How Cosmetic Advertising Misleads


The huge number of things we are told about skin care and other beauty concerns is nothing less than astounding. That's why, when you begin thinking in terms of reality, facts, and balanced information, it is important to ignore the baseless, unfounded claims that are constantly bandied about in the guise of serious information. You may have run into the following terms and sales pitches for myriad skin-care and makeup products. These come-ons entice purchasers, even though they are vague or illogical.

Ah, if only it were true. Thousands of skin-care products make promises about removing wrinkles or preventing the skin from aging. They contain a hodgepodge of ingredients and formulations. There is no consistent pattern among any of them. Yet they all claim to stop aging, and still no one stops getting wrinkles or sheds a wrinkle. There are great products that can make skin look better, but none of us have lost a wrinkle from any of the skin-care products we purchased.

"Soothing botanicals"
Botanicals is simply another name for plants, such as herbs and flowers, or plant extracts in the form of oils or juices. Is any of that soothing? There are definitely some soothing botanicals, such as green tea, kola extract, willowherb, bisabolol, licorice root (glycyrrhetinic acid), and burdock root to name a few. But there are also a great many natural ingredients, from lemons to strawberries, lavender oil, and jojoba, that can be problematic for lots of skin types, either as irritants or because they can clog pores. I can't tell you the number of products I've found that make claims about being good for sensitive skin, even though they contain a host of these irritating ingredients.

"Superficial lines"
Watch out for the word "superficial"; it is a powerful tool when used in cosmetics advertising. "Superficial lines" really refer to the temporary, transient lines caused by dryness, not sun damage (sun-damaged wrinkles are hardly superficial). Most products could make elaborate claims about smoothing superficial wrinkles and they would not be lying to you. Superficial wrinkles go away when you put on any moisturizer, and that is wonderful. But—and I repeat, but—superficial wrinkles are not the ones you are worried about. Permanent wrinkles, like laugh lines, furrows between the eyes and on the forehead, and expression lines, are not eliminated by a moisturizer unless it contains irritants that temporarily swell the skin. The word “superficial” is misleading because it doesn't really refer to the lines and wrinkles women are most concerned about.

"Just for your ultra-delicate eye area"
The advertiser may want you to use the eye cream only around your eyes, which means you have to buy a face lotion separately, yet the ingredients of these products are rarely different enough to warrant the extra expense and rarely have any special formulary function specific to the eye area. There is no reason an eye cream can't be used on the face or the face lotion can't be used around the eyes. The only time a special eye cream would be necessary is when the skin around the eyes is different from the skin on the rest of the face, which may require a more or less emollient moisturizer, but that's a different issue from the need for an eye cream.

"Visible lift with proven results"
The study mentioned in this ad doesn't say what the improvement was based on. A comparison to another product? To one side of the face that was stripped bare with alcohol? It also doesn't comment on who made the assessment about the improvement. If it was the company's own appraisal, they clearly had reason to notice that the skin looked better. Claims like these are meaningless, but sound great.

"Nighttime repair"
The suggestion here is that somehow a cream can help increase cell reproduction and undo skin damage. You can do some impressive things with a moisturizer and create smoother, healthier-looking skin, but it is all temporary. Stop using it and things will go back to the way they were. If you could change the way cells reproduce, no one would have wrinkles or sun damage, and no one would get skin cancer.

"So advanced, it's patented"
Patent law just means that the company was able to show a formula or ingredient was in some way unique. It can also establish that an existing ingredient or formula has a unique use. None of that has anything to do with efficacy. A company could patent a terrible formula or a good formula; an erroneous or verifiable claim; as long as it's unique—that's all a patent means. The patent is simply about who can use or sell the formula or ingredient, or who can make a specific public claim about the use of a formula or ingredient. Most major cosmetics companies own thousands of patents, but that doesn't tell you anything about how advanced or mediocre those patents are.

"Penetrates deeply into the layers of the skin"
"Penetrates" is another very impressive, though imprecise, word. Almost any cosmetic ingredient, if its molecules are small enough, will penetrate the skin, but the molecules of many cosmetic ingredients are too large to penetrate the skin. When cosmetic ingredients are able to penetrate the skin, the word "layers" is frequently added to confound you. Layers of skin are so microscopically small they are negligible. A cream can penetrate many layers of skin and still not have traveled anywhere.

"Deep cleansing"
This term has always baffled me. How deep is deep? Sounds like a dentist cleaning out a cavity in your teeth. I can vividly hear the sound of a drill trying to get into your pores! If a product could clean deeply—I mean really deeply—you would be bleeding, but no one would ever have blackheads because you would eliminate them through "deep cleansing." In this case, "deep cleansing" probably means "thorough cleansing"; well, that's fine. But cosmetics companies encourage the belief that deep-cleansing products can get into a pore and eject a blackhead. There are ways to dissolve the stuff that is inside a blackhead, but "deep cleansing" won't do it.

Paula Begoun