With so many beauty products on the market, most of us probably assume they were rigorously tested before appearing on the shelves of our local drugstore. Who hasn’t read 99% effective and assumed the product was perfectly safe with proven results?
While some beauty products certainly deliver everything they claim and more, experts say you may not always want to put your faith in so-called unbiased clinical trials that use real women to sample a product and provide feedback about its efficacy. “Sometimes the studies brands provide are done by outside companies and done well,” says one source, who asked to remain anonymous and is the founder of an indie skincare company. “But generally, even with the third-party, the beauty clinical trials are done with incredibly small sample sizes (think 6-10 testers) that are not statistically significant.”
And then there’s the question of just how much science was involved in the clinical trial, something you expect if the product in question promises fewer wrinkles or less hyperpigmentation.”Skincare research is often a disappointment,” says Dr. Ben Johnson, owner of Osmosis Skincare. “This is true primarily because the government considers such studies too trivial to spend money on (versus cancer, diabetes, etc.) and therefore the money must be spent by the skincare companies themselves. Therein lies problem number two: very few products actually achieve real results and so there is not a lot of drive to spend a lot of money on objective tests that prove how well these products really work.”
The “default strategy,” Johnson explains, is to perform consumer feedback studies, something he says are not independent 99% of the time and/or simply consist of questionnaires. “While knowing that ‘97% of participants saw an improvement’ implies a 97% improvement in a skin condition, it is important to remember that most likely the improvement was mild or they would discuss how much improvement was actually seen,” Johnson says. “So the 97% number ends up being pretty meaningless. In addition, many results discuss improvements in moisture or luminosity, which are not really the targets for serious skincare junkies. It is time we looked at measured changes using third party research labs and objective equipment. Those studies come along very rarely.”
If you want to know what a clinical trial is really like, just ask “Pearson,” a woman who was one of 70 in a skincare study, but asked to keep her identity and the identity of the company anonymous. Pearson says she was given the product and agreed to four photo shoots for a total of $400 compensation ($100 per session). After being told she had the best results of all the participants, she was asked to shoot an additional video for an infomercial for $150 compensation.
And then things became slightly questionable. She describes the sessions as “grueling,” and says great pains were taken to ensure lighting, backgrounds, angles and distance were equal while photographing the women during various stages of using the product. “I saw slight changes, but not too dramatic, but the producers thought the results were amazing,” Pearson says. “They showed me photos that did show a difference, though the after photos looked a little lighter, which seemed odd since they had really seemed to make sure all elements were equal.”
Pearson admits her comments about the product on-camera weren’t always her own either. “When I did the infomercial, the producer basically fed me lines, which I didn’t appreciate, but I wanted them to get their good infomercial and I would have felt guilty not to go along with it,” she says. “He’d say things like, ‘Tell me how you were disappointed in other products that didn’t perform as promised.’ I had never told him about any previous experiences with other products. He also said things like, ‘Use the word wrinkles, not lines, and keep saying your age.’ When I remarked that my wrinkles looked ‘airbrushed away,’ he told me to not say that because people would think they were indeed Photoshopped, so he said, use, ‘erased.'”
None of this is to say that the companies you love are being dishonest with their clinical study claims, but it would be in everyone’s favor if more funding was provided to perform real scientific research on products, particularly those that claim they can improve skin conditions. The most reliable indicator of a product’s effectiveness may really be impartial online reviews–just another reason to love Makeup Alley.
For more beauty news and tips check out the shocking truth about the medical risk you take every time you use a new beauty product and everything you need to know about the EOS lawsuit.