Fear-Mongering Marketing Claims From Beauty Brands, Fact-Checked

by Jessica L. Yarbrough

This article first appeared on Fashionista.com.

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Let me preface this by saying I'm a big fan of natural skin-care. Huge. (Here is someproof.) But I'm also a fan of facts — and when it comes to some of the alarmist claims in clean beauty brands' marketing materials, facts can sometimes take a backseat to fear-mongering. Like this oft-cited stat: "Chemicals in skin-care products take just 26 seconds to absorb into your bloodstream." (I recently read this on RMS Beauty's Instagram Stories, but it's all over the internet, too.) Could that possibly be true?Wouldn't my circulatory system be completely clogged with hyaluronic acid by now?

The answer actually isn't that clear-cut. There are reputable sources that stand by the scary-sounding statistic ("Just look at nicotine and birth control patches," they say), while other experts claim it's categorically false. And if the professionals can't agree, how are consumers supposed to separate fact from fiction?

Confusion is to be expected, to an extent. There aren't many regulations in the beauty industry at all, especially around marketing language, so brands can kind of say whatever they want. "There are some consequences for companies who mislabel, but because the Food and Drug Administration has not defined terms like 'natural' and 'clean' for personal-care products, there aren't regulatory actions taken against companies," explains Lindsay Dahl, the SVP of Social Mission at Beautycounter. That explains how the phrase "free from chemicals" — a scientific impossibility, since all matter, including your own skin, is made up of chemicals — made its way into the marketing lexicon.

What's more, science isn't static. New information is constantly coming to light, casting shadows of doubt on long-held beliefs about beauty products. For example, mascara was made with aniline in the 1930s, a chemical eventually found to cause blindness; this discovery preempted the FDA's second-most-recent update to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938. (Would 1937's aniline critics be considered 2019's "fear-mongers?" Probably. But they'd still be right.)

Even scientific research feels a little iffy when you consider the fact that controlled studies require a lot of financial backing; and those with the cash flow to support a 12-week study — the pharmaceutical industry and beauty conglomerates, for instance — aren't looking to funnel funds into research that disproves the safety or efficacy of their star ingredients. Consumers are more likely to come across studies like this one, paid for by Olay, which concluded that the most effective skin-care product for eliminating wrinkles isn't prescription tretinoin, but rather cosmetic moisturizer… from (surprise!) Olay.

While findings like that are all well and good for brands to feature in their own press materials, these industry-supported studies inform the decisions of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the panel that rules on the safety of cosmetic ingredients in the US, which happens to be "funded and staffed by the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group that spends roughly $2 million a year … lobbying Congress," as The New York Times recently reported. The CIR's not-exactly-impartial decisions — which are based solely on available data (like the aforementioned studies) and require no additional testing — later get touted as hard-and-fast fact.

It's no wonder these murky waters have buoyed a collective case of "chemophobia," the term used to describe consumers' newfound fear of synthetic chemicals. As a result, alarmist marketing claims that capitalize on mounting concern are on the rise, too — although it should be noted this technique spans both sides of the spectrum, as evidenced by a viral video from No BS Skin Care that compares using natural products to "rubbing mold on your face." (This, ironically, is BS.)

"Thankfully, many nonprofits have stepped in to help watchdog the industry," says Dahl, nodding at the Environmental Working Group's efforts to clarify the risks and rewards of synthetic versus natural ingredients. "And increasingly, we have seen savvy consumers punish brands who misuse marketing terms."

Said savvy consumers are now turning their attention toward tactics like fear-mongering and "greenwashing" (scaring the customer into buying clean and presenting a product as more natural than it actually is, respectively). Some call out brands that employ fear-inducing language on social media — RMS Beauty and Drunk Elephant are popular targets — as a way to advocate for the safety of modern medicine and man-made chemicals. Others believe that embellishing the truth about naturals only does a disservice to the larger clean beauty movement. (There are plenty of fact-based reasons to go natural, after all.)

One thing we can likely all agree on is that the industry could use a little clarity. Ahead, Fashionista consults leading dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to debunk — or confirm — some of the most alarmist natural beauty marketing claims that persist.