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Pseudo science can't cover up the ugly truth

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Published Date: 20 December 2007
THEY are beauty products endorsed by some of the world's most glamorous women that appear to promise the impossible. But a study has lambasted some of the cosmetic industry's leading brands for employing "pseudo-science" to lure shoppers into purchasing their "cosmeceuticals", goods that appear to have drug-like benefits.
Which?, the consumer watchdog magazine, has criticised several skincare companies for making claims that are confusing and incomprehensible – even to trained scientists with a PhD in genetics.

One science-based charity yesterday told The Scotsman
that major firms such as L'Oréal, whose adverts are fronted by Penélope Cruz, and Garnier – advertised by Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker – were wilfully using "scientific bamboozlement" to try to sell their skincare ranges.

Which? wanted to check out popular product adverts that promise to, among other things, "refuel surface skin cells" and give skin "a dewy glow", and asked firms to provide scientific rationale to back their claims.

The magazine questioned the maunfacturers of Garnier Nutritionist Omega Skin, Olay Regenerist and L'Oréal Derma Genesis, which make much of the fact they contain ingredients the average consumer knows little about.

A spokesman for Which? explained: "Pentapeptides, hyaluronic acid and omega 3 may sound impressive, but scratch beneath the surface of the glossy cosmetic adverts and the claims of some companies don't make a whole lot of sense."

In its attempts to see whether the public could get a better explanation of these claims, Which? even contacted customer-services departments at companies such as Garnier and L'Oréal. Posing as a consumer, a researcher asked how ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and pentapeptides actually worked on the skin.

Then Which? showed the results of its research to Sense About Science, a charity that promotes good science, to see what it thought of the information it had received. The charity said it thought that staff were often fobbing off customers with pseudo-science that either exaggerated claims or made no sense whatsoever.

After reading Which's transcripts, the scientists were no wiser about how pentapeptides, lipopeptides or omega 3 managed to "help with the signs of ageing" or "improve the appearance of your skin". One psychologist, who did not wish to be named, said such terms were manna to marketing experts, explaining: "The average consumer takes these phrases as gospel. They don't question the claims; they don't even understand them. But then, part of them doesn't want to understand. They trust big brands. It may be seen by some as underhand, but it's part of our consumer culture: the shops and the manufacturers know best."

Dr Aarathi Prasad, a spokeswoman for Sense About Science, said such an approach was grossly flawed. She said: "It is insulting to people's intelligence to expect customers to accept these explanations. They are taking the real science out of context so it becomes bad science.

"It's hard to gauge just how misleading the adverts are, but the problem is they don't present a full and frank explanation of the chemicals and how they work. For example, some face-cream products claim to stimulate the skin and they do, but only when used to treat people with arthritis.

"Some other products use nanogold, tiny particles which react with the skin to energise it. But the only way nanogold can become reactive is with radiotherapy treatment in cancer therapy; it doesn't work if it's just in a pot of cream."

Of those three brands singled out in the study, none stood up to firm scrutiny. A Which? researcher attempted to glean further information from L'Oréal's customer-services department regarding the precise chemical process involved in its Derma Genesis products, a range endorsed by Ms Cruz, the Oscar-nominated Spanish actress. Viewers have seen Ms Cruz boast that L'Oréal is the only cosmetics company to use "hyaluronic acid", a factor that leaves her skin, apparently, "plumped-up" and "tautened".

However, when Which? inquired how this was the case, the customer adviser was unable even to pronounce hyaluronic acid, let alone expound its scientific merits. It was, Dr Prasad concluded, "marketing speak that appears to be cloaked in science".

L'Oréal has previously fallen foul of advertising rules when marketing its goods. Earlier this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ordered L'Oréal to remove television and press adverts for its telescopic mascara, after it transpired that Ms Cruz had been wearing a few individual false lashes to fill in gaps in her natural lashes.

The second product examined by the magazine, Garnier Nutritionist Omega Skin, is advertised by Ms Parker relaying how it helps to "refuel surface skin cells". Again, when Which? called the company's customer-advice line, no-one was able to explain how.

