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The 10 Most Misleading Cosmetic Claims

I was reading some of my latest Twitter updates when I saw another claim about a beauty product being “chemical free.” Reading claims like this really bug me because nearly EVERYTHING is a chemical.

There is no such thing as a Chemical Free Sunscreen!!! Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are CHEMICALS!!

Alright, enough of that. I’ll calm down. But it does remind me of all the other misleading cosmetic claims that I see from cosmetic marketers. Here is a list of 10 of the most misleading cosmetic claims that I could find.

What makes a claim misleading?

Before I get to the list, I want to define my terms. There are plenty of more egregious claims than the ones on this list but typically those are direct lies. (e.g. cosmetics that say they will regrow your hair).

The claims listed here are not lies per se, the companies no doubt have supporting tests. However, they are specifically made to mislead consumers.

1. Natural, organic, green, etc.

This claim can mean anything because there is no specific definition for ‘natural’. Some companies argue that if an ingredient comes from a natural source then it’s natural. They conveniently overlook the fact that they chemically modify it to make it work the way they want it. And ‘organic’ is not much better. True, there is a USDA organic certification program but it is not required that a cosmetic company follow it to use the ‘organic’ claim on their products.

Why it is misleading – Companies who use this claim want consumers to believe that the products they produce are “safer” than other cosmetics. Natural / organic / green cosmetic are not safer.

2. Chemical free.

Every cosmetic or personal care product you would buy is made of chemicals. There is no such thing as a ‘chemical free’ cosmetic. Water is a chemical. Titanium Dioxide is a chemical.

Why it is misleading – It’s just wrong. It also is made to imply that the product is “safer” than cosmetics made with chemicals. The products are not safer. This is just wrong.

3. pH balanced

Skin and hair products often advertise themselves as ‘pH balanced’ as if that is supposed to be some big benefit. What products are sold that are not pH balanced?

Why it is misleading – Companies who make this claim try to imply some superiority over products that are not making this claim. They want consumers to believe that the products will be less irritating and will work better. They won’t. Why? Because any decently formulated product will be made in a pH range that is compatible with skin and hair. A consumer will never notice a single difference between a product that is “pH balanced” and one that is just normally formulated.

4. Hypoallergenic

Companies make this claim because they want consumers to believe that their products will not cause allergies. But the FDA looked at this issue in the 1970′s and essnetially concluded that the term hypoallergenic has no real meaning so anyone can make this claim.

Why it is misleading – Hypoallergenic products are not safer or more gentle even though this is what the claim is meant to imply.

5. “Helps” claim

While it would be illegal to make a claim that a cosmetic product fixes some particular problem directly, it is perfectly fine for companies to claim that the product “helps” fix a problem. Since the word ‘help’ is sufficiently vague any product could support a claim that it is helping some condition whether it is or not.

Why it is misleading – Companies use the qualifier “helps” to be able to make a claim that they want even though they can’t support it. For example, when a skin product says “…moisturizes to help strengthen the skin’s barriers function…” they really want consumers to think that the skin’s barrier function will be strengthened. However, they don’t have any evidence that the product will do this. Adding the word ‘Helps’ lets them make the claim without having to have the evidence.

6. Patented formula

Companies love to claim ‘patented’ or ‘unique’ or ‘exclusive’ formula. What they want consumers to believe is that the formula is someone special and will work better than competitors.

Why this is misleading – It’s relatively easy to find some way to patent a formula but that doesn’t mean the patent will somehow make the product a superior personal care product. Often cosmetic patents are just technicalities that made it past a naive patent examiner. Typically, the patent has nothing to do with how well the formula performs.

7. Makes hair stronger

This is a pet peeve of mine. Products that claim to make hair stronger do not make hair stronger. What they really do is make hair less prone to breakage when it is being combed. This isn’t hair strength, it’s conditioning.

Why this is misleading – If you test the strength of hair with a tensile test or other force measuring device, you will discover that hair is not actually stronger. But consumers are meant to believe that hair becomes stronger even though it doesn’t.

8. Boosts collagen production

You find this claim in lots of cosmetic products.

Why it is misleading – If the product actually increased the amount of collagen your skin produced, it would be a mislabeled drug. Cosmetics are not allowed to have a significant impact on your skin metabolism.

