Avoiding pseudoscience in the cosmetic industry

Here is an interesting take on the cosmetic industry written by Zen Liu, a scientist but not a formulator or cosmetic chemist. She is looking at the question of why cosmetic marketers can get away with perpetuating pseudosciencecosmetic ingredient list

For the most part, she gets it right. People who sell cosmeceuticals do rely on tricky marketing phrases or some blatant lies to convince consumers to buy their products. For some products it’s actually even worse than she imagines. While companies are not allowed to outright lie on their packaging or in their advertising, there is no one policing the salesperson in the department store or the salon stylist. They can pretty much say anything they want about a product. I’m not suggesting that they lie on purpose but it’s easy to see how they could be spreading misinformation.

Yes, the cosmetic industry sells products that promise (or at least imply) to make you look younger. And some of these products cost a lot of money!

Not quite right

There are some things in the article that I don’t think she got quite right or at least didn’t correctly emphasize.

- While the FDA does distinguish between cosmetics and drugs based on intended use, it is not legal for a company to put an active drug in their formula and make lesser claims about the effectiveness of the product. Sometimes ingredients matter. Admittedly, this is a grey area.

- The FTC has not ignored the cosmetics industry but it has limited funds and should be going after products that are actually dangerous if used like dietary supplements.

- L’Oreal’s research budget is not for just anti-aging products but for all their products. So, even less money is spent on research for anti-aging products than reported.

Protecting Consumers

What the author doesn’t give is a solution to the problem. Reading between the lines it seems like she is suggesting better regulation. I don’t really think that is a reasonable solution. First, the FDA has limited funds and the chances of them getting a significant amount more is pretty small. Therefore, even if there were more strict regulations, there would not be enough money to police them. Second, the money that the FDA does have should be focused on preventing actual health problems. Spoiled food, drugs and dietary supplements represent a real threat to human health. Overpriced anti-aging creams do not.

While more regulation is not the solution there is one. Make consumers smarter. We need to do a better job of educating consumers to help them avoid making dumb choices. No one should be spending hundreds of dollars on an anti-aging skin cream with the expectation that it will work better than a less expensive moisturizer. Articles like these are a good addition to the conversation. Our blog The Beauty Brains has similarly been dedicated to looking at products and telling people whether they are worth the money.

People need to take responsibility for the choices they make. The FDA needs to ensure that these products are safe, and they are doing this. It is illegal to sell unsafe cosmetics. But when it comes to what products people buy…that is up to them to get educated. The information is out there. If someone is too blinded by their desire for a product to work that they’ll overspend to get it, it’s not the fault of the company who sells the product.

When it comes to cosmetics & beauty products…buyer beware.

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