Do Active Ingredients in Cosmetics Work?

Last week I gave a presentation of my Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry course to a full house at the National SCC meeting in New York. I was pleased that there were nearly 50 students! Doing that course is always fun. Incidentally, if you couldn’t make the live course you can get the information and more in our online formulating courseactive ingredients cosmetic

During the course I was talking about “claims ingredients” and the fact that many of the things that are touted as active ingredients are really just added for the marketing claims. I further stated that if you are adding a compound in your formula that is having a drug effect that would make the product an illegal drug. This met with some disagreement and another participant and I had a nice exchange about it. In reality, we didn’t disagree on the facts, but we did disagree on the way these facts should be considered.

Here is my opinion about cosmetics, active ingredients and their effectiveness.

1. If an ingredient is added to a cosmetic and it is going to somehow interact with your skin cells and change the body metabolism, then the ingredient (and product) is a drug.

2. If your product is not a drug then it will not have any significant impact on the skin cell metabolism…ergo it won’t work like a drug.

So the short answer is No, active ingredients in anti-aging cosmetics do not work. If they do, they are drugs.

For these reasons when you see anti-aging products that claim to “boost collagen” or stimulate elastin production, they either don’t work or they are illegal drugs.

This statement is what met with disagreement. There are people in the cosmetic industry who hold the opinion that you can use ingredients that are known to have an effect on skin, as long as you don’t claim that they do what you know they do. They believe that you can add ingredients known to boost collagen as long as you don’t claim that your product does that. It’s an understandable position but not one that sits right with me.

I should add that they make the point that it is demonstrably false that things like moisturizers don’t have an impact on skin metabolism. They do. Even touching your skin can be shown to stimulate the production of certain compounds in skin. This is all true so it makes the situation complicated.

FDA weighs in

It is interesting to guess about the FDA feelings on this topic. This recent letter they sent to Dr Brandt Skincare is illuminating.

Essentially, Dr Brandt was making claims on their website that make their products illegal drugs. Here is a listing of some of the claims they made which make a cosmetic product an illegal drug.

1. “Boosts collagen production”
2. “[A]dvanced collagen boosters and botox alternatives that actually work”
3. “[H]elps breakdown fat deposits…”
4. “[R]epairs damaged skin”
5. “[A]ntibacterial action”
6. “helps fade dark circles by stimulating microcirculation”

So it seems that the FDA is serious about cracking down on companies who are adding ingredients in their cosmetics and then claiming that the products will have some kind of interaction with skin metabolism.

The bottom line is that you need to focus on telling people the results of your product. Avoid telling them how it works. In truth, consumers care more about the benefits of your product than the features anyway.

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