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DECODING SKINCARE MARKETING
Today I just wanted to talk through confusing, misleading, unsubstantiated and off-putting marketing claims in the skincare industry as well as unpicking the meaning of commonplace terms. Because a) they grind my gears, b) so that you know what to be on the lookout for, and c) so you can make informed purchasing decisions (hopefully this can act as a jumping-off point for doing your own research)...
You can't be in beauty without having heard the phrase 'clean' before. However, what does it mean? The truth is: nothing. It is a marketing term, there is no agreed-upon definition and there is no reputable certification process for deciding if a product is 'clean' or, I suppose, 'dirty'. I know a lot of people would argue back that 'clean' is still valid and can mean different things to different people but, in that case, can we not just go back to reading the ingredients and avoiding the ones we don't want to use for whatever reason? These sorts of labels are meant to act as a shorthand, but without a meaningful definition; you'll have to do the research regardless. My personal view is that it's a fear-mongering term and its proponents don't actually understand what 'toxicity' means (most things are toxic if you receive a high enough dose of them), however if you don't want to use an ingredient: that's your business (so long as you aren't spreading misinformation or trying to sell me something based on fear), however the label is misleading because it can mean absolutely anything.
I feel similarly but less strongly about 'natural'. Again, there's some sort of assumption that 'natural' is superior and some arbitrary line is drawn between refined 'natural' ingredients and 'unnatural' ingredients. Tell someone with contact dermatitis with regards to perfume that 'no artificial fragrance' means the product is hunky dory for them to use... The only reason that I'm slightly less harsh on this marketing term is because there are legitimate carbon neutral and organic certifications that companies can obtain. If you want to prove your ingredients are sourced through sustainable methods: great. I'd just rather they said those things instead of 'natural'.
There's so much to discuss when it comes to sunscreen, but let's start with 'reef safe'. Honestly, from my research there's not a lot of consensus on which sunscreen filters contribute towards coral bleaching but we generally think non-nano mineral filters are the least problematic. However, I would approach any chemical sunscreen that claims to be 'reef safe' with suspicion. There is currently no formal process or approval for products to make this claim, so it's marketing. As we're discussing mineral formulas, I'll put it out there and say: I don't trust anything claiming to be an 'invisible mineral' formula. I don't know why brands make these big promises! Sometimes it can be achieved to an extent with nano filters, but honestly: you can't easily make a clear gel mineral formula (I don't think I've ever seen one) and that's the only way you can guarantee zero white cast on every single skin tone. Don't just believe what the packaging says: go and find people online with your skin tone who have used the product and see what they say.
We also have dubious application instructions. I would seriously question any product that recommends mixing sunscreens with your moisturiser, foundation etc. The reason being: you can't guarantee that it won't destabilise the sunscreen's protection when it's added into an unknown product. Maybe this could work if the brand has a foundation in their line and they say it's safe to mix in their sunscreen with it, because presumably they've tested it with that specific product and it didn't negatively impact the advertised protection. Generally, though: don't do it... Another one is advising you to use a 'pea sized amount' of the product. I mean, if they've done the studies and the research to substantiate these claims then fair enough, but unless you can find that information: I'd recommend following NHS guidance. We'd all love to be able to apply 'pea sized amounts'. We'd have no issues with white cast, that's for sure! But that just isn't how any of the sunscreen formulas we currently have access to work.
Let's talk about expensive ingredients claiming to turn back the years. Collagen, peptides and antioxidants are all fantastic ingredients that I use in my routine and love, however we just don't have the evidence to say they're anti-ageing and collagen and peptides, in particular, are pretty darn expensive and if you can't afford them: the one tried and true ingredient that will reverse signs of ageing is a retinoid. Plus sunscreen. And I recommend double-checking the ingredients: retinyl palmitate doesn't offer the same benefits, neither does bakuchiol, 'phyto'-retinol or other plant extracts. Oh, and can we stop calling any product 'wrinkle' anything? It sounds so ungainly. I'm not even a fan of 'anti-ageing': we need better words!
