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The Placebo Effect In Beauty

May 19, 2009

The arrival of my New Scientist magazine this week got my brain ticking a little more than usual – the cover displayed what can only be described as a Voodoo doll accompanied by the headline “How Beliefs Can Harm You”…….

Turning to page 30 (New Scientist Issue no 2708) the page heading “Beware Witch Doctors” draws the reader further into this fascinating review of what we would more commonly call the “placebo effect”.  Now I wonder how many of us read the side effects that come listed with the drugs that we take? Do we sit and worry about the possibility of the internal bleeding that may follow because of aspirin use? Do we put on weight with every contraceptive pill we take just because it says that we might in the small print?  It seems that some of us do!

This is not surprising as humans,  being pack animals like to follow the crowd. We like to fit in and “belong”, if that means belonging to the 5% of all users who get diarrhea after taking iron tablets then so be it! We can talk it though over coffee with friends and feel happy in the knowledge that we are “normal” and life goes on.

This got me thinking about the placebo effect in cosmetics and a discussion with a business partner of mine made me think that actually the placebo effect in our industry should be embraced and celebrated and here’s why!

Unlike medicinal science, which is all about keeping the body ticking over nicely, Cosmetic Science is all about how we dress it all up.  If the foundations are strong and the body is working well, the cosmetics that we use help us to celebrate that inner strength and beauty – it rather endorses our brand! If we feel great on the inside, why not treat our outside to a bit of pampering?

The cosmetics that we use sometimes make amazing claims about how radiant and young we will appear after using them, how our skin will glow and how we will become irresistible!  The manufacturers may go to great lengths to prove that what they say is true by testing their products out on a panel and offering the results to you, the consumer backed up by a neat package of statistics!  I am not saying that this isn’t a good thing, of course it is.  Being able to justify claims is not only a legal requirement it is the right thing to do ethically – we don’t want anyone getting mislead now do we?

However,  what about those products that come with no proof at all? It may be auntie’s homemade face mask that makes you feel amazing, it may be a brand new foundation that you swear makes you look ten years younger or it may be that shaving gel that just got you a date.  To what do we owe these pleasures?   I expect that this is where the science of the test tube needs to be replaced by the science of the mind. If something makes us feel good, makes us feel like we look good or makes us smell good then our confidence gets a boost, serotonin levels increase and energy flows. This is more about psychology than particle science.

As a cosmetic scientist and science communicator, the power of the mind must take its place in my toolbox of knowledge!  The mind after all has powers of good and not just evil – it is our job to unleash that power, dress it up with some lipstick and make it sparkle.

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