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An Example of how ‘Truth’ In marketing can so easily be False.

July 3, 2016

Ok so I got quite a lot of feedback on my ‘Truth, you can’t handle the truth’ post about the move towards bullshit as a legitimate brand marketing platform (basically it doesn’t so much matter if what is said is scientifically valid or not as long as it is believable and in keeping with the brand ‘voice’).  As interesting as it was to write that article,  what tit has highlighted for me is just how few people realise that they have no solid evidence to back up what they say either!

Now before you say ‘what a bloody cheek, I read up on everything I publish, I read for MONTHS at a time when I do my research’  Let me explain WHY and How that happens.

Why do most people find it hard to know the truth?

Because finding really good, solid scientific evidence to support almost any position we want to take for our cosmetic brand is very difficult, not least because there are precious few people doing the kind of research to address the philosophical positioning statements that brand owners want to make.

So yes, I’m pointing out this inconvenient truth, calling out a lot of what is said as ‘bullshit’ but I am not (AND I REPEAT NOT) calling the whole lot of us bullshit artists purposefully misleading to gain profit. No, I feel that for the most part we are confused and under-nourished in the science department.

Let me work through a real-life examples to try to illustrate this point.

Positioning – That Cold-Pressed vegetable oils are better for our skin and closer to nature. More wholesome, pure, balanced, natural, organic, healthy, good etc.

Evidence – While there is no shortage of blog posts by health guru’s to re-enforce that position the science to support much of what is said is lacking.

  • Cold Pressed – Oils can reach temperatures of 60-70C due to the friction generated in crushing the seeds or nuts in order to extract the oil.  The term ‘Cold Process’ its self was created as a marketing term by an American Pharmacist wanting to create a point of difference for his oils over the oils of the neighbouring pharmacist.  That said there is one good reason for heat treating in the vegetable oil extraction process and that is usually carried out on the fruits, seeds or nuts prior to extraction.  A prior heat-treatment helps to de-nature any proteins or enzymes (globular proteins) present. If left, these enzymes and proteins contaminate the oil and result in it degrading (oxidising) more rapidly than it otherwise would.  Reducing enzymatic contamination of a vegetable oil makes it more suitable for those with food allergies and other allergic conditions as it is often these ‘biologically active’ components that trigger an allergic reaction in susceptible populations.
  • Refining vegetable oils –  The refining process can be chemical, physical or a mixture. Many cosmetic oils are refined physically using carbon type filters to reduce the oil colour (and thus extend the shelf life of the oil as light-reactive pigments are removed),  Steam is often used to reduce the aroma in smelly oils. Refining can also involve the use of chemicals such as acids to help reduce FREE FATTY ACID contamination in the oil. This is particularly important in some food oils as FREE FATTY ACIDS can affect the odour and taste profile of an oil  giving it an ‘off’ note. In skin care high levels of the Free Fatty Acid Oleic Acid can make the oil more able to penetrate the skin as Free Oleic Acid is a well-known skin penetration enhancer.
  • Better for the skin –  As a scientist (and pain in the arse) when someone tells me that something is better for the skin I ask ‘than what’ followed by ‘how’?  These two little questions are actually very hard to answer and even harder to get some solid scientific evidence to support.  The position centres on the idea that we all know what the terms ‘better for the skin’  and ‘cold pressed vegetable oils’ mean and that there would be some clear defining measurable criteria with which to make this judgement. The reality is that it is pretty much never that simple!  The majority of the benefit we get from a vegetable oil is its ability to re-grease the outer layers of skin when our own grease has either come off or is inadequate for the conditions).  This function is a feature of the occlusivity of the barrier that the oil can achieve – occlusive barrier products prevent the skin from drying out and from microbes from getting in, thus keeping it in good condition.  One could mount a robust argument that some petrolatum or heavy mineral oil would actually fulfil that job equally well (if not better in some cases) than a vegetable oil (coconut is the example in the link) but as that doesn’t fit with our natural, cold-pressed narrative we pass it over.  We might also say that vegetable oils contain trace vitamins, essential fatty acids and other phytonutrients that a synthetic (silicone) or mineral oil can’t provide. That would be true but that isn’t what has been proposed, what has been proposed is that the Cold Pressed, Virgin or whatever oils are better for the skin so we would have to seek out studies that had selected different processing methods for the oils and compared skin benefits between them.  This type of study is very specific and I must admit I haven’t found anything like this in my reading (I’d welcome studies that you know about). What is more common is to find studies looking at the chemical composition of oils produced via different refining methods. We can take Rosehip Oil as an example here. Rosehip Cold Pressed vs Rosehip with solvent extraction– in the example given here  the study found that cold pressing resulted in a much higher yield of tretinoin (Vitamin A) ‘goodness’ from the Rosehip than the solvent extraction method trialled although the overall yield of oil was low.   However, along with the higher level of Vitamin A in the cold pressed oil comes a significantly higher level of Free Fatty Acids and a higher iodine value – both factors that decrease oil stability.  It would be reasonable to assume that the increase in the oil instability would have a detrimental impact on the usable vitamin A content of the oil, that the higher level of vitamin A might end up being reduced by an increased risk of oxidation. By comparison this study achieved the highest yield of Vitamin A using a supercritical Co2 extraction with propane – a solvent extraction of sorts.  See this is where sweeping statements of ‘this is better than that’ get caught out.  There is more than one way to solvent extract, the pre-treatment of the material BEFORE the extraction matters – how small it is cut up, if it is treated with enzymes, if it is warmed, if it is fresh or dried.   It can all end up being very complicated and you can easily end up comparing apples with oranges.

Putting this little article together has taken me a good few hours and to be honest, if I was using this ‘research’ to launch a brand would bear my name I’d have spent plenty more time making sure that the references I’ve cited are the most relevant and trustworthy (yes, just because it appeared in a scientific journal doesn’t mean it was great).   I would also seek lots more references to enable me to gain a better breadth and depth in my understanding of what I am proposing and what evidence exists to support such a proposal.  I’d also consider putting at least some of my budget into running my own tests to make sure that MY product stands up to scrutiny as, after all, oils all start off as something that grows and yields, quality and quantity of oil can and do change from batch to batch, supplier to supplier.  In short I would spend a significant proportion of my time and budget testing my claims before launching a business based on them.

So, to sum up I’ll repeat again that I’m not accusing anyone here of not caring and not trying.  What I am saying is that it is hard to get good information to support the kind of claims we have come to see as commonplace.  The things we FEEL we should be able to say about our products are actually quite complex and potentially expensive to prove.

My main aim in writing this and my last blog post is to highlight what is going on in the world of cosmetic marketing in order that we, as a group of interested people, as fellow professionals, as scientists, as brand owners and as an industry can pull together and lift our collective games.

My point is that if nobody ever tackles this we will slide further and further away from legitimacy and closer to blatant, ridiculous Bull Shit that means nothing, provides no value and offers no real solution.  I don’t want that to happen and I’m sure you don’t too.

So, let’s all put our heads together and find a way of putting the real science back into cosmetic science so that we can make products that are better and more profitable for everyone.

Now that’s exciting!



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