There used to be (and may still be) a great feature in the science-based humor magazine Journal of Irreproducible Results (later the Annals of Improbable Research) called “Elegant Results,” written by Alice Shirell Kaswell (possibly a pseudonym, since each issue’s mug shot featured a different person under the same mousy blonde wig). The writer scoured beauty and fashion magazines such as Elle or Cosmopolitan for ads or stories about various beauty products and summarized them as if they were scientific papers from peer-reviewed journals.
Does anyone do something like this for real? To the best of my knowledge, there is no regularly appearing resource that examines claims made about makeup and health products with a skeptical eye. Consumer Reports has run occasional articles about specific products, and many news sources have “this vs. that” product comparisons. But I don’t see the kind of regular analysis that’s given to Scientologists, antivaxers, creationism, or cryptozoology in the skeptical press.
This is a shame. I took an informal, unscientific poll of my Facebook friends, and found that a broad majority of them learned how to buy and use makeup and a skin care regime from relatives or friends, or mass media, when they were adolescents. If my Facebook friends are reflective of the population at large (and full disclosure, I have no reason to think they are), those aren’t learning conditions that foster a critical approach to the material. “Old wives tales” got their name for a reason.
The cosmetics industry is a $170 billion a year business, and there are uncountable numbers of magazines, television shows, radio ads, and billboards telling us about magical chemicals that can make us all younger, fitter, better-looking, and have glowier skin.
How true are all these claims? I’m not a chemist or biologist; I have no idea. I see ads on television telling me what various shampoos and conditioners can do for my hair. Do I need collagen and vitamins in my hair? My understanding is that hair is already dead tissue once it erupts from my scalp, so I don’t see how it could benefit from collagen and vitamins, even if they were absorbed into the hair fibers themselves. Is that what happens? I doubt it. I take a shower every day. Everything I use on my head is on the other side of the drain by the time I’m done.
The same goes for most solutions we rub on our skin. Allegedly some formulations, like Tretinoin (Retin-A), really have been shown to rejuvenate the skin…but in what concentrations? And does it work on anyone’s skin, or just certain people’s? Does it have to be a prescription strength? Are “retinols” just as good? Are “retinoids”? I’d have to speak to a dermatologist to get answers to this sort of question. There is no commonsense way to evaluate claims like these.
It almost makes it worse to know there’s a product out there that actually works, because it means I can’t just dismiss all of them out of hand.
The federal Food and Drug Administration regulates makeup and health products. These are the details of its oversight responsibilities. As long as no specific therapeutic claims are made, the FDA doesn’t go beyond making sure products are safe. They may or may not work, but used as directed, they won’t kill you.
I realize I’m using the word “products” in this post far more than I should for good style. My thesaurus has let me down.
There is some critical response to the billions each year spent on “beauty” advertising. Probably the best-known skeptical investigator into beauty and makeup claims is Paula Begoun, who calls herself the “Cosmetics Cop.” Her website has a published methodology and standards, which can be found here. She’s pretty good, but she has also gone into business selling her own products, which I have to think puts a cap on any claim she may make to full objectivity.
Besides Begoun’s site, I’ve found just one active blog devoted to this subject:
And Skeptical Inquirer has published only one article along these lines.
Someone should step into this void, and fill it with light. Except, not fluorescent light; my skin doesn’t look good under it.