I’ve written a post in the past about how to be savvy skincare product consumer, but once I wrote my post explaining what cosmeceuticals are I decided that it would be a good idea to write yet another post which goes into greater detail on the subject of skincare product claims versus reality.
One of the best explanations that I have ever come across that explains how to cut through the hype surrounding skincare products is from Daniel Yarosh’s book The New Science of Perfect Skin. Overall I wasn’t a great fan of this book overall (see my review of the book), I did really like chapter 2 of the book: Cutting Through the Hype. This chapter does a fabulous job at explaining how cosmetic companies market their products to consumers and how you can protect yourself from being had by false claims.
For example Yarosh points out (page 41):
Realize that large-scale manufacturers may (or may not) spend a lot of money on research, but they also have to satisfy a broad range of customers, and that means they avoid many specialty ingredients that might work for a few but that might prove irritating to some consumers. So they sacrifice effectiveness for ingredients that have broad appeal. … Many dermatologists have entered the skin-care market in the last few years, and some have terrific products. Others are good but not worth the markup. Bear in mind, too, that dermatologists selling their own lines may or may not have had a hand in the lines’ development. Some buy off-the-shelf products from popular suppliers and simply place a label with their name on it and pass it off as their own.
One of the more interesting things I learned from reading Yarosh’s book was how the cost of a product is determined (pages 46-48). We all know that high price doesn’t equal a better quality product so where do these high prices for products come from? According to Yarosh, the price of a product is determined by the cost of its raw ingredients and the production overhead. Regardless of that determination the high price of a skincare product might just be part of a marketing strategy in order to convince the consumer that they are worth investing this type of money in themselves and the care of their skin. Some companies are simply trying to see how much they can charge for a product and get away with it.
For a breakdown of how the money you pay for a product is actually used by a manufacturer I’ll turn to Yarosh again for an explanation (page 48):
Let’s say the [high-end anti-aging] product [you might buy at a chain drugstore] costs thirty dollars. The first fifteen dollars goes to the store, of which three dollars is kicked back up to the chain headquarters to support the national television advertising and circulars that stuff your mailbox.
That leaves fifteen dollars for the manufacturer. He uses about seven of those dollars for his own advertising campaign in the glossy women’s magazines and sexy billboards along the highway. So a total of at least ten dollars (three from the chain and seven from the manufacturer) of the original thirty-dollar price tag goes into trying to convince you to buy the item.
That leaves eight dollars of the original thirty for the product itself. The manufacturer will use four dollars or more of that to buy a nice bottle and put it in a package with perhaps a false bottom, great graphics, and an enchanting name. And for going to all that trouble he needs at least two dollars in profit per jar.
That leaves just about two dollars of the original thirty for all the ingredients, including the cream base, the pH adjuster, the emulsifier, the fragrance, and the preservative. If there is anything left over, it just might go into the latest high-technology botanical extract that is greatest discovery of the century and will completely revitalize your aging looks!
Bottom line: High price and rare ingredients don’t prove anything, but low price means a product probably hasn’t incorporated new technology.
How to Protect Yourself For Falling for False Claims and Bogus Promises
In order not to succumb to advertising hype when you go shopping for skincare products keep a few other things in mind –
The photos in skincare and cosmetic ads are photoshopped to an inch of their lives! The models do not really look that way in real life! Putting on the cream in the ad will not make you look like the model or the celebrity in the ad because even they don’t look that way. Remember that a lot of skincare products ads, no matter who they are targeted at, use very young models to promote them. If you are 45 you will not look like the 25-year-old model in the ad.
Don’t believe before and after photos. I have to admit that I love before and after photos and I love make-overs. But if you look closely at before photos you’ll probably notice that the lighting and the make-up (or lack of make-up) is different from the after photos. There is a reason for that. The manufacturer wants you to see a difference between the photos so they will do whatever it takes – new haircut, better make-up application, flattering lighting – to distract you from noticing on little has actually changed with the person’s skin. Don’t fall for it.
Read the words of ads carefully; they are vague for a reason. You’ll see the words “helps”, “fights”, “may improve”, “may enhance” for a reason – the FDA requires that manufacturer use words like that because otherwise they would be making a false claim on how their product works. This intentionally vague language this leads to lots of confusion on the part of the consumer which only helps the manufacturer in the end. Look at the ingredients in a product, don’t read the ad copy or the blurb on the side of the package.
What About Scientific Studies and Other Endorsements?
Once again according to Yarosh (page 52):
A typical pseudoscientific study [in a skincare product ad] will say something like “76 percent improvement in wrinkles,” implying that one can expect three-quarters of facial wrinkles to disappear. But upon inspection, the study asked participants whether they noticed any difference, and 76 percent said yes. You don’t have to be good at math to realize that the fact that 76 percent of a group liked a product is not the same as a 76 percent improvement. It could have simply been a 1 percent improvement noticed by 76 percent of the panelists.
The best type of doctor administered patient studies of a product are double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. This means that the doctor administering the study doesn’t know whether the medication or product he is giving the study participants is an active drug or a placebo. The patient also doesn’t know hence the double-blind part of the study. All of this ensures that the results of the study are not biased by either side. These studies are rarely if ever done with cosmetic and skincare products because they are expensive and take months, if not years, to perform. If a double-blind study is not mentioned in connection to a product it has not been performed. So be wary of scientific claims and studies in connection to products.
