, you will find 19 are natural. Only seven of them are synthetic. When we tell consumers this they are shocked.

This is a very complicated area for us because consumers want to believe in organic and natural and they’re wary of us when we say that they can’t be so trusting. This isn’t to say we can’t certify natural products  we can, but we have to have a lot of information about the specific natural ingredients that the brand owners have used.

The company is still very young, but looking forward, where do you see AllergyCertified going in the future?
Honestly, I have no idea. What I can talk about is what has happened from when we began until today. For the first two years, Ewa and I travelled a lot and invited ourselves to a lot of meetings, just to talk about AllergyCertified. Today, it has turned around – now companies contact us. We’ve started being invited to speak at conferences about allergy as a topic and how to make products that fit the criteria. The final thing is quite interesting in that we can see that we have gone from certifying small, under-the-radar to bigger brands that almost everyone knows.

That’s an indication for me that we are doing the right thing and we are waiting for when it will become really busy. I think it will come in spring next year, because some of the brands that we have certified will launch their products in the third quarter of this year – they’re so huge and well known, that other brands we’ll think they need to have their products certified as well. I think that’s what is going to happen. That’s what we focus on and work with every day, but you never know.

by Thomas Marrington

To find out more about AllergyCertified, please go here

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