Primal Numbers – Fairy Dust and Facials

Want to reduce your wrinkles and renew your cells? Get the shiniest, healthiest hair on the block? Countless skin care and cosmetics brands promise to do all that and more. They’ll regenerate, prime, micro-sculpt, brighten, and lift, all with the aid of anti-oxidants and other wondrous ingredients. Trouble is, there’s not much science to back those claims up?and lawmakers are starting to clamp down.

Humans have been trying to improve their appearance for eons, of course. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians made everything from hand cream to eyeliner, and even the staid Victorians used various pastes to smooth out their complexions. The products have always promised great results?like this 1920s Maybelline ad that vowed “instant loveliness” and a “radiant transformation.”

Today, consumers are more sophisticated when it comes to marketing, and cosmetics ads have turned to a sheen of science to convince us. Actors wear lab coats and glasses, and many commercials include animations of molecules and hair strands under microscopes.

But are those claims really backed up by science? No. At least not very many of them. As this Time article reports, “only 18% of all claims made in commercials for cosmetics are generally trustworthy,” including scientific ones.

One of the biggest issues is that so many products now claim to “trigger some metabolic function,” as the CBC notes. If that moisturizer or foundation says that it can affect you at a cellular level, it should be classified, and regulated, as a drug.

The problem of promoting cosmetics with fake scientific claims is so big that regulators are now stepping in. In the first half of 2015 alone, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent seven letters “warning cosmetic companies to stop making claims that cosmetics are biologically active.”

But why, you might wonder, would cosmetics companies deliberately mislead consumers with dubious science? The answer is no surprise when you look at the profits at stake. The global beauty business is worth some 382 billion dollars, and competition for sales and brand loyalty is fierce. If they can imply science-based results by using a model in a lab coat, you can bet that a lot of them are going to do it. Especially if the same thing is boosting sales for their competitors.

The funny thing, though, is that they don’t really have to. Because the real science behind the cosmetics industry is amazing enough on its own. Cosmetic chemistry is a legitimate scientific field, with researchers holding degrees like biology, microbiology, and even physics.

They’ve made breakthroughs like safe foundations and concealers, developed to replace things like lead, arsenic, and mercury. They’ve tested and formulated shampoos and conditioners for dandruff or for babies’ delicate skin. Then there are the efforts of cosmetic chemists to find alternatives to animal testing, all while creating better and safer products for human use.

But cell growth, rejuvenation, and wrinkle repair? Not unless that face cream is classified and sold as a drug.

So next time you’re tempted by that shampoo commercial with the lab coats and microscopes, remember that beauty products really are only skin deep.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.