The difficult thing with sensitive skin and skin allergies is that everyone's triggers are different. I've had flare-ups before where water has burnt my skin! Labels like 'dermatologically-tested', 'dermatologist-approved' and 'hypoallergenic' make you think that the products are tested and approved as safe for sensitive skin, but that's not the case! 'Dermatologically-tested' simply means a product has been tested on skin, which you'd hope was done if it's made it to shelves. It doesn't tell you anything much about the results of such tests and nothing about who can or can't use the final product. Likewise, when it comes to 'hypoallergenic' there's no process to certify that this is the case, it's just a product claiming it's unlikely to cause reactions, not a guarantee. Moving onto dermatologists approving products: obviously it goes without saying that they have worked for decades in many cases to understand the skin, it's functions and how to treat various conditions, so obviously they wouldn't recommend something that's bad for your skin, but it's worth bearing in mind that these cosmetic giants (drugstore and pharmacy brands owned by conglomerates) have big deals with dermatologists. Kind of like your dentist will give you / recommend you Colgate: they have huge nationwide campaigns involving a lot of money to get into these surgeries because it obviously legitimises their products, however there are great brands out there too that simply don't have the funds or inclination to get into that space. It doesn't mean their products aren't legitimate, scientific or safe for the skin.
One of the claims I always find kind of dubious is that a product is 'pore-tightening or pore-reducing'. I mean, sometimes you can help reduce the appearance of your pores, but their actual size is very hard to influence and it's really a genetic factor, so it feels like these brands are selling a dream of perfectly smooth, flawless, poreless Instagram-skin that just isn't attainable for most people, and definitely not by using a topical product. I guess I just feel it prays on an insecurity, one often held by teenagers with acne who will try anything to help their enlarged pores. The difference you can achieve with off-the-shelf topicals is unfortunately very limited.
A label I have a problem with because it doesn't mean a lot is 'non-comedogenic'. Ok, so there is such a thing as the comedogenic scale, which rates ingredients from 0 to 5 based on how likely they are to clog the pores, however (based on my research) I think this is quite an inconsistent science, likely due to the fact that everyone's skin is different. This is further muddied by the fact that some of the old tests fueling the comedogenic rankings were done on animals, and you can't say for certain that what causes comedones on a rabbit will do the same in humans (or the reverse). Likewise, most products are a combination of lots of ingredients, including inactive ones (like surfactants, emulsifiers etc. that give the product its consistency, texture and application) which mix to create results you might not be able to predict by just looking at what sorts of oils it contains. So, even if you're using only oils and botanicals that are rated a 0 on this scale, there may be inactive ingredients or something about the overall formula that could break someone out. Anecdotally, I also know at least half a dozen people who find that shea butter breaks them out and that's a 0 on the comedogenic scale. Perhaps some people find it helpful to whittle down their products to ones that are labelled 'non-comedogenic', and that's fine, I just would listen to your skin and not assume it's impossible that a product has broken you out because it's marketed in this way.
I this area I'm more focused on definitions and certifications. Be aware that just because a product isn't marketed as vegan, that doesn't mean it isn't. Obviously we know from food that if a product is made in an environment that could contain animal products, it can't be called 'vegan', but if you're hungry, you're out somewhere and you have limited food options, you might read the back of a ready-made sandwich, check it has no animal-derived products and decide to eat it, even though it hasn't been labelled as 'vegan' and I think you can choose to take the same approach with skincare. You can even email a brand and ask them about it; sometimes you might find that the product is vegan even though it's not been specifically marketed as such.
When it comes to 'cruelty free' there's also a degree of interpretation. Although China will no longer require animal testing on products imported from other countries, the cruelty-free beauty community in the EU and the US states that have banned animal testing for a long time has generally boycotted brands selling into mainland China for this reason. The product they're buying hasn't been tested on animals but they don't want to fund these practices (my understanding is that even if the brand itself wasn't carrying out such testing, they did have to pay a 3rd party to do this). However, interestingly they don't all draw this distinction when it comes to parent companies. Some people actually feel that buying from the cruelty-free brands of a not-cruelty-free parent company shows that this is an important status to achieve. Though, technically-speaking, you might be funding animal testing in some sense by giving your money to this parent company.
