If you watch a television ad for a skincare product, read product packaging while shopping, or visit a beauty brand's social media page, you will notice lots of language selling you on product benefits. This information can range from one word like "non-comedogenic" (won’t clog pores) to detailed data like "98% of users said they noticed smoother skin after two weeks." Today, I'd like to dig into this language a bit, referred to in the industry as "claims." Who decides what claims to make about a product? Are they real or exaggerated? Are brands held accountable for the accuracy of this information?
In general, claims come from clinical testing. During the new product development process, testing of the finalized formula is an important step. At a minimum, safety testing is performed to confirm the product is safe for human use. To determine what additional testing is needed, marketing works together with research and development to establish a claims wish list. This is product-dependent, timeline-dependent, and also influenced by the regulatory classification of the product. For over-the-counter drugs, some claims come from the FDA monograph. For others, testing is required, especially when quantitative claims are desired.
Consumer testing is performed to support claims about the effectiveness of the product at its intended result such as improving the hydration of the skin, reducing wrinkles, or altering the appearance of dark spots. A variety of test methods exist to quantitatively measure these skin attributes in the clinical lab. A panel of consumers is recruited to test the formula for several weeks. The panel visits the clinical lab regularly for data collection including skin measurements and questionnaires on their perception of the product's impact on their skin. Scientists in the lab collect data, document results, and compile formal reports to support future claims. This process is expensive and time-consuming, so it is not done for all products.
How do claims make it from a wish list to an ad, package, or product detail page? The results of the clinical tests are reviewed. Some are relatively straightforward with a pass/fail result, others are more complicated and quantitative. If the goal was a claim like "24-hour hydration" or "SPF 30" and the product met the test requirements, it is safe to add the language to the package. However, marketing and research and development don't get the final say. Typically, the final review is completed by the company's legal team.
The legal team is required to be familiar with laws governing regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FDA is primarily concerned with the product's classification as a cosmetic or over-the-counter drug and whether the claims are appropriate for the class. The FTC is focused on protecting consumers from deceptive or fraudulent business practices including false advertising. The legal team also has vested interest in product claims because they defend the company if any claims are challenged in court. Therefore, they tend to be very specific and conservative about what is allowed.
Stretching the Truth
Just because scientists and lawyers are involved doesn't mean all claims are trustworthy. The old adage that you can make statistics say anything holds true in the beauty industry as well. Remember, the point of making claims is to promote the product and drive sales. These aren't peer-reviewed scientific studies. Here are some ways that claims may exaggerate or mislead:
Vague language - If the language of the claim cannot be tested and is worded in a way that could not be supported by scientific data, it is likely exaggerated. If you think critically, these claims should be easy to identify. For example, a quantitative claim that says"up to 90% improvement" may sound good until you realize "up to" could mean anywhere from zero to 90%.
Unrealistic baseline - Scientific studies require a control for comparison. Choosing an unrealistic control can boost the results for a product. For example, a shampoo may claim "clinically proven to reduce breakage by 87 percent" but the control may have been using no shampoo at all or using a bar of soap. There's no requirement to test against a competitor's product.
Testing a regimen - Testing an entire regimen together can also boost results. If a skincare line includes a cleanser, day lotion, eye cream, serum, and night cream, the clinical tests may have been performed on a panel of consumers using the entire regimen for several weeks. If you just buy the cleanser, you won't see the same benefits.
Playing the odds - Large corporate brands tend to draw the attention of regulators as well as lawyers who make a career of suing companies over product claims and looking for settlements. These large companies have deep pockets to pay fines and the name recognition to serve as an example to the rest of the industry. Therefore, these brands tend to be more risk-adverse and have substantial data and support for their claims. Smaller brands can be more risky without similar concerns about drawing attention.
Online risk tolerance - When the claims wish list is reviewed by the legal team, they may approve some claims for the product package and some for online only. This is because making updates to packaging and artwork can be costly and time-consuming. Updating a product detail page on a website is quite easy, so brands are generally more tolerant of taking risk online.
Influencer marketing - Another area where brands might take more risk with the claims they allow is influencer marketing. There are clear regulatory requirements for the claims made by a brand, but it's not as straightforward when an influencer makes them. As time goes on, the social media space is getting more attention and will likely be subject to the same level of legal oversight as other media. This can already be seen with the prevalence of posts on Instagram labeled as "sponsored" or with the hashtag #ad.
Although the claims for a product should be based in science and reviewed by scientists, marketers, and lawyers, remember, cosmetic claims are meant to advertise the product. The primary goal is to promote the product, not inform the consumer. Any time you are reading statistics, I recommend thinking critically about the data presented and that is certainly true for cosmetic claims as well.
I hope you found today's post informative. In my experience, consumers are generally surprised by the level of scientific research and data involved in the beauty industry. Is that true for you as well? Is there more due diligence in claims than you expected? Or do you think beauty brands are modern day snake oil salesmen? Let me know in the comments below!