How do some cosmetic companies get away with false advertising?

Searching around the Internet, you can find lots of examples of people selling products online.  You can also find wild claims that as a cosmetic chemist you know are probably false.  Unfortunately, your marketing groups won’t always know that they are false and will frequently approach you and ask why they can’t make claims like the ones they are reading.  After you explain to them that the claims are probably unsupported & illegal some will walk away unsatisfied and begin to see R&D as obstructionists.  Thus is the life of a cosmetic chemist.

But it is a good question.

How do some companies get away with making wild claims or downright “lying” in their advertising?

Regulation of advertising

In the United States there are two main regulatory bodies that deal with the advertising of cosmetics.  First, there is the FDA which disallows any specific drug claims for cosmetics.  They also have specific requirements of what is included on the cosmetic product label.  Second, there is the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) which requires that you  cannot make false claims in your advertising.  In the UK there is the Advertising Standards Authority which has the power to remove ads from the airways.  In fact, they’ve recently done a lot of that in the cosmetic industry.

Are cosmetic companies going too far in their advertising?

So how then do cosmetic companies get away with some of their outrageous claims?  Here are a couple of ways.

They are too small

Government agencies are not large enough to keep track of everything going on in the cosmetic industry.  Often they have to cover multiple agencies and they are not provided enough money to properly do the job.  This is why the cosmetic industry is largely self regulated.  And fortunately, this system has worked well for many years.  But this means that there is limited tracking of what is going on in the cosmetic industry.  If a company is small enough, they can sell pretty much anything they want and the government has no way of knowing what’s happening.  It’s only when (or if) they are discovered that the government can step in and tell them to stop.

Made to look big

A compounding fact is that the Internet makes it simple to distribute your product all over the world.  In the pre-Internet days, people had to go to farmer’s markets or other non-traditional outlets to distribute their products.  But no more.  The Internet lets you be everywhere.  On the Internet, you really have no way of telling how big a company is.  If someone creates a slick looking packing and a beautiful website, it gives the impression that there is a huge support system behind the brand.  This could be true but it could just as easily be one person in their kitchen creating the products.  This makes it easy for your marketing people to find outrageous claims but doesn’t do much for helping the government stop the claims from being made.

No one complains

Ultimately, the way that people are made to stop making claims is that someone complains.  The government relies on being told that a product is a problem or an advertising claim is false.  If no one ever complains, a company can get away with making any outrageous claim they want.  And even if someone complains, it could take months or years for the government to do anything.  By that time the company could’ve made millions, shut down and the government has no one to go after.

They eventually get stopped

I should note that companies who make false claims eventually get stopped.  The big guys get made to stop due to rulings like that of the ASA and the little guys are often sued until they declare bankruptcy or disappear.  It doesn’t matter much as they can just start up another company with a new name, but that can take some time and effort.

Cosmetic Chemist and claims

So, that’s how companies get away with making what seems like false advertising.  Hopefully, you can use this information to explain to your marketers why one company can make some outrageous claim while you are not able to.


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