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Prove it baby. How do brand owners substantiate their claims?

June 13, 2012

In the scientific community  a little bit of eye rolling, pfffffffing and muttering under the breath  ‘cosmetic science?????’ follows the admission that you are one and while us people on the inside know that there’s a lot ‘to it’ we still feel pain that our beloved craft is the scientific equivalent of the used car salesman.  Snake oil?  Magic?  Hope in a bottle Ma’am?  To quote my youngest when told she can’t stay up and watch that cop show ‘It’s just not fair’.

As the cosmetics industry spins on an emotional access (we all know that we don’t really NEED these products.  Don’t we?) there will always be room for bull ****,  false promises and misplaced optimism, not all of which can be laid at the feet of our poor, defenceless chemist.  But in a world where we are demanding bigger and better results and competition for the mighty dollar is fierce we have to offer products that do something.  So, the question of the day is how do we prove it?

Claim Substantiation.

When you buy a product that says you will get a  “40% reduction in eye wrinkles after 28 days”  it has to have been tested in a very specific way.

If you buy a product that says ‘tightens and firms to give a fresher look‘  it may or may not have been tested.

and when you buy a product that says ‘melts away cellulite while you continue to eat chocolate‘  you know that the only testing that has been done is a pressure test on the bank account to see how much it kerching it can hold.

So how do we test?

1)  Testing the claim that you get a 40% reduction in eye wrinkles over 28 days.

With the above theoretical claim you have some very specific things being communicated namely the degree of wrinkle reduction and the time that it takes to achieve this result.  As we are talking cosmetic (which means that the product works on the surface of the skin rather than internally like a pharmaceutical)  there is no set ways to test these things.  However,  in the absence of a law (where someone has done the thinking so you don’t have to)  there is logic and it is up to the brand owner and product tester to come up with a test that is logical, reproducible and realistic.   The scale of the test usually depends on the money and/or time that the test sponsor has available to them.

The panel. 

A typical trial for a small brand would consist of say 10 people using the product in a prescribed way (as per pack instructions usually) for a month.

A medium-sized brand may test 40-50 people over the same time frame.

A multinational brand would probably test between 100-200 people.

It is also usual to select testers so that they match the audience for the product.  If you are testing an acne product you would recruit people with pimples,  an anti-wrinkle product would probably require an audience aged between 35-60.

The measuring.

A claim involving figures like the one above must involve the use of a measuring device.  As we are focused on a measured wrinkle reduction it would seem logical to use a device that can measure the depth of wrinkles.  Lucky for the cosmetics industry those types of devices exists.  Wrinkles can be measured with various imaging equipment which translate the ridges and furrows of the face into a ‘map’ rather like the one below:

Microcamera have various cameras that can photograph the topography of the skin for wrinkle depth measurements.

The Detail.

The people running the test would probably measure each test subject before the trail started to get a ‘base line’ reading for their wrinkles,  the test subjects would then be given strict instructions of how to care for their skin during the trial (no chemical peels, little to no alcohol, no late nights, no other active creams etc) and given advice on how and when to use the test product.   Testers usually go home with the product and fill in a daily diary to help them remember to follow the testing procedure.

The people running the test can measure how well the test subjects have followed the rules by weighing the tube/ jar of test product when they next see the subjects.

The test subjects would probably be measured using a machine like this at the half way point and then again at the end in an attempt to determine at what point in time the product starts to work.  This not only helps the brand to correctly word their claim (28 days for the above) but it also helps them refine their packaging to increase the probability of getting a result from one purchase as that is what customers want.

So how good is this sort of testing?

Scientifically speaking the process of substantiating a cosmetic claim is as solid as you would find in any other applied science lab.  The test house usually does everything possible to reduce errors and to produce a statistically valid result for the client, even if that means getting a fail.  Of course getting results from a panel of 10 is not as all-encompassing as results gained from 200 or even 1000 people but as the test costs have to be borne by the brand owners those sorts of numbers are just not possible for most.

Brands doing this sort of testing to substantiate claims do make their test methods and results available to the public and as such if you want to research before you invest then there is nothing stopping you and as always in the cosmetic world, the proof is in the pudding!

What about the claim ‘tightens and firms to give a fresher look’?


This is what I could class as a non-specific claim as it gives no numbers or time line in which to expect results.  However, if you bought this product you would still expect to feel and see something (based on the language) and as such the brand must have some reason for putting those words on their product.  Usually brands would base this type of claim on their ingredient evidence as opposed to their formulation.   In the cosmetics world we have ingredients that are ‘active’ and those which are not.  Active ingredients (those that brighten, tighten, repair, moisturise etc)  are almost always tested by the ingredient manufacturer to substantiate their claims.  Before a brand chooses a new active they will look through the supplier data sheets to see what evidence they have to support the claims that they make.  If the manufacturer has carried out tests looking at their active in a real life study and have produced ‘visible’ results then the brand using that material could make similar claims on their product pack just so long as they use the correct dose of active in a suitable base.   Many brands work this way as it allows them to get good products to market quickly and cost efficiently.  However,  this type of ‘read across’ testing isn’t as good as the above example as the base formulation may increase or decrease the efficacy of the active and as such the only real proof is in the pudding (through real customer testimonials).

The above picture shows a Visia imaging machine. This type of equipment is now fairly common in medi spas and via a series of images it can show you how hydrated, pigmented and blemished your skin currently is. Many small brands pair up with medi spas and use this sort of machinery to back up the results that the customer sees.

So, can brand owners prove it?

In Australia it is illegal to sell a cosmetic whose claims cannot be substantiated by one or another form of evidence.  As we have seen above the ways of collecting that evidence do vary and there is no ‘standard’ way but that is a long way from saying that this is a free-for-all.  Most brand owners take their reputation seriously  and carry out various tests before placing their products on the market but ultimately the only test subject that matters is you and if you can’t see or feel results when you expect them you will let your dollars do the talking.

And is cosmetic science a bit rubbish?

Absolutely not!   A good cosmetic scientist will give you the results that you want in an elegant, wearable, affordable (or aspirational) way, boosting your feeling of wellness and beauty and allowing you to outwardly express who you are on the inside.  Believe me, that involves not just a love and appreciation of science but also a passion, understanding and connection for people and that’s magic.

Cosmetic Science ROCKS and we have the evidence to prove it.

Thank you 🙂

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