Additionally, many skincare ingredients at some point in the past (whether that's in the 50s or the 80s) have been tested on animals, but we have to draw a line somewhere that if it an ingredient hasn't been tested on animals in x-amount of years then it's usually still considered cruelty-free. This isn't me telling you to give up if you want to buy cruelty-free but I'm just explaining the nuances of how it works so you can make an informed decision about products marketed in this way.
Almost all new, independently owned brands these days will be cruelty-free because there's no reason not to be, but if certifications are important to you then do a little bit of research into what's out there because they aren't all as rigorous as you might expect. Likewise, Leaping Bunny was very well-respected but it came out a year or so ago that despite WetnWild having received their rubber stamp, they'd been secretly selling into mainland China... Also: a brand being vegan doesn't mean it's cruelty free and vice versa, so don't make any assumptions on that.
When you hear that and ingredient is 'patented' or 'exclusive' to a brand, it creates a sort of idea that you're getting something special that no one else can give you. Whilst that can be true, the flip-side of this is that (with some exceptions like the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic blend) generally speaking, there's not going to be a lot of evidence backing its efficacy. If it's a proprietary blend and you can see the percentages of each ingredient it contains then you can probably work off that, but if it's an exclusive, special form of an ingredient (like a 'unique' peptide or a 'new' form of Vitamin B3), I wouldn't assume this means it's automatically better. Proprietary ingredients often attract a high price-point and usually the only studies demonstrating their efficacy are by the brand that's pushing them; an obvious conflict of interests! I generally look for ingredients that have been proven time and time again in lots of independent studies to do what they say they will. Proprietary ingredients can be amazing, but they're more of a gamble. Don't assume 'exclusive' = 'better'.
Next, I just wanted to discuss brands telling you to do bad things to your face! There'll always be exceptions but, by and large, most people can't handle daily exfoliation, so why do most exfoliating toners tell you to use them daily? I'd imagine that it's so you get through the product faster and buy it again, or so you destroy your skin barrier and buy more products off them to fix it... Honestly, 2-3 times a week is plenty for most people when it comes to something like a 2% salicylic acid toner.
Another area is makeup removal, and part of this is honestly consumer-led, though I'll never understand how anyone can find rubbing their face with a dry wipe 'faster' or 'easier' than using a cleansing balm. Face wipes do, of course, have their place: festivals, whilst travelling long-haul or when you're staggering in at 5am or just can't face the world and need something that's better than sleeping in makeup (though I still think a micellar water is better if you're not convinced on the double cleanse). However, I do find the marketing around them to be a bit dishonest; pushing them as an 'every single day' effective makeup removal option when they're quite wasteful and not that effective. The cynic in me suspects it's because you can sell someone packs and packs of face wipes over a year (particularly as many people have to use several each time they remove their makeup) vs. maybe 3 cleansing oils or balms.
Let's round this off by looking at packaging. Look, everything about how a product is packaged and presented is a choice the brand is making. When Augustinus Bader put their extortionate cream in this weighty, royal blue and gold packaging, they're making it look expensive and as though it will give you a luxurious experience. However, bear in mind that it's not just premium brands that are making these choices. Look at CeraVe: the packaging looks medical, functional and is intended to convey the message that what's inside is 'good for your skin' and that it's suitable for sensitive skin. The Ordinary show that their products are the basic ingredients by having simple and functional packaging. Glow Recipe shows its fun, food-inspired K-beauty vibe with pastel, fruit-shaped packaging. The Inkey List's motto is 'knowledge is power' so their unit cartons are full of information on the products and the black and white packaging is intended to convey transparency. What I would say is to be conscious of this: a product in pharmacy-like packaging isn't automatically the best thing for you and a product encased in something cutesy isn't necessarily going to have no teeth.
Agree? Disagree? Have you learnt anything new from this post and what would you add to the list of marketing terms and pet peeves you think are misleading?
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