The adverts were further singled out for their use of words like "feel" or "appear", rather than presenting definitive facts. "It's a sign that there's no empirical measure of how good these products are, or how robust the claims that are made," said Dr Prasad.

The third cosmetics product, Olay Regenerist, also used confusing terminology. Fronted by Nadine Baggott, the health and beauty editor of Hello! magazine, the television advertisements for the cream are routinely mocked for their reliance on complex scientific terms.

Chief among them is Ms Baggott's assertion that the Olay product, which purportedly helps anti-ageing, benefits from the inclusion of pentapeptides as an ingredient. Again, Which? found Olay was unable to give a detailed answer as to how the pentapeptides work.

Dr Prasad said the customer-service teams at firms such as Olay were not to blame. Instead, she said, their marketing departments ought to be held accountable. She said: "They use these fancy words that give the product that extra 'oomph'. It's never going to go away as long as there's real scientific innovation, which is something we should all encourage and appreciate. The problem is when marketing departments get involved and the science gets twisted or deliberately obscured."

While some consumers may find such claims grossly misrepresentative, they do not flout the regulations of the ASA and do not require the same testing for efficacy and quality control as is required for medicines.

Nevertheless, Dr Prasad, who has a PhD in genetics, added that numerous adverts do not allow shoppers to make conscious decisions. "You can't regulate everything, but this form of claptrap science always slips through," she said. "It's only scientists in our field who have the education and critical eye to pick up on it. The reality is, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."


THE cosmetics industry is not alone in being criticised for a reliance on pseudo-science in its marketing campaigns.

Sense About Science, the independent science charity, has also drawn attention to a range of goods, from sandwiches to spa accessories, which promote unfounded claims.

For instance, Pret a Manger, the sandwich-and-coffee-shop chain, claims that it eschews compounds such as sodium benzoate and minimises the use of food additives tagged as E numbers in its products.

However, sodium benzoate occurs naturally in apples and cranberries, and Sense About Science says the company uses E250, or sodium nitrite, and E500, an ingredient of baking powder.

In its promotional literature, meanwhile, food giant Nestlé has said its Ski Activ8 yoghurt, "combined with a healthy diet, lifestyle and exercise… can help recharge our batteries".

However, the yoghurt's "unique blend of eight B vitamins and minerals" would do nothing to improve energy levels, but would simply be excreted, says Sense About Science.

The full article contains 1264 words and appears in The Scotsman newspaper.
Page 1 of 1

  • Last Updated: 19 December 2007 9:45 PM
  • Source: The Scotsman
  • Location: Edinburgh


Canada 20/12/2007 01:04:15
You're supposed to rub it on your skin???
I've been using these products in a suppository.
Seems to work though.


20/12/2007 01:05:39
It is a shame that the ASA isn't able to comment on the claims made about the supposed dangers of Second Hand Smoke made by ASH and the Government.


Tassy 20/12/2007 06:35:49
Come on, the latest fad for women to smear over their faces was I believe vitamin A. It was proved that over a matter of months a liberal application of this cream removed some of the wrinkles from eighty year olds. If you believe that the expensive creams you buy your wife, or even the clothes are for your benefit, you must be under sixty. The funny thing is that if you love your wife, she never ages. Try and tell a woman that.


Federation, not separation 20/12/2007 08:25:56
There are no products that improve a healthy skin. Most bums are wrinkle free (so I'm told!) which suggests that faces suffer from weathering so I suppose gunge that protects against weathering might have room on the dressing table. Basically a clean face and fresh air, exercise and good food is all that most of us need. What's wrong with looking one's age anyway?

Xena - Warrior Princess,

20/12/2007 08:45:44
I find E45 very good and I believe that the cream for piles works wonders under your eyes for a short lived effect, I have never tried it (yet).


stonehaven 20/12/2007 08:54:12
Headline "Pseudo science can't cover up the ugly truth"

Global Warming?????


glasgow 20/12/2007 09:13:10
I boaght the wife vanishing cream, but it didnae work.


Embru 20/12/2007 09:45:20
3# second hand smoke = toxic, harmful,irritant, noxious, carcinorgenic, offensive, etc, etc, etc; hardly relevant to the junk science being discussed in this article

Boy Wonder,

20/12/2007 10:19:12
In fact ... it's fraud on a massive scale ... and they should be reported to the police. People should not be afraid to sue these snake-oil merchants!

