6 Meaningless Cosmetic Claims You Shouldn't Believe
Recommended Products Supported by Published Research
What Paula's Choice Customers Are Saying
Should I buy products labeled 'hypoallergenic' or 'non-comedogenic'? What does that mean, anyway? -Margaret
The Problem with Regulations
All over the world, for the most part, cosmetics regulations are nearly worthless. To take just one example, in Europe, cosmetics claims are supposed to be supported by studies. But, all that really happened in response to that regulation was the creation of a new type of business: research companies. These companies, often run by dermatologists or even by universities, offer their services to perform testing, testing that they design specifically to prove whatever claims the cosmetics company wants, all for a fee, of course. The testing most often does not lead to scientific published studies, and so the results don't prove a thing; they are often nothing more than deception. However, the regulators are satisfied that "studies" have been carried out and the cosmetics companies are happy because the "study" shows what they want, while the consumer remains unaware of what's really going on.
We could go on and on about this topic (it is complicated and far-reaching), so what we've done is highlight the issue by listing six of the most overused, meaningless cosmetics claims and explaining why they aren't reliable. Plus, we let you know what to look for instead, so you can be assured you're finding the best products for your skin!
They Think We're Desperate and Dumb, Let's Prove Them Wrong!
Chances are you've bought products partly on the basis of the following claims. We've all done it, because we want to believe that what's on the packaging is true. But, when you know the facts, you'll be less likely to end up disappointed—or waste your money!
Before you check out the list below, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when shopping for cosmetics products:
- Expensive doesn't mean better! Paula and her Paula's Choice Research Team have analyzed thousands of products over the past 30 years and we can state without hesitation that there are good and bad products in all price ranges. Spending more doesn't necessarily mean you're getting a better product and, in fact, way too often it means you're getting a bad product.
- Cosmetics salespeople aren't skin-care experts. Although most cosmetics salespeople are well meaning and are not deliberately lying to you, they are trained to sell products—period. They frequently don't understand much, if anything, about skin, and they definitely don't understand cosmetic formulation or what works and doesn't work for different skin types. Selling cosmetics is a great career, but, when you are making purchasing decisions, you must take whatever a cosmetics salesperson tells with a huge grain of salt.
- A single product is never the answer, nor is a single ingredient: We wish skin care were as easy as washing your skin and slapping on an antiwrinkle cream, but it isn't. Just like your body requires a diet of a complex assortment of beneficial foods to keep you healthy, your skin requires a similarly complex array of ingredients. In addition, different skin types require different products to meet different needs, such as oily, dry, or combination skin, skin that is characterized by rosacea, sun damage, brown spots, red marks, acne, or wrinkles, and so on. Find specifics about what to do for your skin type.
- Return a product that doesn't work: If you buy a product that doesn't live up to its claims, take it back for a refund! It's not your fault if a moisturizer didn't lift sagging skin as claimed or if an eye cream didn't eliminate dark circles or puffiness. If more women returned products whose claims didn't come true for them, perhaps the cosmetics industry would learn to promise more realistic results or would make products that really worked.
6 of the Most Common Cosmetics Claims Unveiled
Why it's meaningless: "Hypoallergenic" is meant to imply that a product is unlikely or less likely to cause allergic reactions and, therefore, is better for allergy-prone or sensitive skin types, but it isn't true. There are no accepted testing methods, ingredient restrictions, regulations, guidelines, rules, or procedures of any kind, anywhere in the world, for determining whether or not a product qualifies as being hypoallergenic.
We have reviewed hundreds of products labeled "hypoallergenic" or "good for sensitive skin" that contain seriously problematic ingredients that actually trigger allergic breakouts or sensitive skin reactions.
What to look for instead: If sensitive or allergy-prone skin is one of your concerns, then the No. 1 thing to look for is products that are free of irritants. The major irritants that show up in an astounding number of products, especially in products labeled organic or natural, are fragrance (both synthetic and natural fragrance are equally bad for all skin types), alcohol (isopropyl or SD alcohol), and strong cleansing agents. We know irritants are a major problem for all skin types, and that's why every Paula's Choice product is free of unnecessary skin irritants.
- Non-comedogenic or "Won't clog pores"
Why it's meaningless: You can't trust any product that makes claims of being non-comedogenic (or the less common "non-acnegenic") because there are no approved or regulated standards for these statements anywhere in the world. In other words, no matter what a product contains, a company can claim that it won't make you break out, even if it contains ingredients that are known to trigger breakouts. With no guidelines or standards in place, even the thickest, greasiest moisturizer around can claim it "won't clog pores."
And forget the claim "oil-free"! There are lots of ingredients that can make skin feel greasy that aren't listed as oils.
What to look for instead: Avoid products that have a thick, creamy consistency. For the most part, ingredients with a creamy texture are usually the ones that clog pores and make skin feel greasy. When shopping for almost any skin-care product or makeup foundation, the best option for those with oily skin or breakouts is to look for products that have a liquid, gel, serum, or thin lotion consistency. Products with thinner textures are less likely to clog pores or worsen breakouts. In fact, many women with oily skin and breakouts have great results using a well-formulated toner as their "moisturizer" during the day, followed by a light, matte-finish daytime moisturizer or liquid foundation with sunscreen. At night, a gel and serum can be perfect and present little to no risk of clogging pores.
