Good Advice or Good Advertising?
By Larisa M. Lehmer, MD, MA
Your go-to shampoo, moisturizer, deodorant, or concealer is not cutting it anymore? Or, maybe you just wonder if you could do better? Where do you turn for advice when it comes to changing-up your self-care routine?
Like many in the post-2000 era, you probably just ask Google. Not surprisingly, a gazillion results hit the screen less than a second after sending off the query “Top skin care products”. Before you can click the “next” arrow in your quest for one into eternity, Marie Claire, Allure, BestProducts.com, Health.com, Sephora, and Good Housekeeping have all conveniently popped-up with their editors’ Top 10 picks to guide your next “must have” purchase from hairspray to toenail polishes. Hours of perusing list after list may still lead nowhere because while one site claims cream “A” is the very best, it only makes #5 on another. To sort this out, the following questions need to be answered by these popular advice columns:
- How are these featured products selected?
- What criteria are used to judge superiority in each category and with what transparency?
- If products are tested, who’s paying?
When it comes to investigating ethical gray areas, the bottom-line is generally a good place to start. Consumers spend anywhere between $200 - $20,000 per person annually on beauty with the US market generating a projected average revenue of $414 per user (ARPU) in 2017 which reflects nearly a decade of double-digit growth for the $214 billion beauty industry. Beauty firms typically allocate 10-times the amount of resources on product advertising than they do on product research. Therefore, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order prior to deciding where to spend those hard earned beauty-dollars.
To truly evaluate the efficacy of a product (whether it lives up to its claims), considerably more than 1-2 people need to test it in order to show that any changes that occur after the trial period ends are actually a result of the product and not caused by other factors in the individuals’ environment or diet. It is also necessary that those testing the product, as well as the individuals recording the results, be “blinded,” that is unaware as to whether or not the tester is using the product or a placebo, a product that looks, smells and feels like the tested product, but does not contain the active ingredients. An example of a trial that made an adequate effort to examine the effect of different beauty products is Consumer Reports test of nine anti-aging serums. They had 79 test subjects evaluate each serum for a full 6-weeks with before and after measurements taken which revealed “no significant changes” for any of the products. That the trial was limited to nine demonstrates that it takes a great deal of time and resources to investigate whether there is any evidence to support the claims companies make about their products. However, this is only necessary if the product makes measurable assertions. Take a closer look at most packaging that promises to reduce the appearance of wrinkles or to tone and brighten the skin “in just three weeks”. Another work-around is the use of personal testimonials. Even in instances where these invariably glowing reviews are not made by paid brand ambassadors, they cannot be relied upon because there is no way to tease out whether these results are from placebo effect alone.
The placebo effect is a real phenomenon where an individual experiences an improvement in their symptoms or appearance as a result of participating in the therapeutic encounter. Going through the motions of self-care with the aim of improving one’s appearance actually activates certain areas of the brain and causes our bodies to produce endorphins, cannabinoids, and dopamine. Therefore, to truly test a product, its results must be compared to those of a well-disguised placebo.
Let’s assume a company is going to rigorously test their product in a blinded, placebo-controlled trial. This brings us to the third point of research namely funding. When the purpose of a medication under development is to treat cancer or cure infection, public funding sources that are ostensibly free of industry-bias, i.e., the National Institute of Health (NIH) or the U.S. or National Health Service in the U.K., are eager to support the researchers’ efforts. However, these institutions are understandably less inclined to spend limited taxpayer dollars looking into whether the latest $150 skin-firming cream actually works. This means that studies on the efficacy of a beauty product have to be paid for out of the company’s own research and development budget. The resulting trial is generally quite limited in number of test subjects, and complicated by a major conflict of interest. Here’s the choice for the cosmeceutical companies: a) invest a lot of their own money into testing a product that will probably result in no clear indication of benefit compared to the placebo, or b) simply declare the product to be “rejuvenating” or “hydrating” and pay a celebrity to endorse it. Train your eye to identify the source of funding so that you as the consumer know how large a grain-of-salt to take while reading through the next set of miraculous results.
“Fake news,” is present in every industry and plays an increasingly major role whenever a lot of money is involved. With $62 billion of revenue generated in the U.S. alone, the beauty industry is a prime target. While the worst that usually comes from using suspect beauty products is the persistence of stubborn wrinkles and a shrinking bank account, other consequences such as blotchy skin pigmentation and acid burns can cause your skin real problems. Dozens of compounds are being mixed and bottled-up in novel ways every day and since most of the topical potions and creams do not fall under the designation of “food” under current U.S. law, they don’t require FDA approval before they go on the market. While cosmetic companies are, “Encouraged to report product formulations, they are not legally required to tell FDA about their products nor divulge safety data”.
So the next time you are in the market for a new beauty product consider:
- The motives driving the source of beauty information. – Follow the money!
- The validity of the claims made. – Investigate!
- Who conducted the research? – Is the fox guarding the henhouse?
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