It’s a common misconception that cosmetic companies lie to sell products. This is generally not true. In fact, in the US it is illegal to lie in advertising to sell products, even cosmetics. So you might wonder how cosmetic companies get away with selling products that don’t deliver.
For that they have to be creative with their claims. As a cosmetic chemist you will often be called upon to help support claims (especially numerical ones) but some impactful claims are meaningless and don’t require much technical expertise. Here are some of those.
To the consumer this claim means that the product won’t cause any allergic reactions. It connotes gentleness and safety. Of course, that’s not what it legally means. According to the FDA, hypoallergenic means “whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.”
Dermatologist tested, Clinically tested
Claims like this seem like they mean that there was some extra special testing done and that a dermatologist somehow endorses the product. But what it really means is that the company sent their product out to an independent lab and had them do some type of testing. The exact testing could be Kligman moisturization protocol or could be a stability test. You can’t really know so it doesn’t mean anything. And to validate the claim “dermatologist tested”, you simply have to have a dermatologist involved somewhere along the way. It could be as simple as a signature after reviewing the results of the study.
Doctor brand (or celebrity)
Speaking of doctors here’s another cosmetic claim that doesn’t mean much. Just because there is a doctor or celebrity in the name of the brand or endorsing the product there is no guarantee that the product will be any extra special or of a higher quality. Dr brands are typically made by contract manufacturers who don’t have nearly the R&D budget of big companies. This claim does not guarantee a superior product.
“With” Advanced technology or some ingredient
Consumers are led to believe that since a formula contains an ingredient that must be why the product works better. Of course, this isn’t true. If you read the claims closely you’ll see that the way they are written the claim actually says that the product has the function. “With” just refers to the fact that an ingredient is in the formula. You can put a drop of Superoxidedismutase in your formula but that doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to do anything.
When consumers read a claim like “Helps delay the natural signs of aging” they can imagine the product will pretty much do whatever they want. They come up with what they think are signs of aging and they come up with what they believe “helps” means. But the reality is that the world “helps” can mean pretty much anything and the cosmetic manufacturer can easily satisfy the validity of the claim. When a consumer sees the word “helps” in a claim they should pretty much ignore the rest of the sentence.
Stimulates, Refines, Restores, Revitalizes, Promotes, Enhances
These are other terms that mean something else in the mind of the consumer than in the mind of the marketer who is selling the product. Consumers might think stimulate means to produce more. So a claim like “Stimulates new cell turnover improving the appearance of lines and wrinkles” might mean to them that more skin cells will be produced. No, they won’t. The manufacturer knows they could support this meaning (and if it actually did that it would be a drug). Rather, they mean something else more akin to the word “encourages” which can pretty much mean anything they want. Claims like “supports”, “improves” or “energize” would all fall under this category. In fact, one of the ways marketers come up with these claims is to look up the word “stimulates” in a thesaurus and use a synonym.
Here’s another claim that marketers use because consumers think it means something that it doesn’t. When a consumer reads a claim like “Sulfate free” or “Free from parabens” they automatically believe that there is something dangerous or bad about those ingredients. They further figure that if this particular product doesn’t contain those things then it must be safer or more gentle to use. Of course, this is completely wrong. Products that are “free from..” any specific ingredient are not more safe than products that contain those ingredients.
However, the cosmetic company isn’t saying their product is safer (if they could actually support that claim they would say that). Instead the company is just letting the consumer assume that’s what they mean. All the company is saying is that the product doesn’t contain some certain ingredient. Products also don’t contain “uranium” or “cyanide” or “botulism” but you don’t see marketers calling that out on their products. The industry trade groups are discouraging this type of labeling but it still goes on in the US.
Incidentally, these types of claims are not allowed in the EU any longer.
Ah, a bonus one I just remembered. Consumers believe that this means that the product wasn’t tested on animals. That’s probably true. But what the consumer doesn’t know is that all the ingredients in the formula were at one time tested on animals or that the manufacturer could have just paid someone else to do the testing and still claim cruelty free. It’s a term that means something to the consumers but doesn’t mean what they think it means. Whether a business practice is cruel or not is a matter of opinion.
So there you have it eight of the most common claims you’ll find on cosmetics that don’t mean much of anything. Of course, just because the claims are misleading doesn’t mean the products don’t work. Anti-aging products do help skin look and feel better. It’s just not as sexy to claim that your product “with petrolatum” moisturizes all day long.