In a recent poll, 9 out of 10 Allure editors agreed — beauty product claims can be pretty damn confusing. (And one person was out sick that day). Why all the linguistic gymnastics?
For starters, brands are incentivized to make their products sound like they work — just not work too well. "If a product claims to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, prevent disease. or affect the structure or function of the human body, then the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it a drug," explains cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos. Cosmetics, on the other hand, can only make appearance claims.
"A lot of companies make very efficacious products but do not want to veer into the territory of [an expensive] new drug application with the FDA, so they come up with creative language," says Dobos. If a product says it reduces wrinkles, that's a drug. Reduces the appearance of wrinkles? That's a cosmetic.
While the FDA monitors all drug claims, cosmetic claims are closely watched by the FTC and National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau, notes Dobos. If they — whether prompted by internal investigators, a competitor brand, or a consumer, like you — think a claim sounds too good to be true, they'll ask to see the research. If the studies don't exist or don't hold up, they'll do what any red-blooded American would do: get litigious.
Of course, this is just the tip of the proverbial beauty industry iceberg. We strapped on our goggles and took a deep dive into the world of claims, studying the studies behind the studies to sort cosmetic science from fiction. Here, what we learned.
If something says it's clinically proven, it should have CVS-length receipts. "It basically means a study was conducted in a clinical setting, with objective measurements, under the supervision of a medical professional," says Dobos. (As opposed to "Sharon R.'s" bathroom in Connecticut, under the supervision of a ring light.) That said, the term — like "natural" or "sustainable" — isn't regulated, so you may want to conduct your own investigation and look up the study. It may be on the brand's site or social media.
Odds are if a brand's product really is clinically proven, "they'll make the information readily available in case they are called into question."
Generally, the more study participants in a study, the better, but look for at least 30, says Craig Weiss, president of Consumer Product Testing Company in New Jersey. This is the number that's often required by retailers to make claims, he adds. Odds are if a brand's product really is clinically proven, "they'll make the information readily available in case they are called into question," says Dobos.
It's also worth noting that clinicals aren't cheap. According to Dobos, one can run upwards of $50,000. (This is often why small brands can't afford to run clinicals or, because the cost escalates with each subject, can do so only with a minimal number of participants.) If a brand doesn't make results accessible, that's like getting a bespoke fragrance in Grasse, France, and never wearing it. Smells suspicious!
This means neither the clinical study subjects nor the researchers know what product they're using. Says Dobos, "The intent is to reduce the influence of factors like confirmation bias," which is an innate tendency to interpret data in a way that confirms the results we want to see. Typically, if a study is double-blind, it's also…
"This is where one group of subjects gets the treatment product and another gets a nontherapeutic one," says New York-based board-certified dermatologist and researcher Joshua Zeichner, M.D. Placebo is a bit like the science version of The Emperor's New Clothes: If we think we're using a retinoid, we're more likely to believe our wrinkles are vanishing. This is why it's important to blind subjects in placebo-controlled studies.
If we think we're using a retinoid, we're more likely to believe our wrinkles are vanishing.
That's not as common for cosmetics as it is for drugs, though. "Moisturizers are pretty much all oil-in-water emulsions," says Weiss. "If you create a placebo for one, it'll also be an oil-in-water emulsion and that's going to be moisturizing to some degree on its own."
The baseline, the before in a before and after, is often used as the control in cosmetics clinical studies as opposed to a placebo. "A single product is tested and you do a baseline reading and then again at different intervals — four weeks, six weeks, etc. — to measure what's changed and by how much," says Weiss. Often a brand will tout claims from these types of studies with before and after images. "In a well-designed study, great care is taken in positioning subjects and controlling light to maintain consistency, so a true comparison can be made," says Dobos.
But we doubt the person from your high school who's shilling products on Facebook followed those parameters. If the photos are clinically legit, there should very little difference between the two in terms of lighting, head positioning, and distance. Basically, you should have a hard time telling the before from the after — save for the thing that's actually supposed to have changed.
The product works? Says who? This means someone else ran the test — like when you know you're five feet five and your doctor says you're five feet three. This happens for a number of reasons. "It's often needed when a brand doesn't have access to their own in-house testing," says New York-based board-certified dermatologist and researcher Dhaval G. Bhanusali, M.D. It's also done to "provide unbiased confirmation of claims," says Dobos.
A recent survey from the Benchmarking Company found that 76 percent of respondents said their trust in a brand increases when they see it has done third-party research. This info can usually be seen when a brand markets the product via email, ads, and social media. (Because beauty packaging doesn't have much space, you’ll rarely find it there.)
Ah, the method of… not having a method. "Randomization means that subjects are assigned to different arms of a study without a discernible pattern," says Zeichner. This way you're "better able to assess the effectiveness of a particular treatment because it’s less likely to be confounded by underlying variables," according to Dobos.
A claim that is provided by a study subject (like "Sharon R." from Connecticut!) rather than a clinical measurement, usually as part of a consumer perception study — as in, 98 percent of users said their skin looked smoother. "During the pandemic, we were seeing more self-reported claims because it was difficult to have patients returning to the office for subsequent evaluations," says Bhanusali. While objective support, like measuring wrinkle reduction, is important, this kind of subjective support is also powerful. That Benchmarking Company survey also found that consumers respond to consumer perception claims more than clinical ones. "If a consumer can’t perceive a product’s results," says Dobos, "objective data doesn't matter much."
A self-reported claim is provided by a study subject rather than a clinical measurement, usually as part of a consumer perception study — as in, 98 percent of users said their skin looked smoother.
All the experts we spoke with stated that objective support is more reliable, but none were surprised by this finding. "As a scientist, I will always support clinical data," says Bhanusali. "That said, like anyone, if my colleagues or friends make a recommendation, I take it to heart." The strongest claims, Bhanusali says, have a mix of both clinical and consumer support.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.
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