Cosmetics marketing focuses on 'fairy dust' ingredients that change nothing

If cosmetics could trigger metabolic changes that turn back time, they'd be drugs. In reality, cosmetics offer only superficial cleaning and conditioning.

FDA sends warning letters to cosmetic companies making drug claims

Makeup myths

8 years ago
Duration 2:10
The science behind cosmetics...

It's the dazzle of science, bottled up in the service of beauty. And the claims are tempting.

Cosmetics offer "cell renewal," "energy infusion," "elastin stimulating peptides," ingredients that are "clinically proven to change the anatomy of a wrinkle", anti-inflammatory agents that "inhibit enzymes" and "cellular breakdown,"  "age repairing anti-oxidants" that increase "cell growth."

Problem is, if the products did any of that, they'd be drugs.

Illegal drugs?

Anything that triggers metabolic or cellular activity, modifying cellular structure or affecting body function is considered to be a drug by both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and cannot be offered for sale without meeting strict regulatory requirements under the law.

"You could look at it this way, either these cosmetics don't work the way they say they do, or if they do work, then they're illegal drugs," said Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist on a mission to debunk the marketing claims about cosmetics. 

The blunt truth is that, despite their glamour, the list of things cosmetics can do is short, superficial and pedestrian.

Hair is dead and it's amazing the number of claims they can come out with to convince you to get healthy hair.- Perry Romanowsk, cosmetic chemist

Skin creams, moisturizers, soaps, shampoos and conditioners can remove dirt and debris from the surface of skin and hair. They can coat the surface with something to make it feel slippery, or soft, or moist. And they can add colour and fragrance. And they do that using a list of functional ingredients that have been around for decades.

"Hair is dead and it's amazing the number of claims they can come out with to convince you to get healthy hair," Romanowksi said.

He says most of the products are just variations on the same theme, built from a catalogue of functional ingredients, including petrolatum, found in petroleum jelly, mineral oil, glycerine and detergents.

But because those functional ingredients can be sticky, with unappealing colour and odour, formulators add aesthetic ingredients that improve the feel, fragrance and colour, along with stabilizers and preservatives to ensure the shelf life.

'Fairy dust' ingredients

But the most important ingredient is the "fairy dust," a small drop of something science-y or natural, that has a negligible effect on the way the product works, but gives the marketers something to sell, Romanowksi said.

"You just put in a small drop in your formula, but then that becomes really most of the marketing story," said Romanowski.

"It's really frustrating for a scientist to put a lot of hard work and testing into a product, and to know if you just change the fragrance or add a drop of the 'fairy dust' that product is going to sell better than the product you worked really hard on. But that's the reality of the cosmetic market."

It's all baloney. There really isn't that much science behind a lot of the products that are being sold.- Prof. Timothy Caulfield, University of Alberta

And increasingly those "fairy dust" ingredients have an aura of science, claiming to trigger some metabolic function.

"They are trying to use the scientific sounding terminology to make it sound like there is this in-depth science behind it and often in the ads they will have people wearing white coats and a lot [of] DNA-looking-like visuals but it's all baloney. There really isn't that much science behind a lot of the products that are being sold," said Timothy Caulfield, University of Alberta health law ethics professor and author, who has researched cosmetic claims.

"If a product claims to have stem cells you should be immediately skeptical," Caulfield says. "The chance of it actually having an active stem cell in it is virtually zero."

The FDA has issued seven warning letters so far this year, warning cosmetic companies to stop making claims that cosmetics are biologically active, which would make them drugs, under the law.

"Is there any product that you can buy in the store that is going to have a dramatic impact? I think the answer is no," Caulfield said

Secret from the cosmetic chemist

One final secret from the cosmetic chemist: Romanowksi says price does not reflect quality.

"It's a reality in the cosmetic industry that price and the functionality of the product are really not tied together at all. The price is really reflective of the brand story, the packaging, the size of the company, the distribution. It has almost nothing to do with the cost that it takes to create the formula that goes in the bottle ."

Ask Caulfield. For his latest book about the clash between science and celebrity, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? he spent a year testing over-the-counter skin products.

"I learned that it is time-consuming, it's expensive and it has almost no impact on your skin — in fact for me it had zero impact."

After researching the book, Caulfield's advice is simple.

To look young, he simply suggests people stay out of the sun, wear sunscreen, don't smoke, get a good night's sleep and exercise. "That's more important than trying to reduce the wrinkles that you have."