A recent settlement in the United States prohibits the manufacturer of Nivea skin cream from claiming one of its products can significantly reduce body size, but the cream continues to be sold using similar claims in Canada.
On June 29, the Federal Trade Commission announced it had reached a settlement with skin care company Beiersdorf Inc. The agreement required the company to stop claiming its Nivea My Silhouette! Slimming and Reshaping Gel Cream can help consumers slim down, and to pay $900,000 in compensation to consumers.
In a statement to CBC News, Beiersdorf spokesperson Leslie Kickham said the company is not advertising the My Silhouette! product in Canada.
However, the company’s Canadian website continues to state the product "slims down fat cells and prevents them from growing back," and "leads to a reduction of up to 3 cm on targeted body parts such as thighs, hips, waist and belly."
'I would love for a cream to melt my fat away, but I know it's not going to happen.'—Dermatologist Dr. Victoria Taraska
According to a dermatologist, it’s not possible for a cream or gel to make you lose weight, redefine your body shape or get rid of cellulite.
"Consumers should be wary, but unfortunately there’s a lot of false claims out there and [consumers] want to be trusting, they want to believe these things," said Winnipeg-based dermatologist Dr. Victoria Taraska.
"I would love for a cream to melt my fat away, but I know it's not going to happen at this time."
In a German study, the company used a body scanner to look at 28 women who used the product twice a day.
According to Taraska, that’s not good enough.
"What you want to see is a randomized controlled trial where you have 100 or 1,000 people using [the product] and 100 or 1,000 [people] on a placebo and you have to show benefit over that placebo. Unfortunately we didn't have that with [My] Silhouette!"
Advertisers don’t generally set out to mislead the public, said the creative director for one advertising agency.
"We're consumers too. So we agree with protecting consumers.… We don't want to tell lies. That's not the way we approach advertising anymore," said Audra Lesosky, creative director of McKim Cringan George in Winnipeg.
Consumers should be critical
Once U.S. authorities stepped in, the campaign should have been changed or discontinued in all markets, said Lesosky.
She also said consumers should be critical of messages offering easy solutions.
"Everyone aspires to something. People want to believe, and so that's what you're selling, you're selling that belief in something, and if it's easy, that's the hook."
Beiersdorf USA sent a statement to CBC News saying it "does not believe that any consumer was misled by the challenged advertising practices."
According to a U.S. spokesperson, the product was discontinued in the United States at the start of 2011. CBC News was able to purchase the product last week at Shoppers Drug Mart in Canada.
Health Canada said it is unsure whether the product should be classified as a cosmetic or as a health product. It has yet to take any action.
Regardless, complaints about cosmetic or health product advertising can be filed with Advertising Standards Canada.
The Competition Bureau, which promotes truth in advertising, cannot say whether it is investigating the product or has received any complaints.
Looking for a quick fix to lose weight? According to Taraska, unless you’re willing to go under the knife, there isn’t one.
"If you want to lose weight and you want to reshape your body, you have to do it the old-fashioned way — diet and exercise."