Cosmetic Product Marketing and Weasel Words

I received the following question from a reader which I thought would make a good jumping off point to talk about cosmetic product marketing. cosmetic claims

I read some experts saying in a UK magazine that shampoos cannot actually repair damaged hair, even though they often claim the opposite. Could you comment on that?

Cosmetic marketers are often accused of lying to consumers about their products. And if you quickly read through some of their advertising and product claims, it’s understandable how people can get that impression.  But the reality is that cosmetic marketers rarely outright lie. In fact, in the US it is illegal to knowingly lie about your products. That is false advertising and it can get you in trouble with the FTC.

Weasel Words

So, how would you respond to the questions from this reader? Do shampoos actually repair damaged hair?

No, they don’t.  No shampoo (or any product for that matter) can repair damaged hair at least from my perspective.

Now you might be wondering, if no product can repair damaged hair, how can a company claim their product repairs damaged hair and still not be lying?

One answer is weasel words.

In advertising or marketing, weasel words are words or phrases written in such a way to imply a claim without actually making said claim.  Weasel words are descriptors like “helps”, “looks”, “feels”, “with”, “appearance” and things like that.  So, when you read a claim like

reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

You naturally think that the product will

reduce fine lines and wrinkles

It won’t and that wasn’t what the claim said. It was only claiming to reduce the appearance of those skin problems.

Ambiguous Definitions

This weasel word explanation is not the only way that companies get away with making claims that are true but feel like lies.  The other thing they depend on are ambiguous definitions.  Let’s look at the original question.

Do shampoos actually repair damaged hair?

Well, the answer depends on the meaning of a couple key words, specifically the words”damaged” and “repair”.

What does the word damaged mean when it comes to hair? Think about this. What is the definition of damaged hair? It can mean lots of different things. If you think of hair as a single fiber then damaged hair could mean a split end, a broken hair, a discolored hair, a rough feeling hair, smelly hair, and any number of things. On a more microscopic level it could mean the cuticles are broken or split or chipped off. On a molecular level damaged hair could mean a rupture in the naturally produced protein chain structure of the fiber.

Since there is no single definition for what constitutes “damaged hair” a marketer is free to define it for themselves. So, they could simply say that damaged hair is a hair that doesn’t feel smooth. So, anything they do to make hair feel smooth again is repairing the damage.

And that brings us to the second word, “repair”.  What does the word “repair” mean in the context of damaged hair?  Again, there is not a single definition and the answer really depends on what specific characteristic of damaged hair you are claiming to fix.

When I said no shampoo will be able to fix damaged hair I was using as the definition for damaged hair to mean the protein structure of the hair fiber. And it’s a fact that there is no shampoo that will be able to repair the protein structure of a hair fiber once it is damaged. But the people marketing shampoos that repair damaged hair are not talking about damage in the same way I’m talking about it.

If you want to sell a product that repairs damaged hair, you simply need to decide what you mean by the word damage and make a product that can reasonably return the “damaged hair” to a state that it was like prior to the damage.

Read the labels closely

The bottom line for consumers and chemists alike is that cosmetic companies rarely outright lie, but you have to very carefully read exactly what is claimed to figure out what a product will actually do.


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How Shampoos Are Made

Shampoos are cleaning formulations made up primarily of chemicals called surfactants that have the ability to surround oily materials on surfaces and allow them to be rinsed away by water. While there are numerous types of shampoos the majority are low viscosity, solution formulas delivered from a plastic bottle. Often they are marketed towards different hair types or conditions.

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