Are sunscreen claims and other beauty claims accurate?

The recent “scandals” related to sunscreen testing of brands like Purito, Krave and other sunscreen brands, made me think about cosmetic claims in general and how consumers (and chemists) should think about them. So in this post we’ll look at what are claims, how are they substantiated and what do they mean. I hope it will illustrate why it isn’t surprising that when a separate company investigated the Purito sunscreen claims themselves, they got different results.

What are claims?

Claims are any statement you make about your product. Everything from the description of what the product is, the amount in the bottle, the ingredients that are written about and any performance statements made are claims. If it is written on your bottle, in magazine ads, on TV, radio, or even a paid sponsorship on social media, they are all claims. And one of the overriding rules about claims (at least in the US) is that it is illegal to knowingly make false claims. Unless it’s political advertising, then you can pretty much make any claim you like.

Who knew cosmetic claims were more highly regulated than political ones?

Incidentally, in our Practical Cosmetic Formulation course we go into much more detail about claims.

Sunscreen claims

In the case of sunscreens, there are lots of different claims made. Let’s look at the Purito sunscreen for their claims.

From the front of their bottle they have…

And their main claims are

“Unscented Sun”

SPF50+ PA++++

+Essential Oil Free
+ Safe ingredients for all skin types
+ UV Shield + Brightening + Anti-wrinkle
+ Calming & Moisturizing
+ Not-sticky & No-white cast

“Water-based sunscreen cream formulated with Centella extracts and mild ingredients…”
“…to help reduce skin stresses…”
“…which protects against UV rays and harmful environments…”
“…without stickiness nor white residue left on the skin.”
“It does not contain any essential oils and artificial fragrance.”

How are claims substantiated?

For most everyone, the most important claim on this bottle is SPF50+  PA++++

Since this is a Korean based sunscreen they aren’t following the FDA rules for labeling but rather the rules in South Korea. SPF is for Sun Protection Factor. The PA is a claim made about protection against UVA rays. It simply means Protection Grade of UVA rays. This Japanese measurement ranking is based on the Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) reading at 2-4 hours of sun exposure. Protective grade of sunscreen is often labeled as PA+, PA++, PA+++. More pluses mean more protection from UVA rays.

Testing Standard

The test methods for SPF and PA calculations are based on two international standards for in-vivo evaluation: ISO-24442 and ISO-24444. These methods require you to apply 2 mg or 2 µL per cm2 of product on skin then irradiate it with UV from an artificial sunlight source. The minimum time until redness develops is evaluated to get the SPF value.

While these test methods have been around a long time, they are not what I would call “robust.” That is, there is a lot of room for variability such as…

  • Condition of the subject’s skin
  • The method by which the product was applied and spread
  • The distribution of particles in the formula
  • Color evaluation for the endpoint

Claims testing is not science

While the method for testing SPF is dressed up in the costume of science, this is NOT science. This is a test designed to give you a simple reading that you can then put on your bottle to give consumers a good idea about how your product will work. It is not a test designed to absolutely tell you how long you can go out in the sun before you get burned or harmed by UV.

If it were “science” there would be multiple batches of the same formula tested on multiple consumers with lots of different skin types. The object in science is to determine the best answer to a question. The objective of claims substantiation is to find an answer that is not false in one specific test.

Then bottom line is claims testing is always reliable.

Realities of claims testing

The nice thing about SPF testing is that there is a standard. For most other cosmetic claims tests, this is not the case. Instead, companies make up their own test to demonstrate whatever they claim is true.

Purito claims “Safe ingredients for all skin types”. Well, unless they’ve tested the product on everyone’s skin, how would they know it’s safe? It’s not inconceivable that someone out there has some skin type for which some of the ingredients are not safe.

They also claim “Not sticky”.  This is simply a subjective measure. So, if you had hundreds of people test the product, some of them might say it is sticky.

You should never be surprised when ANY cosmetic claim is tested by some independent testing house and you get different results. Claims testing is not science. It’s really just a flip of the coin.

What does that mean for consumers?

For consumers, this means you shouldn’t believe every claim you see written on or about a product. That doesn’t mean that the company is lying or trying to trick you. Although this does happen, for the most part you can be sure that they did some test, at some time, that showed what they are claiming is true. They may have had to run the test a dozen times to get the result they wanted but just remember Claims testing is not Science!

So are cosmetic claims accurate?

That depends on what you mean by accurate. Yes, there was probably a test run which verifies in one specific test run the claim was true. That doesn’t mean that it will be true every time the test is run.

Does that mean the claim is inaccurate?

That is for the courts and consumers to decide.

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