Cosmetic product effectiveness

In our post related to do cosmetics work we went through and explained how a cosmetic product can both work, and not work. Much of this comes down to the interpretation of what is meant by the notion of a product working. The brand means one thing while the consumer thinks they mean something else.

What we didn’t cover is the situation when both the cosmetic product marketer and the consumer have basically the same idea of what a product is supposed to do. I’ll show you that even in those cases the answer of whether a cosmetic product works is not so simple.

Why do people use cosmetic products?

There are a few reasons people use beauty products and to understand if they work, you have to first know why a product is used. There are various reasons people use products including…

  • 1. To solve a specific problem – such as an anti-acne product or a deodorant
  • 2. To solve a general problem – for example they want to make hair look better
  • 3. To prevent some problem in the future – like sunscreens or anti-aging products
  • 4. To improve their mood – like a bubble bath or fragrance spritz

Of course, reasons may overlap as in the case where someone styles their hair and that makes them also feel better.

While I would argue ultimately people use cosmetics to improve their mood, we’ll ignore that and focus on the other three reasons. That’s because using a product may make you feel better even if it doesn’t actually do anything. There is a lot of placebo effect in cosmetics.

Solving cosmetic problems

So the main challenge of creating a cosmetic product is to make formulas that solve problems. To be able to do that you need some way to measure the problem and a way to determine whether you’ve solved it or not. This is where things get complicated.

Easy cosmetic problems

Some problems are pretty straightforward and products can quickly solve them. Your hands feel dry, you use a skin lotion and voila, hands feel better. You smell bad, use a deodorant and you smell better. You don’t like the color of you lips, put on lipstick, and it’s changed. These are the easiest problems to solve and for which to make products. Pretty much all cosmetic products on the market work for these problems. That’s because if a product didn’t work, people wouldn’t continue to buy it.

These problems are also easy to measure. Whether a consumer likes how something looks, smells, or feels will be obvious to them. If they use your product you can just ask them if they liked how it worked. Now, they might not be a good judge of that, but most people know what they like and don’t like.

Harder cosmetic problems

Making products that solve or prevent longer term problems is a bit harder. That’s because whether a treatment solved the problem is not immediately evident. For example, when a consumer has acne what they really want is for the blemish to be gone. While there are products that can cover up acne so it “disappears,” there aren’t products that immediately get rid of acne. The solutions out there now only get rid of acne after multiple applications and over a number of days or weeks. These types of problems are the most difficult ones for which to create demonstrably effective products.

That’s because the question of whether something works or not becomes a problem. You see for any treatment there are three things that can happen.

  • 1. The condition gets better
  • 2. The condition gets worse
  • 3. The condition doesn’t change

Unfortunately, if you do nothing these same three things can also happen. So it becomes challenging to prove that your treatment was better than nothing. And that is where product testing and claims substantiation comes in.

Levels of effectiveness

The amount of proof showing a product actually works to solve a problem can be considered on a number of levels.

Non effective products – level 0

The first wrung of this effectivity ladder are products that don’t work. And the fact that they don’t work is obvious to consumers and scientists alike.

There are a few cosmetic products on the market in this category, but most of them don’t last because if a consumer tries something and it doesn’t solve their problem, they aren’t likely to buy it again. Products like anti cellulite creams or hair growth products would fall into this category.

Of course, there continues to be a market for products like these because people really want these problems solved. However, there is no cosmetic technology that would solve problems like hair loss or cellulite so the product type remains even while specific brands come and go.

Some measurable lab effect – Level 1

Many cosmetic products claim to be clinically tested or point to lab results that show a product works. Most additives called out in advertising have this level of proof of effectiveness. This means that scientists developed some way to measure an aspect of whatever problem the consumer was having and they were able to show a statistically significant effect.

An example might be a hair conditioner. Say a product is supposed to reduce hair damage by 50%. You may be able to do electron micrograph studies that show the product actually does reduce the amount of hair cuticle damage by that amount. But in the real world that difference is not detectable.

In reality, the effects that are advertised are not things that consumers or even trained professionals will necessarily be able to notice immediately. There may be an effect over time, but even this is questionable. From a consumer standpoint, these products won’t be perceived as working. Many individual cosmetic claims ingredients fall into this category.

Theoretically detectable effects – Level 2

People can train themselves to get good at noticing subtle differences. Fragrance formulators can get incredibly good at picking out odors that other people don’t notice. When I formulated shampoos I got very good at noticing whether ingredients rinsed out better or affected the feel of my hair. At this level of product effectiveness there are lab measurable differences that can be detected by trained experts. The vast majority of consumers won’t be able to notice these differences but experts can. So from the expert’s standpoint, the product works. From a consumer standpoint, they might think it doesn’t. A large number of cosmetic products would fall into this category.

Subtle improvements – Level 3

Products at this level have effects that may be noticeable to some consumers but not others. Things like combing differences or the fading of skin age spots are examples. Noticing whether a conditioner makes it easier to comb hair is hard. This is especially true if your hair isn’t that difficult to comb in the first place. Also, if a problem only goes away slowly that can be difficult to notice too. Products at this level actually work. Many consumers who use these products will think they work.

Obvious effects – Level 4

Products that work at this level are those that have obvious effects to both consumers and trained experts. These are products designed to solve the easy problems. They are things like shampoos that clean hair or color cosmetics that color skin surface. It’s not hard to measure these effects because they’re obvious to everyone. But that also means that it is harder to make your product stand out from the crowd. If every product works, there are limited reasons to buy anything but the least expensive one or most convenient one.

Claims ingredients

Since most cosmetic products work for solving the easy problems, cosmetic marketers need something extra so they can build a story that sets their product apart from the competition. That’s where things like claims ingredients come in. These ingredients don’t actually provide an obvious effect but they provide a story consumers can latch onto.

Complicating the problems

Another thing that marketers do is to find a variety of ways to talk about the problem. Marketers may talk about the 7 signs of aging while consumers only think of their skin in one dimension as one specific problem. Instead of selling an anti-wrinkle cream, brands sell products that address age spots, skin elasticity, plumpness, firmness, and any other characteristic the copywriters can think up. In this way they can take a product that works for an obvious problem (moisturizing) and convince people it will work for the non obvious problems (sagging skin).

The bottom line is that most cosmetic products do work. It’s just that the level at which they work or the problem that they actually solve are limited.

Would you like to learn more about formulating and cosmetic ingredients? Try our Cosmetic Raw Material course.

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How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist

The job of a cosmetic chemist, or as they call it in the UK a cosmetic scientist, requires you to do a wide variety of things both in and out of the lab. Your main responsibility will be that of a formulator. This means you mix raw materials together to create cosmetic products like lipstick, nail polish, skin lotions, shampoos, toothpaste and any other type of personal care product.

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