Home Beauty Supermarket Swindle, Beauty Aisle Edition: How Legit is Your Face Cream?

Supermarket Swindle, Beauty Aisle Edition: How Legit is Your Face Cream?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Not very legit at all, really.

Timothy Caulfield, whose book was the #bgg2wlarmy Book of the Month a little while ago, published an excerpt of his book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? How the Famous Sell us Elixirs of Health, Beauty, and Happiness, in The Atlantic regarding claims that are frequently made by the beauty industry—anti-aging claims, to be specific—and their… um… veracity.

The beauty industry is, of course, massive. It involves everything from teeth-whitening toothpaste to ridiculously expensive shampoo that will transform your hair from “ordinary to extraordinary,” if you believe an advertisement for a product that contains white truffles and caviar and costs more than $60 for an 8.5-ounce bottle. It involves celebrity-endorsed cosmetics, perfumes, and a host of fashion products. And it involves numerous fitness and slimming gimmicks. I will make no attempt to undertake a comprehensive analysis of every allegedly beautifying product that is touched by a celebrity. The number is infinite. It’s enough to know that the beauty industry is a huge cultural force in a tight, symbiotic relationship with celebrities and the celebrity-oriented media. The size and influence of this industry creates challenges for anyone seeking to get to the truth about the products it makes and promotes.

In my research I worked hard to find experts who could provide a reasonably independent view of the alleged benefits of the myriad beauty and anti-aging products and services. This proved to be much more difficult than I anticipated. Many experts I found were not independent scientists, but dermatologists who also had a clinical practice and, as such, benefit (some greatly) from a thriving industry. I am not saying that physicians knowingly twist information about the efficacy of beauty treatments, but there is ample evidence that such conflicts of interest can have an impact on how research is presented and interpreted.

In addition, little literature produced by independent researchers is out there. For many beauty products, there seem to be either no data or only small studies produced by proponents of the product. To some degree, this is understandable. Government research entities, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, have little interest in funding big double-blind placebo-controlled studies on the efficacy of, for instance, the bird-poop face cream used by David and Victoria Beckham. So there isn’t a lot of good science to draw on.

To make matters worse, the popular press is rarely critical of new beauty products. While I found many excellent and balanced media stories on beauty treatments (usually panning them), the vast majority of articles simply trumpet their alleged value, using vague descriptors such as revitalize and radiate. Rarely did I find any real evidence or expertise beyond personal testimonies (which I don’t need to remind you are not evidence). The so-called experts who are quoted in these stories are often part of the beauty industry or individuals with no research background. To cite just one example, a frequently quoted “expert” who is a beauty columnist for a well-known women’s-health magazine, and an advocate for all things pseudoscientific, describes herself as an eco-advisor, television personality, and restaurateur—interesting resume, for sure, but hardly a background that lends itself to a critical analysis of beauty products.

Publishers don’t generally sell magazines by reminding readers that nothing works. Consequently, getting straight answers about anti-aging and beauty products is nearly impossible. There exists a confluence of fact-twisting forces: lots of money to be made by manufacturers and providers, huge advertising campaigns that deploy vast quantities of pseudoscientific gobbledygook, a lack of independent research and information, and consumers who desperately want the products to do for them what is claimed. The cumulative impact of all these forces results in a massive bias toward representing a product or procedure as effective. I call this the “beauty-industry efficacy bias,” or BIEB for short. (Note: The link between the BIEB acronym and Justin Bieber’s nickname was not intentional, but it does work out well.)

…but wait—there’s more:

Given the existence of the BIEB, we should always bring a furiously critical eye to the assessment of any claim made by Big Beauty. Phrases such as “clinically proven” or “dermatologist approved” have little meaning because they could refer to almost anything. For example, what kind of study led to the representation that a given product was clinically proven? Did the manufacturers simply ask a couple of buyers? Do not be fooled by this kind of language, particularly when the presence of the BIEB makes critical analysis of the claims unlikely.

Claims that mean little to nothing although they sound meaningful? No data, small amounts of research on safety and validity? Experts that got their expertise in odd ways? See any similarities between this and the food industry?

I share this excerpt because the way these phony creams and concoctions are marketed impacts the way we see ourselves, the way we define our needs, and the way we view what is possible. If we think it’s possible, as a magical commercial tells us, to get the Fairy Godmother treatment overnight—with a wave of a wand, we look like 16 year olds again—then how does it impact the way we see our natural, healthy, realistic progression? Doesn’t it leave you feeling disappointed, the idea that actual permanent evolution doesn’t happen overnight?

What’s more, but doesn’t it only contribute to the idea that aging is undesirable, whereas an unattainable perspective of youth is the only desirable quality?

One of the pitfalls of deciding to change the way you think about yourself and your body, is that there are so many seemingly well-meaning messages that come from so many different avenues—commercials, beauty counter ladies, ads on the street—that impact the way you see what is possible for your body. On your quest to redefine how you see yourself, keep in mind that everything you see and hear is designed to sell you something, and it’s up to you whether or not you’re willing to pay the cost, both in your wallet and mentally.

Be sure to check out Caulfield’s book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? How the Famous Sell us Elixirs of Health, Beauty, and Happiness, available on Amazon now.

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