Weasel Words and the Cosmetic Industry

People often accuse the cosmetic industry of lying.  This is rarely the case.  And for large cosmetic companies, it is almost never the case, at least in advertising.  So how is it that cosmetic companies almost never lie but consumers believe they doweasel-words

The answer is simple…weasel words.

What are weasel words?

Weasel words are phrases used in advertising (or press releases) which convey an impression of meaning without actually saying it.  When taken literally, the phrase is demonstrably true.  However, the impression that the reader gets from the phrase is different than what is actually being said.  You see them all the time in news stories and politics.  Instead of pro or anti abortion, it is Pro-Life and Pro-Choice.  Instead of calling someone who blows up a building a Freedom Fighter, one side might call the Terrorists.  Neither phrase is a lie, just a tricky way of conveying a message.

Weasel words are frequently used in the cosmetic industry.

Cosmetic Weasel Word Examples

“Formulated with” - This is a pretty common trick that you will see cosmetic companies do.  They will add the qualifier “with” to claims about the formula so it implies that the ingredient is responsible for the product effect but what it really is saying is that the formula is.  For example

“Formulated with concentrated levels of our unique antioxidant complex and skin-firming pro-retinol complex to boost and maintain skin’s elasticity.”

Or the more subtle version

“XXX moisturizer contains the highest concentration of kinetin and provides ultimate hydration for dry or environmentally compromised skin.”

In both cases you get the implication that the ingredient “Kinetin” or the “unique antioxidant complex ” is responsible for the benefit but in fact the sentence really says the formula is what makes it work.

As a cosmetic chemist you will often have to add ingredients in your formula to support these weasel word claims even though you know the ingredient will not have any effect whether it is in the formula or not.  Thus is the reality of cosmetic product marketing.

Number claims - Consumers love numbers.  Mostly because it gives them an easy way to compare.  If 2X is good than 4X must be twice as good.  Or if 50% is good, 200% must be stupendous.  But the truth is these claims by cosmetic companies are mostly weasel words.  They don’t mean what consumers think they mean.  Take this hair strength example…

5X More Strength and Smoothness.

This hair product gives you the impression that it will make your hair stronger but it won’t.  What it does is reduce the amount of hair breaking that you experience so it seems like your hair is stronger.  They tip their hand by the addition of the following clarifier

(In brushing/combing tests, compared to an ordinary shampoo)

It’s a perfectly legal claim that happens to have the effect of making it seem like the product makes hair stronger.

Weasel words are a way of life in the cosmetic industry.  As a cosmetic formulator you need to be aware of them because they definitely change the way you formulate.  Of course, you will always try to make the best performing formula that you can.  But consumers are fickle and marketers need these weasel words to get people to try out products and ultimately keep buying them.

Mostly people will be satisfied with the results of their products.  However, the advertising always seems to promise more than products can deliver so cosmetic companies will continue to suffer from unmet expectations.

You might also enjoy this post on the top 10 most misleading cosmetic claims.

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The job of a cosmetic chemist, or as they call it in the UK a cosmetic scientist, requires you to do a wide variety of things both in and out of the lab. Your main responsibility will be that of a formulator. This means you mix raw materials together to create cosmetic products like lipstick, nail polish, skin lotions, shampoos, toothpaste and any other type of personal care product.

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