There's more to cosmetics than meets the eye

Podium: Dr Chris Dederen; From a paper presented by a technical manager of the chemical firm Uniqema at the British Association's science festival

COSMETIC ADVERTISEMENTS would like us to believe the impossible. But can everything be claimed? There is indeed a delicate balance between science and hype in cosmetic claims, caused by what is technically possible on the one hand and business pressures on the other. The introduction of the Sixth Amendment to the Cosmetic Directive in 1997, requesting companies to provide evidence for cosmetic claims, has had a positive impact on the product and the consumer.

Products have improved because increased detail was given to measuring their efficacy, whereas consumers were better and more accurately informed. But the push towards hype will and should remain as a thriving force for product innovation. Hype should be regulated, but not over-regulated. Knowing when to give and take, that's the question in cosmetic claim substantiation.

"Your wrinkles will disappear within days when using our product." We've probably heard it all before. In fact, we've heard it so often but seen so little of it that we tend to agree that cosmetic claims are based on hype. Nevertheless the cosmetic industry has come a long way to tip the balance in favour of science. This work may have been forced upon them by regulatory bodies, but customers and companies have all come out as winners.

"What is a cosmetic claim?" A description given early in 1998 reads: "Claims for cosmetic products are statements made, usually in advertising, with regard to a product's functions." In reality, cosmetic claims may also relate to physical or chemical characteristics or consumer perception. I would like to focus on the most controversial claims, ie those relating to clinical efficacy. The first type of claim comprises emotive statements such as "Because I'm worth it". They refer more to the product user or the brand than the product itself and can therefore be argued not to be claims at all. They certainly do not require any substantiation. The second type of claim is the ingredient claim. Vitamin C may be described as "an anti-oxidant that helps protect the new skin that's revealed". Quoting such a statement in your ad does not mean that the product containing vitamin C will protect the new skin. However, the strength of such a claim is that it implies product efficacy. Evidence for ingredient claims needs to be provided by the company making the claim, but this can easily be obtained in the literature or from the supplier of the raw material. As a consequence, ingredient claims are most often made for well-known cosmetic ingredients such as vitamins.

The third type is the product claim: "Your wrinkles will disappear within days when using our product." An anti-ageing activity is claimed for the product itself and not merely one of its ingredients. Evidence, therefore, should be generated in studies where the marketed product is tested. These claims are technically the most difficult ones to substantiate.

The principles for creating the evidence underpinning cosmetic claims require the skills of a scientist, but the wording of the claims is crafted by marketeers or advertising agents to make the claim as attractive as possible. This may lead to unrealistic claims. In the UK, the broadcasters and publishers are legally responsible for what they release. In order to protect themselves, they have installed the British Advertising Clearance Centre (Bacc) to do the pre-vetting on their behalf. Within Europe, the Bacc is one of the toughest scrutineers of cosmetic claims. Forced by external regulation, the cosmetic industry has introduced more realistic claims and has tilted the balance towards science.

Products have improved because non-efficacious products are no longer introduced into the market and consumers are better informed. However, an advantage of the push towards hype will and should remain as a thriving force for product innovation. When we as scientists are forced by our marketeers to do the impossible, the impossible may materialise. Regulation of claims has contributed positively towards product improvement, but a degree of hype should remain, as it is creative and healthy for product innovation. If regulation could stay one step behind hype, and restrict its excesses, we might get right not only the science/ hype balance, but also the product improvement/ product innovation balance. Knowing when to give and take, that's the question in cosmetic claim substantiation.

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