9. Reduces the appearance of wrinkles

Most any anti-aging product is going to make this claim and it’s very likely true. However, the message that consumers get from this claim is different than the words that are written and marketers know this.

Why it is misleading – While the product is only reducing the “appearance” of wrinkles consumers read that and believe that the product will somehow get rid of wrinkles. It won’t. Almost no cosmetic skin cream is going to get rid of wrinkles. They might make wrinkles look less obvious but this isn’t what consumers think when they read a claim like that.

10. Proven formula

The term proven is powerful in the consumers mind even though it doesn’t have to mean much of anything.

Why it is misleading – Marketers know that the term ‘proven’ automatically makes consumers think that the product works. And maybe it does work, but it almost never works in the way (or to the extent) that consumers will think it works. This is why it is a misleading claim.

Claims and the cosmetic chemist

Unfortunately, cosmetic companies have to make misleading claims because this is what consumers respond to. There are certainly some claims that are more egregious than others but as a cosmetic chemist you should be able to recognize those and help your marketing department find ways to make non-misleading claims. It’s not easy but someone should be doing it.

{ 21 comments… add one }

  • Bob 01/24/2014, 2:09 am

    Living forever and never getting old are dreamed by humanbeings from generation to generation. So, that’s why nutrition food and cosmetics are so popular in morden society. If any products are claimed that they can do, if only a small change they could achieve, there will be a large amount of advocates. On the other side, manufactures need commercial claims to win more profit. Relationships between salespersons and comsumers are set up because of this, even though one side always argues that there are too many fake claims of products in the market. But what should we do? Force them to accept the truth and tell them the dream is impossible? I don’t think so. I think the appropriate claims are needed because cosmetics can provid some benifts after all. I would like to tell them ‘Maybe this product can’t change your appearance even make you younger, but it will make you feel that you are the most beautiful one than your peers’.

    • Perry Romanowski 01/24/2014, 7:04 am

      I don’t really know what to do about it. I don’t think there is a need to change the way cosmetics are advertised. There is more of a need to educate consumers so they don’t become suckers.

  • Leila Karlsson 09/12/2013, 5:50 am

    Hi Perry,

    I would like to understand the difference between primary claims and secondary claims?

    Many thanks for your help

    Regards

    Leila

    • Perry Romanowski 09/13/2013, 3:15 pm

      Well, primary claims are ones that describe what the product’s main function is. Secondary claims are extra benefits. For example, the primary claim of a shampoo is that it cleans hair. Secondary claims would be that it improves manageability, increase shine, etc.

  • Kelly 08/06/2012, 3:14 pm

    While researching some competitive products today, I came across sunscreens with natural claims. They contained Zinc Oxide (ZnO). ZnO does not occur naturally. Zinc ore is mixed with a carbon source like coal, ignited and reduced to zinc vapor which is then burned to form ZnO. Felt I should add this to the conversation give the prevalence of these false natural claims.

    • Nancy Liedel 08/07/2012, 6:38 am

      There are VERY few products that come across a formulators desk that are not touched by man. Why? Heavy metals are a major issue with mined product. Sometimes, it’s easier to re-create the product, rather than mine it.

      Pigments, oxides, Micas are cleaned, even my water is distilled. I have come to terms with, “Safe, sane and natural as possible, while maintaining efficacy.” It’s in several areas where I sit and it’s the bottom line. I know it’s a tough egg to swallow, we are using products that occur in nature, but are not always from nature. However, a lab is not a horror show. It’s a clean and safe way of making Zinc usable and safe. The safety of zinc and the positive properties cannot be argued. Zinc Ore isn’t going to be easy to use, and it’s darn sharp in real life as it grows. It’s also a pretty shade of blue, depending on the inclusions.

      It’s not about all natural, vs. all chemical. It’s about finding a balance that leaves nature safe and customers safe. As much as I don’t want to use some manufactured products, I also do not want the earth mined and harmed for cosmetics either. You need to find a stance and stick by it, with an open mind. That’s hard for all of us.

      • dene 08/07/2012, 7:24 am

        Nancy, I certainly agree with your observations that it’s not all about natural v. synthetic (I disagree with the use of “chemical” to denote synthetic chemicals, as everything is “chemical”), but I am mystified at your stance regarding the mining of the earth’s resources. Mining does not always equate to harming, and humans would not have progressed very far without mining for resources. The amounts used in cosmetics are a miniscule percentage of the total resource extracted fromt he earth so, personally, I wouldn’t worry too much, but you are entitled to your view, of course!