Why it's meaningless: It seems almost every cosmetics company loves to tell you they have studies proving their claims. Yet, in the 30 years we've been doing our research, those "studies" most often are not available for review and/or are not published, which means the "study" is meaningless.
In the world of cosmetics there's an entire business built on claim substantiation. Essentially, a cosmetics company that wants to make specific claims for their product hires an outside company to devise a test that will "prove" the claims. It's that simple. So, whether the company wants to state their product makes skin 86% firmer or provides a 90% reduction in wrinkles or that 98% of all women who used it thought they looked younger, the study is designed and set up to support the desired claim.
So, be aware: Company comments that begin with "Our studies show…" are far more about marketing than efficacy—almost without exception, the details on how the study was done are not made public. We hear only about the results, so we're left to take the company's word for it.
What to look for instead: For the most part, just ignore the phrase "Our studies show…" and instead focus on what independently published research has to say about the key ingredients in products you're considering. This is especially important for anti-aging products because their claims, despite seemingly impressive statistics, quickly veer into fantasyland as newer versions with the same promises and new "studies" replace the previous ones. Our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary contains research-supported details on more than 1,600 ingredients, and every product we review on Beautypedia is based on what published research has shown about the product's ingredients and what they can—and cannot—do for your skin.
Why it's meaningless: The word "cosmeceutical" was dreamed up to describe cosmetics products that are supposed to have some level (proven or not) of special benefit over and above regular "cosmetics." A combination of the word "cosmetic" and "pharmaceutical" and you have cosmeceutical.
The fact is, "cosmeceutical" is merely a marketing term; it has no regulation or standards behind it so anyone can call their product cosmeceutical, regardless of what it contains. There are no cosmeceutical-grade ingredients anywhere in the world.
What to look for instead: Rather than buying a product based on whether or not it is a "cosmeceutical," look for products that have been highly rated by the Paula's Choice Research Team on Beautypedia. We assure you that all of the Best Products contain proven ingredients, backed by published research, that address a wide range of skin-care concerns, depending on their categories (anti-aging, cleanser, exfoliant, sunscreen, etc.).
- Dermatologist-approved or dermatologist-tested
Why it's meaningless: Here's another popular claim that sounds official and professional but that isn't supported by any agreed-on standards in the cosmetics or medical industries. "Dermatologist-approved" could mean something or it could mean nothing at all—more often than not, it means nothing. What you don't know is whether or not the dermatologist is on the payroll of the cosmetics company (many are, so they're expected to "approve" of products—when was the last time you saw a "dermatologist-rejected" product) or what standards he or she used to approve the product. For all we know, the dermatologist gave the formula a cursory glance, said it looked good, and that was it, or he or she designed a study to make sure the cosmetics company's claim was substantiated.
What to look for instead: Forget dermatologist endorsements—instead, focus on finding products that contain ingredients research has proven to be effective (and safe) for your skin. Typically, that means looking for broad-spectrum sunscreens, antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, well-formulated exfoliants, and products with cell-communicating ingredients. Regardless of whether or not a "dermatologist-approved" claim is made, these are the types of ingredients that truly make a difference in the health and appearance of your skin—and any dermatologist worth listening to should know this!
- "Specially formulated for mature skin"
Why it's meaningless: We see this claim all the time, almost always on products designed to fight signs of aging. The problem is that skin-care companies always define mature skin as occurring at some arbitrary age, usually over the age of 50, where the skin all of a sudden becomes dry.
In reality, age is not a skin type. Many women over age 50 (or younger) have different skin types. Their concerns (wrinkles, uneven skin tone, sagging) are fairly consistent, but women of all ages can struggle with oily skin, dry skin, breakouts, redness, sensitivity, and on and on. "Mature skin" isn't automatically dry skin, any more than acne-prone skin is only for teens. There are no special formulary standards that make products labeled "for mature skin" any better than products formulated for other skin types or concerns. More often than not, products designed for mature skin are just overly emollient moisturizers that do not provide a comprehensive approach to really fighting the signs of aging.
What to look for instead: It's all about the ingredients and following a consistent skin-care routine that addresses the needs of your skin type AND your skin concerns, regardless of your age. Our article How to Put Together a Skin-Care Routine is a great place to learn what your routine should include and why each step is beneficial when you're using beautifully formulated products.
Now You Know!
Seeing behind the curtain of misleading cosmetics advertising headlines is a necessity if you want to avoid the pitfalls or the likelihood of being seduced into buying something that won't live up to its claims. Brilliantly formulated cosmetics products can do a lot, and they're absolutely worth seeking out—but keeping your expectations realistic and being able to separate fact from fiction is essential to avoid wasting money and filling your bathroom drawers with products that didn't come close to working as claimed.
Sources for the information above: www.fda.gov; Clinics in Dermatology, November-December 2008, pages 627–632; Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, March 2006, pages 507–512; Clinical Experiments in Dermatology, May 2004, pages 325–327, and Ostomy and Wound Management, March 2003, pages 20–21.