Do cosmetic products really work?

On my beauty science podcast we frequently get asked about whether this or that product works. And more often than not the answer is “maybe, but probably not.” This has led some to conclude that I’m too cynical and that I don’t believe anything “works.” However, this is not quite an accurate assessment of my position. In fact, I do believe many cosmetic products work. I dare say, most cosmetic products work. But that doesn’t mean products work in the ways that people think or because of specific cosmetic ingredients. It’s important to clarify what it means for a product to “work.”

Beauty product claims

There are a few ways that cosmetic companies let consumers learn what products are supposed to do. The main route is through claims which are simply images or statements made about a product. They can be anything that tells people what is in the product, what it can do, and also how to use the products. One of the main purposes of cosmetic claims is to help differentiate your products from your competitor’s and convince consumers to buy.

Now, the reality is that most cosmetic products on the market right now work well for their main function. While there may be some aesthetic differences like feel, fragrance and color, the actual function of the products can pretty much be the same. In theory, everyone can create products just as good as everyone else. The cosmetic industry is not technology driven. It is marketing story driven and one of the key elements of a good marketing story is the claims made about products.

What do they claim?

To answer the question of whether a product works, you have to first look at what do they claim. This is where it gets tricky. Beauty product makers are clever in the way the word their claims. They are done in such a way that they typically tell the truth however, consumers are left with the impression of something else.

Delivering benefits

Let’s look at an example. Here’s a commercial from Dove in which they claim their hair product is going to make hair stronger.

They go through and explain that the product has keratin proteins in it that and that they get “deep down into the cellular level” to repair and protect hair keratin. Then they end with claiming to make hair up to 10 times stronger.

Now, if you are a consumer watching this it’s reasonable that you would get the impression that this Dove hair care product will make your hair 10 times stronger. It’s also reasonable to get the idea that it is the keratin protein that is responsible for getting you this benefit.

There are two things wrong with this impression. First, hair isn’t going to be 10 times stronger and second, the keratin protein isn’t responsible for the benefit you are getting.

So you might be wondering how does Dove get away with making these statements. After all, false advertising is illegal.

What does it mean to make hair stronger?

Well, first you have to see that the claim is “up to 10x stronger.” With that qualifier that can mean anywhere from a little stronger to a maximum of 10 times stronger. There’s a lot of wiggle room there. If it only made hair 5 times stronger that claim would still be accurate.

But let’s assume that they aren’t doing some word play there. If a hair was 10 times stronger, that would mean that it should be able to hold 10 times as much weight. This type of thing can be measured in a couple different ways but one way is to take a hair fiber and pull it apart until it breaks. A device made by Diastron  lets you do exactly that. So, if Dove was actually making your hair 10 times stronger, it would be reasonable to think that hair fibers treated with the product should be able to withstand 10 times as much force before it breaks.

They don’t.

In fact, I would guess that there is virtually no difference between the amount of force that Dove treated hair can withstand before breaking versus untreated hair.

Another way you might test whether hair is stronger is to take a bundle of hair and measure how much force is required to break it. Well, again if you did this with hair treated with Dove vs untreated product, there would be virtually no difference.

So how do they get away with this?

Measuring hair strength

They can do this because it comes down to how they define hair strength. While the demonstrations of hair strength described above are reasonable, they are not the only way to define hair strength. Another might be to define hair strength as “the ability of hair not to break while combing.” And the brand may even argue that that’s a more helpful definition because it represents what people actually do to their hair. Pulling fibers apart with stronger force to see if they break might mean tensile strength to physicists but that doesn’t mean much to hairdressers and consumers.

If you define hair strength in relation to combing, then you can support it with the following test.

  • 1. First, treat some tresses with the Dove system and some with a non conditioning shampoo
  • 2. Run a robotic comb through the tresses for some set amount of strokes (say 100) or time (say 3 minutes).
  • 3. At the end of the test count the number of broken hairs

The difference in the number of hairs broken represents the difference in hair strength. So, say the non-conditioning shampoo treated control has 100 hairs broken while the Dove system has only 10 hairs broken. That would mean Dove made the hair 10 times stronger.

Not really hair strength

Now, one might argue that this test isn’t really a measurement of hair strength, it’s a measurement of hair conditioning. Had they compared the product to a conditioning shampoo or a shampoo plus conditioner they wouldn’t get nearly as much difference. But from the brand’s perspective this test represents a reasonable way to think about hair strength. And that is why the claim is not illegal.

Keratin protein isn’t doing it either

Another impression a consumer might get from this ad is that the thing providing the benefit is the keratin protein. However, they don’t exactly say keratin protein but rather “keratin protein actives technology.” That could mean the protein alone, or it could also mean the protein mixed with silicones, cationic surfactants and cationic polymers. You know, all the standard things used for hair conditioning.

Consumers believe the keratin protein is important even though the brand is only saying that it is part of the solution. The fact that silicones are actually providing the benefit is not something they say out loud.

We could pull apart a few more of the claims where they say it repairs hair from the inside out or that it does it on a “cellular” level (when did hair fibers get cells?) but let’s move to the ultimate question…

Does the product work?

From the brand’s perspective this product certainly lives up to its claims. They have bona fide studies proving what they say is true. And from a consumer standpoint, Dove makes good products that will clean and condition hair. No doubt if a consumer uses this product they should experience less hair breaking than they did if they didn’t use this product.

So yeah, the product works.

But if you have a rope made from human hair and you need it to be 10 times stronger to pull your car out of the ditch, I’m afraid treating it with this product isn’t going to help.

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