        • Nancy Liedel 08/07/2012, 10:10 am

          Many micas and other products are mined by family groups, including children, in China and parts of India. Technically they are watched, but it’s loose at best. No, not all mining is detrimental, but I grew up across the street, and a couple miles through a dune preserve from a sand mine. It’s just silica, but the scar is going to be there a long time. It was an up close look at something we use, or many of us use, every day. Glass, silica, micas were there too, as well as Rose Quartz, although finding the Rose Quartz among the Quartzite and the other elements would be a major challenge.

          This has really hit me hard, recently. My family was environmental LONG before environmental was cool. Okay, my dad didn’t want neighbors, mom was just into the wonderful environmental value of a very unique area (Kitchel/Lindquist Dune Preserve Grand Haven, MI. If you’re ever there, hit the trails and don’t climb the dunes unless there are stairs. They fail easily with walking). We donated, as a family, over 60 acres and I was forced to walk around downtown with a St. Bernard with a sandwich board on it’s back. I was very popular, not. Anyway, we won our fight and it all just got blown to smithereens by our lovely congress and Governor of our fair state.

          So, while it seems that mining is not really an issue in many places and in many places it is not, I’d rather find new ways to recycle and make sure what we use is as biodegradable as possible. That said, I’m never going to get there in my lifetime, but trying does not hurt. It’s all a muddle of chemicals, where they come from, how they are created and personal beliefs and experiences as well as people with an agenda. Mostly in marketing and people without a fundamental understanding of science. Tossing the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

          I hope that enlightens you. It’s a personal thing and not a major campaign I’m waging. If I really am going to save something in this life for future generations, it would be the whale. Again, personal choice. I use silica a lot and just ordered more. I’m not against it at all. I just wish there was a way that made everyone happy and stopped stupid bickering and the probability, certainty of over-regulation. That was almost funny.

          • dene 08/07/2012, 12:13 pm

            Yes, thanks, Nancy – I do understand your position, but I would certainly observe that the child-labour aspect of some mining operations is a whole different subject (and one that has been addressed by many suppliers of mica in recent years). The bickering is mostly due to a lack of understanding of science, which is very sad.

  • cherry 01/31/2012, 12:09 pm

    While I understand why you criticise claims on products that aren’t true, I don’t understand why you always try to kind of laugh about people wanting green products. There is a good reason why people want less unnecessary und often harmful chemicals (yeees, everything is chemical – but you know what people mean when they say they want chemical-free. All you do is being short-sighted and hairsplitting.) and there are many reasons why so many people suffer from allergies etc. And it is not because all those friendly lab-made chemicals are so benevolent and good for our health ( of course not only in skin care). Not all companies who offer organic/natural products are scammers who want to deceive their clients – there are in fact manufacturers who believe in their products and indeed help people who got injured by conventional products. Instead of being cynical you should try working for a better planet yourself. It is high time.

    • Perry 01/31/2012, 4:25 pm

      Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate your perspective.

      I’m sorry that it seems that I’m laughing at people who desire green products…I’m not. In fact, I fully support the idea of ‘green’ products when it comes to sustainability and reducing chemical exposure. I believe wholeheartedly that cosmetic chemists should create products using renewable resources whenever possible. They should limit the amount of chemicals they use and minimize their environmental impact.

      The part where you and I differ seems to be in what we see as “safe” and “unsafe”. There is nothing inherently unsafe about synthetic, lab-made chemicals and there is nothing inherently safe about natural materials.

      Cosmetic grade petrolatum is safe for use. The synthetic detergents made from petroleum chemicals are safe for use. There is nothing about a “natural” or “green” cosmetic product that is more safe than standard products. If there was scientific evidence to the contrary I would change my position immediately. There just isn’t any good evidence.

      • Eliza 02/01/2012, 2:51 am

        Perry you are the diplomat of the year! :)

        Could’t agree more: I love making green sustainable cosmetic products using renewable resources. But I refuse to support bad science and fear-mongering. Unfortunately most ‘free of chemicals’ (or an even worse name’ nasties’) natural cosmetics do seem to be a fan of bad science and fear-mongering.