In the Old West, they used to run these con-men out of town. Since we can't do that, just don't buy their lying, cheating products, and litigate them out of existence!


EDINBURGH 20/12/2007 11:11:06
#4 "The funny thing is that if you love your wife, she never ages". One of the most lovely things I have ever read. :)


20/12/2007 12:16:54
#10 Andrah. You've just proved what I was saying, you believe all the junk science about SHS.

Alex Salmond, C U Next Tuesday,

20/12/2007 15:30:11
13, Exocet

The main problem with second hand smoke is that it makes my clothes smell like cigarettes - go smoke outside!


Another Planet 20/12/2007 16:09:33
Smokers, I will tolerate your smoke if i can p1ss in your beer.


Liverpool 20/12/2007 19:47:42
What?! You mean none of it's true? Oh, I am SO shocked ...

Actually, I've heard alcohol is best for improving skin. Get youself totally smashed ane even the ugliest of people look great.


surrey 04/01/2008 04:22:18
"The adverts were further singled out for their use of words like "feel" or "appear", rather than presenting definitive facts. "It's a sign that there's no empirical measure of how good these products are, or how robust the claims that are made," said Dr Prasad."

Now can i complain about YOUR ill-informed Dr Prassad who professes to be an expert. Well perhaps he should research the industry he is critiquing. Cosmetics companies have no choice but to use terms like "appears" or "feels" because they are selling cosmetics. It is so annoying that people just dont understand.

OK - think of orange juice. It contains vitamin c an antioxidant. Therefore it should provide protection against free radical damage. You could quote all sorts of clinical papers showing a link between vitamin c ingestion and anti-cancer properties. But as a cosmetic, could you with the same evidense make the same claims? NO. YOu cannot make the claims the evidense screams. Simply because drug companies have shut down cosmetic companies and the ASA is their weapon. If drug companies could ban food claims they would but unfortunately food has been around a bit too long. People like Dr. Prasad do NOT understand. The problem is the products work but they are forced to use these terms. Then the companies are lambasted for using these words. They cannot even defend this position because they cannot go on record saying their products are actually medicines (which 99% of premium cosmetic skin creams are). Imagine how frustrating it is for us in the business. Especially when we have amazing new discoveries that we cannot launch without using ridiculous adjectives. Do you think anyone wants to sell their technology via the Nadine Baggott route - really the development of cosmetic pepetides is amazing. What i suggest any researcher reading this should do is search the medical paper databases and patent databases for keywords such as vitamin a and anti ageing or pentapeptides or aha etc. You will see th


04/01/2008 04:22:40
Noone in the press gets it. OK - I am in the industry. Most of the products do actually have benefits in line with the claims made. Yes they are exagerated but that is just down to huge amount of competition.

What is CRUCIAL here is that the ASA do not allow the cosmetics companies to advertise that for example alcohol makes you drunk because that would be a medical claim. Therefore they have to say, it gives you a dewy glow. But when you look at the ingredients, you can see it is full of ethanol. The reason that the customer service lines do not say the pentapeptides actually generate collagen production is because this is a medical claim and therefore they have to stick with dewy glow or plumping restructuring. They dont want to use these terms but it is the only thing they can say. What woudl the customers prefer? That cosmetic companies stop research. You all have no idea of the huge sums spent on research. There is no way for the industry to fight back because in order to justify their products efficacy they have to admit that the products work like medicines (ie they change physiology) which means they could not be sold.

If you the public knew how draconian the ASA are with regard to cosmetic advertising you would not be picking you fight with cosmetic companies. Which? are just like Watchdog - self-rightous know it alls. According to the ASA, you cannot advertise that bleach would lighten the skin. Regardless of whether this is good for you or not, the fact is, you cannot advertise this. The reason is not because it is not true, or becuase the ingredients are not cosmetic (they are and comply) but because the claim is medical (changes the skin physiology). So you can still sell the product but have to come up with some other term like skin brightener. Notice that noone complains the products do not work. They only complain about the adverts. Normally it is drug companies that complain anonymously.


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