When you read the claims on beauty products…
“Restores youthful complexion…”
“Reduces fine lines and wrinkles…”
“Visible results in just one week…”
You assume they must be true.
After all, false advertising isn’t allowed … is it?
When it comes to cosmetics, anything goes. That’s because the FDA is mostly concerned about product safety, not patrolling beauty ads.
So a team of researchers stepped in and put cosmetics ads to the test.
They took just under 300 beauty ads from popular magazines (including Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire and Glamour) and analyzed their claims. Was this promise an outright lie? Was important information being omitted? Was the claim too vague? Or was it perfectly acceptable?
Only 18% of beauty ad promises held any weight.
Boasts and exaggeration abounded. Claims to superiority (“award-winning” or “best”) were mostly outright lies. Scientific claims (“clinically proven” or “dermatologist approved”) were too vague or omitted important information. Only product endorsements (by celebrities, for example) had the ring of truth.
Which means that most of the beauty ads you see are hogwash.
Naomi Wolf wouldn’t be surprised.
In her bestselling 1990 book The Beauty Myth, she noted that women’s magazines are allowed to raise important issues and promote feminist positions as long as they cater to their advertisers:
Beauty and fashion companies.
Which is why you’ll find plenty of criticism in a magazine’s pages … just not in its beauty or fashion sections.
Now I love women’s magazines. Always have. But I’d like to know which products NOT to purchase, as much as I’d like to know which products really work.
Instead, beauty pages are dominated by new products just off the shelves or products so high-priced there’s no chance they’ll ever land in my lap. (La Mer, anyone?)
And “reviews” of new products sound suspiciously like press releases, typed up while reading the label.
I’d love to read a review that said, just once:
“This mascara made my eyelashes clumpy.”
“I broke out after trying this moisturizer.”
“This shade of blue makes me look like a freak.”
For that, I guess, there’s always the internet.
Internet reviews are more honest. They’re funnier. And in many cases no one is paying reviewers for their opinion.
Review sites like TotalBeauty.com don’t shy away from giving you lists of, say, the absolute worst anti-aging skincare products.
Temptalia.com not only gives you unbiased reviews of beauty products, but also shows you where you can buy a product that does the same thing at a cheaper price. That’s useful, if you’ve ever struggled with getting your perfect lipstick shade in another brand. Temptalia shows you photographs of similar lipsticks side by side, so you know exactly how the shades match up.
But user reviews aren’t exactly the same as scientific evidence.
In this day and age, we want to see the science. Does a beauty cream really reduce wrinkles? Does that active ingredient really work better than something more run-of-the-mill?
Unfortunately, someone has to fund those studies, and they’re expensive. The only products to undergo this kind of rigorous testing are those available only with a doctor’s prescription.
Instead, cosmetics companies rely on user reviews. They send free samples to a small number of women. The women fill in a survey, reporting on how they feel the product worked for them. If the results are good, they go into the marketing copy.
Not exactly trust-inspiring.
But change is afoot.
In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) went after L’Oréal for claiming its Lancôme Génifique products—advertised by such glowing stars as Lupita Nyong’o and Kate Winslet—were “clinically proven” to “boost genes’ activity and stimulate the production of youth proteins” that would cause “visibly younger skin in just 7 days.”
Either substantiate those claims, L’Oréal was told, or stop making them.
L’Oréal chose to stop making them.
But don’t expect cosmetics marketing to change any time soon. The FTC and FDA let most cosmetic claims slide, because they don’t believe any reasonable person would take those claims seriously.
What does all this mean for the way you buy cosmetics?
Pay no attention to the marketing hype.
Even when it’s in the beauty section of your favorite women’s magazine.
Instead, go online and find as many user reviews as you can. Check Amazon as well as beauty review sites.
And leave your reviews, too.
The more we women support each other in obtaining a truer picture of the products we’re sold, the more we’ll reward the products that truly deserve it … and let the rest languish where they deserve: on the shelves.