  • Eliza 01/24/2012, 5:32 am

    Perry again you make me smile, I can hear you in my head ‘It’s wrong!!!!’ LOL So true also!

    When writing copy for my own line I gave up pretty quickly and hope to find someone to do it for me. Cos when you try to write the truth it can easily get too academic, thus dry and boring. So combining the boring truth with making your products stand out, that is a huge challenge!

    Hell, I just want to make stuff that works, feels and smells great ;)

    Nancy, when do those videos will come out? I read you talking about them for a while now ;)

    • Perry 01/25/2012, 5:55 am

      “I just want to make stuff that works, feels and smells great ”

      That is how all the cosmetic chemists I know feel about their work.

  • David 01/23/2012, 5:12 pm

    Hi Perry!
    First of all: thank you for this site!
    This site is so refreshing that I even take a look at it on my free time ;)

    Maybe not qualifying for the misleading top 10 but I’d like to add it because it disturbs me.
    Special …. Complex!

    Just because you mix three ingredients it doesn’t make it a special complex! It is just a mixture, probably not even at an optimized ratio. The word “complex” makes sense in biochemistry when talking about for example cytochrome complexes, but in cosmetics it is only used because it sounds unique and…complex!
    Misleading, and maybe even worse: if a cosmetic chemist really would find a special complex, i.e a multi-component system with interesting synergistic effects, what are we going to call it then?

    • Perry 01/23/2012, 7:58 pm

      Thanks for the comments David. I agree “complex” is a totally bogus claim and used way too often in the cosmetics industry.

  • dene 01/23/2012, 2:29 pm

    I agree with all your top 10, Perry. The only amendment I would make for my own list would be to morph “chemical free” into “anything free”. I know that chemical free is ridiculous, but “free of x” is mostly highly misleading!

  • Nancy Liedel 01/23/2012, 2:22 pm

    I plan to do a lot of, “common sense in cosmetics,” videos in the upcoming months as the store goes live. I’m going to talk about efficacy and manual damage, preventing it, with and without silicones, what is, “more natural,” and less. That anyone can claim natural, or hypoallergenic and it really has no meaning. I’m not going to tackle parabens, because those people REALLY cannot be swayed and if they refuse to understand, then I cannot make them.

    Things with Parabens and Dyes in them will be labelled and if you don’t like your eye liner that you’re using on the water line to have parabens in it, then, by all means, poke that sucker into your watery eye and wonder why your eyes are blurry for weeks. I cannot police those that will not listen. Which means I may have shot myself in the foot, offering products with parabens and dyes in them. Labeled, or no. Some people will not buy from me, because I touch, “CANCER CAUSING PARABENS!!!” Even though I often change my gloves and use a separate set of equipment for Paraben protected products.

    I’m just going to use videos to entertain and be as honest and transparent as possible.

  • Nancy Liedel 01/23/2012, 2:16 pm

    Half of those comments make my blood boil and I’ve had to learn to let it go, so I can concentrate on my own work. Some of them, “if you are really that dumb, then it’s your issue. “The appearance,” is just that and if the consumer sees this as a promise, it’s their problem. I know it’s only temporary and I’ve known that since way before I was interested in this career.

    Some of them… I don’t know how to phrase it so people will listen carefully, but not misunderstand, consider it a drug claim, or think it sucks because of what it does not say on the package. It’s really messing with my head and stops me from play on days I have to write add copy.

    What starts out as a one hour session, turns into 6 and I’m a published writer, about 15 times over if you count books and articles. I KNOW how to write copy. For clothing companies, etc. I just want to make my product enticing without lying, or semi-lying. I already put Argan Oil in products because it’s a buzzword, but now I find out Argan is endangered. URRGGGHHHH! frustrated noises, all around.

  • SoapyGuy 01/23/2012, 1:40 pm

    Nice round-up, Perry. 5 and 9 are usually end-runs around the structure/function bit. Even if there *were* real effects, you can’t technically claim them. As far as 7 goes, I realize *some* companies are referring to combing, but is this industry standard? It’s technically possible to increase resistance to breaking by means other than combing.

    • Perry 01/23/2012, 2:01 pm

      To get 5X or 10X or 100% or anything like that, it’s a combing study. You just wouldn’t get diastron or instron testing to show significant improvements in hair strength.

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