I was reading some of my latest Twitter updates when I saw another claim about a beauty product being “chemical free.” Reading claims like this really bug me because nearly EVERYTHING is a chemical.
There is no such thing as a Chemical Free Sunscreen!!! Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are CHEMICALS!!
Alright, enough of that. I’ll calm down. But it does remind me of all the other misleading cosmetic claims that I see from cosmetic marketers. Here is a list of 10 of the most misleading cosmetic claims that I could find.
What makes a claim misleading?
Before I get to the list, I want to define my terms. There are plenty of more egregious claims than the ones on this list but typically those are direct lies. (e.g. cosmetics that say they will regrow your hair).
The claims listed here are not lies per se, the companies no doubt have supporting tests. However, they are specifically made to mislead consumers.
1. Natural, organic, green, etc.
This claim can mean anything because there is no specific definition for ‘natural’. Some companies argue that if an ingredient comes from a natural source then it’s natural. They conveniently overlook the fact that they chemically modify it to make it work the way they want it. And ‘organic’ is not much better. True, there is a USDA organic certification program but it is not required that a cosmetic company follow it to use the ‘organic’ claim on their products.
Why it is misleading - Companies who use this claim want consumers to believe that the products they produce are “safer” than other cosmetics. Natural / organic / green cosmetic are not safer.
2. Chemical free.
Every cosmetic or personal care product you would buy is made of chemicals. There is no such thing as a ‘chemical free’ cosmetic. Water is a chemical. Titanium Dioxide is a chemical.
Why it is misleading - It’s just wrong. It also is made to imply that the product is “safer” than cosmetics made with chemicals. The products are not safer. This is just wrong.
3. pH balanced
Skin and hair products often advertise themselves as ‘pH balanced’ as if that is supposed to be some big benefit. What products are sold that are not pH balanced?
Why it is misleading - Companies who make this claim try to imply some superiority over products that are not making this claim. They want consumers to believe that the products will be less irritating and will work better. They won’t. Why? Because any decently formulated product will be made in a pH range that is compatible with skin and hair. A consumer will never notice a single difference between a product that is “pH balanced” and one that is just normally formulated.
Companies make this claim because they want consumers to believe that their products will not cause allergies. But the FDA looked at this issue in the 1970’s and essnetially concluded that the term hypoallergenic has no real meaning so anyone can make this claim.
Why it is misleading - Hypoallergenic products are not safer or more gentle even though this is what the claim is meant to imply.
5. “Helps” claim
While it would be illegal to make a claim that a cosmetic product fixes some particular problem directly, it is perfectly fine for companies to claim that the product “helps” fix a problem. Since the word ‘help’ is sufficiently vague any product could support a claim that it is helping some condition whether it is or not.
Why it is misleading - Companies use the qualifier “helps” to be able to make a claim that they want even though they can’t support it. For example, when a skin product says “…moisturizes to help strengthen the skin’s barriers function…” they really want consumers to think that the skin’s barrier function will be strengthened. However, they don’t have any evidence that the product will do this. Adding the word ‘Helps’ lets them make the claim without having to have the evidence.
6. Patented formula
Companies love to claim ‘patented’ or ‘unique’ or ‘exclusive’ formula. What they want consumers to believe is that the formula is someone special and will work better than competitors.
Why this is misleading - It’s relatively easy to find some way to patent a formula but that doesn’t mean the patent will somehow make the product a superior personal care product. Often cosmetic patents are just technicalities that made it past a naive patent examiner. Typically, the patent has nothing to do with how well the formula performs.
7. Makes hair stronger
This is a pet peeve of mine. Products that claim to make hair stronger do not make hair stronger. What they really do is make hair less prone to breakage when it is being combed. This isn’t hair strength, it’s conditioning.
Why this is misleading - If you test the strength of hair with a tensile test or other force measuring device, you will discover that hair is not actually stronger. But consumers are meant to believe that hair becomes stronger even though it doesn’t.
8. Boosts collagen production
You find this claim in lots of cosmetic products.
Why it is misleading - If the product actually increased the amount of collagen your skin produced, it would be a mislabeled drug. Cosmetics are not allowed to have a significant impact on your skin metabolism.
9. Reduces the appearance of wrinkles
Most any anti-aging product is going to make this claim and it’s very likely true. However, the message that consumers get from this claim is different than the words that are written and marketers know this.
Why it is misleading - While the product is only reducing the “appearance” of wrinkles consumers read that and believe that the product will somehow get rid of wrinkles. It won’t. Almost no cosmetic skin cream is going to get rid of wrinkles. They might make wrinkles look less obvious but this isn’t what consumers think when they read a claim like that.
10. Proven formula
The term proven is powerful in the consumers mind even though it doesn’t have to mean much of anything.
Why it is misleading - Marketers know that the term ‘proven’ automatically makes consumers think that the product works. And maybe it does work, but it almost never works in the way (or to the extent) that consumers will think it works. This is why it is a misleading claim.
Claims and the cosmetic chemist
Unfortunately, cosmetic companies have to make misleading claims because this is what consumers respond to. There are certainly some claims that are more egregious than others but as a cosmetic chemist you should be able to recognize those and help your marketing department find ways to make non-misleading claims. It’s not easy but someone should be doing it.