Beat the Marketers

Every so often, scientists conduct studies on matters that everyone already knows1. Only 1 in 5 claims made in commercials for cosmetics are trustworthy, the Times tell us. According to the study, published in the Journal of Global Fashion Marketing, most claims are in categories like, “vague” “omits key information” or “outright lies.”

Marketers want to promote their product, which isn’t a problem. You, as a consumer would like to know good products. It’s when marketers convince you of value that isn’t there that you end up short. Most of us don’t take marketing literally at face value. At the same time, marketing works, clearly. That there is such a high concentration of marketing babble in cosmetics suggests that it works; the proof is in the pudding. How do you protect yourself from being a gullible Jane or Joe? Since cosmetics are not regulated in the same way that drugs are, marketers have all the leverage in making creative omissions of fact. This means that the buyer beware principle applies. Simply being educated about common tactics can help you be more aware of what’s evidence based and what’s just mumbo jumbo.

Tactic 1: The Poetry of Empty Phrases

We are marketed to so often that most of us are already familiar with oft used empty phrases that are endemic to the particular industry. Vague “feel” words evoke emotions while avoiding any verifiable claim. Verifiable claims can be falsified, and most countries have regulations that restrict outright false claims.

Use the list of feel words below, and you too can be a skincare marketer!

Adjectives Concepts Verbs Addresses
Enriching After-feel Balances Dullness
Flawless Appearance Banishes Fine lines
Glowing Botanical Conceals Lifeless
Invigorating Contour Diffuses Imbalances
Lightweight Emollient Energizes Imperfections
Professional-grade Luminosity Enhances Irritated
Revitalizing Luster Preps Puffy
Refreshed Radiance Radiates Sensitive
Scientifically advanced Skin tone Restores Spots
Sophisticated Vitality Stimulates Uneven
  • Example’s scientifically advanced revitalizing emollients banish imperfections overnight.
  • Example’s professional-grade botanical formula restores and energizes dull skin.

While generating word salads can seem like a fun career, in a decade we’ll no doubt have computer algorithms that use bayesian modelling to replace the “fun” aspects of the job.

Solution: While it’s good to be aware that marketers are trying to manipulate your emotions, this is certainly not unique to skincare and nothing to be offended about. This is because there is undeniably a subjective element to skincare. I could make a similar list of how to be a “wine snob” or “obnoxious foodie” but there is no crime in that right? If you like it, use it. If you don’t, then don’t. If you’re not sure, just pause and think to yourself whether “increases radiance and diffuses micro-imbalances in the skin” really means anything.

Tactic 2: Read Between the Lines and Non-Claims

To imply something, without spelling it out. It’s up to you, the reader, to go ahead and make the conclusion.

  • Clinically Proven: To do what?
  • Dermatologist Tested: And what did they think?
  • pH balanced: Why don’t we pour some acid or base on your skin?
  • Helps/Improves the appearance of: Unverifiable feels.
  • Studies show that: What studies? By whom?

Solution: Don’t assume. Respect the difference between claims and non-claims, and think about what’s being said and what’s being implied.

Tactic 3: We define the meaning

Regulatory bodies define certain phrases, and labels have requirements not to falsify information. This is good, but it also means that undefined phrases are left open to be defined by the manufacturer themselves. There are an indefinite amount of undefined phrases, but some are so popular that the FDA makes specific mention of them.

  • Not tested on animals/cruelty free: While this claim could be true, it could just as easily be fact free. Marketers are free to define these phrases in any way they wish. The FDA says, “The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms2.”
  • Organic: FDA regulates cosmetics under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). The term “organic” is not defined in either of these laws or the regulations that FDA enforces under their authority2.
  • Cosmeceutical: A popularized phrase that is also undefined. A combination of cosmetic, and pharmaceutical, these topically applied products are implied to have active ingredients that have anti-aging effects. There is, however, a clear demarcation between cosmetics and drugs. According to the FDA, “The FD&C Act does not recognize any such category as "cosmeceuticals." A product can be a drug, a cosmetic, or a combination of both, but the term "cosmeceutical" has no meaning under the law.”

Then there are popular phrases that people often assume are verifiable, but these are actually claims that manufacturers can define as they wish.

  • Non-Comedogenic: Not specifically listed on the FDA site as a precaution like the two above, but it is also a common phrase that is undefined. This does not guarantee that it won’t cause acne.
  • Hypoallergenic: Has a meaning, but again, has no formal definition.

Solution: Unfortunately, this is rather misleading, and you need to be aware that while certain words have a legal definition, and you can trust them to mean things that are very specific, but others have no meaning other than what marketers want you to assume. These are not perfect solutions, but there are non-governmental organizations that can pick up the slack in the area of regulation and consumer protection in some cases.

Cruelty free:
OTC Claims:

Also, while it’s reasonable to be a skeptic when it comes to over the top claims, at the end of the day, marketers are in the business of promoting products, not in laughing at gullible outsiders. If they make a claim, legally defined or not, and it turns out to be obviously untrue in any meaningful common sense use of the word, there will be negative backlash and this is not what they want.

Blatant Lies and Deception

  • Angel Dusting: This is a tactic that’s borrowed from homeopathy. Including a miniscule amount of a popular ingredient, just to get it on the label. A company can truthfully and legally say that they have a particular ingredient in their product (but not in sufficient quantities to have any effect), and can promote the ingredient benefits (which again, may be true). Legal, but misleading. This can help save costs if the ingredient is costly, or eliminate risk of negative side-effects (which also could be costly).
  • Blatant Lies: “Better than Botox.” This cannot be true; if it were, it would require the product to be regulated as a drug.
  • Omission: “Chemical free.” Water is a chemical.

Solution: These types of lies can be legal, or not. Thankfully they are less frequent, since they tend to be riskier (some more than others). Have reasonable expectations. Part of the problem with cosmetics is that the consumer, through wishful thinking, hopes for more than is realistic or reasonable. In this case you are your own worst enemy.

Remember that cosmetics are not drugs. The FDA explains: The FD&C Act defines drugs, in part, by their intended use, as "articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease" and "articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals" [FD&C Act, sec. 201(g)(1)]5.

The key phrase is bolded; by definition, cosmetics cannot alter the structure or function of the body. If it did, it would need to be regulated as a drug. You can pay any amount of money for the most esoteric, secretive formulation, but unless it is a drug, it cannot affect function in any meaningful way. At the same time, if you have reasonable expectations, cosmetics, like, wine tasting, and restaurant hopping, doesn’t have to be a painful exercise in investigation.

1 It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that these blinding flashes of the obvious studies “a waste of resources.”