University associations with products should be questioned as well. Cosmedicine actually gave John Hopkins University stock in its company in exchange for using its name in advertisements.
And the words “dermatologist tested” are meaningless as well. The FDA does not approve such language; once again this is simply a marketing strategy in order to lend more credence to a product. A dermatologist could have simply picked up and looked at a product in order for a manufacturer to use such language in its marketing.
What about endorsements from fashion and beauty magazines? I reviewed Lucky’s beauty editor’s book in this blog in order to better understand what beauty editors know about skincare. Reading that book did not shake my feeling that beauty editors know little to nothing about actual skincare. So how do they know which products to recommend? Well according to Yarosh magazines are beholden to their advertisers and promote the products that will make the magazine money in the end with ad pages (Yarosh page 55). So be very wary of product recommendations in magazines.
And what about the FDA’s role in protecting consumers? When it comes to FDA supervision over skincare products there are a few regulations that companies have to follow – instructions on how to use a product needs to written on the box or container. If the product you bought was a drug than it needs to include an insert with very detailed instructions on how it works, potential side effects, and contraindications. Unless the manufacturer is making really outrageous claims about their product the FDA rarely steps in. This isn’t the case in other countries. Take the UK for example:
In the U.K., advertising is regulated through the independent body Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which, in the past two years, has become much more active in scrutinizing cosmetics. The type of claim a brand can make in the U.K. is “softer” than elsewhere. For example, a skin care brand can claim to reduce wrinkles in U.S. advertising, but in the U.K., it must talk about reducing “the appearance of” wrinkles.
“Claims are the same, in principle,” said Chris Gummer, director of U.K. consultancy Cider Solutions Ltd. “It doesn’t stop a brand making global claims. The ‘rule’ is that if you can say it in the U.K., you can say it anywhere.”
However, brands must also be aware of what they imply. For example, L’Oréal Paris was reprimanded by the ASA for its Telescopic Mascara advertisement, which implied that spokesmodel Penelope Cruz had created her implausibly long lashes by using the product. L’Oréal admitted she was wearing false eyelashes in the TV and print ads, and the company was forced to include a disclaimer in future campaigns. These days, skin care brands go to great lengths to superimpose text onto U.K. ads to ensure they meet the ASA’s stringent criteria.
Gummer points out that although it may seem easier to make claims on the U.S. market, brands still need to have data to support what they say, and marketers remain responsible for juggling claims and where they are made. “Until other countries have similar controls as the U.K., then there will be different claims for products,” affirms Skinnovation’s Ferguson. (From Skin Inc.’s article Justifying Skin Care Claims)
Case Study: Dr. Perricone and His Products
In my opinion one of the biggest offenders in this world of hype and pseudoscience is Dr. Perricone who sells two skincare lines and a line of nutritional supplements while also writing many bestselling skincare information books. If you read one of Dr. Perricone’s books or simply log on to his website you might think that you have found the cure for all that ails your skin (and perhaps even your overall health). But stop! Before you believe all that hype think of the following things. (I am indebted to the website Quack Watch and their article A Skeptical View of the Perricone Prescription for the information about Dr. Perricone’s books and products):
Perricone‘s books are sprinkled with statements that his ideas are based on his own research. However, the extent and quality of this research is unclear. A PubMed search for his name brought up only six citations, of which only two appear to be original research, both on topical glycolic acid . His books describe situations in which he tested various ideas in a few patients, usually over a short period of time, but he provides few details and apparently published none of those findings in medical journals.
Dr. Perricone would be more credible if he could show us a study demonstrating that people who followed his prescription lived longer, had “younger” skin demonstrated by objective measures, or felt better compared to those on a placebo program—or that they were better in any measurable way. Instead, he provides only testimonials, exaggerated claims, partial truths, and incorrect statements. He cherry-picks possibly supportive studies from the literature and ignores contradictory studies. He cites lots of lab studies (in vitro or in animals), but few that demonstrate any clinical effects in humans. The diet he recommends is low in calories, and weight loss alone may improve the way his patients look and feel. His advice about tobacco and sunscreens is appropriate, but there is little science behind the rest of his program. He seems to have gathered every nutrient and skin cream he had any reason to hypothesize might work and advised using all of them. A more rational approach would have been to first see which ones really worked, and later to see if any combinations of the effective agents worked better than a single agent. No scientist worth his salt does experiments without controls; Perricone treats everyone, so that there is no basis for comparison.
Dr. Perricone has mixed a pinch of science with a gallon of imagination to create an elaborate, time-consuming, expensive, prescription for a healthy life and younger skin. There is no reason to think his program is more effective than standard measures. Although some of his advice is standard, most of his recommendations are based on speculation and fanciful interpretation of selected medical literature. He makes lots of money by convincing patients and consumers, but he hasn’t succeeded in convincing critical thinkers, doctors, scientists, or anyone who wants to see hard evidence. Perricone’s “prescription” isn’t science; it’s creative salesmanship.
So what can you do in order to protect yourself from false claims and promises when it comes to skincare products? Education! Keep learning, keep reading, and keep an open mind. If it is too good to be true – it is.
Sources and Further Reading
Chapter 2 of Daniel Yarosh’s book The New Science of Perfect Skin
Chapter 2: Understanding the Hype from The Beauty Bible, 2nd edition by Paula Begoun