Token Skeptic – Interview With The Skeptical Beauty Blog On Pseudoscience And Cosmetics #GreatSkepticism

Since I’m planning to get back into science blogging again (interviewing scientists, perhaps start getting into research papers again, as I’ve done in the past) I thought I’d post this partial transcript of an interview I conducted for Episode #115 of the Token Skeptic podcast. It’s with a scientist whose name, let alone face, I cannot show you. Her background is in a relevant field to understanding cosmetics and she was one of three great people who lent their insights to the topic of  “Myths And Makeup – Pseudoscience And Cosmetics“.

In UK – The Skeptical Beauty Blog is written by an anonymous beauty product addict in the UK, a scientist who loves data and has experience of working for the biggest cosmetics products producer in the world and knows all the insider secrets. That’s why we can’t show you her face on a podcast (or even tell you her name)!

For the sake of this interview, I shall call her “Belle”.

Kylie Sturgess:  What led you to start your blog The Skeptical Beauty Blog – and why have you decided to write it anon?

Belle:  I started my blog, basically, because there are so many beauty blogs available on the Internet that I liked to read, but none of them seem to address the question of what’s behind the product. They tend to evaluate how people use the product and how they felt personally about the product – which is fine, and it’s good, and I enjoy reading those as well. But I wanted to add a different perspective to that, and to discuss some of the ingredients and formulations that are used in products and what people can look for, what works, what might not work, and how language is used within the beauty industry to sell products. So, that’s why I started up my blog.

Kylie:  Do you think that there’s a significant issue with dodgy claims in cosmetics in general, or is it something that you think is a particular area of need over there in the UK?

Belle:  I do not think it’s anything that’s UK‑specific. I think across the globe, these kinds of things occur. It does differ country to country, because regulation is slightly different in different countries. So, certain things can fall under different authorities and be governed differently. Saying one thing in one place might be OK, but then it’s not in another. It varies a lot when you look at it on a global scale. Within the UK, there are quite a few things, a few more creeping in because of the Internet, because obviously people are free or can write whatever they want on the Internet. There seems to be quite a lot of products available on the Internet that aren’t really sold by UK suppliers. Those ones can have some of the most dubious and maybe problematic claims and things like that on there.

Kylie:  How are cosmetics in the UK legislated? For example, if a product doesn’t do as it promises or if it’s advertised misleadingly, or worse, it does actual harm to people… what can you do?

Belle:  There’s various things and it depends what the situation is as to where it falls under. If you’ve got a product that is advertised on the television or at the cinema, and it’s advertised, and they say, “This product does this.” And you buy the product and you think “It doesn’t do that,” then that might fall under the Advertising Standards Authority or even trading standards.

The line is not clear in all cases, but there are a number of bodies that you can go to. One thing, if you’re dubious about a claim, about the saying that it acts in a certain way, you can contact me at the Skeptical Beauty Blog, and I’ve got a few contacts at a few places that you can speak to that might help you to question that. There’s also a group called Sense about Science

Kylie:  Yes, they’re great!

Belle: … It’s just basically encouraging people to ask for the evidence. Now, if something’s unsafe, now that’s clearly dangerous, so you want to make sure you contact the supplier and then basically contact everyone you can to make sure that people are aware that this is unsafe. I think it’s probably quite unusual for a product if it’s sold by a reputable retailer for something to be unsafe, because they do require a lot of tests. Although allergic reactions and things like that can happen, and they can happen to an individual when someone else can use a product and it’s fine. I just, basically, contact whoever you bought it from, and contact everyone you can, really.

Kylie:  Yeah. I guess that’s where products sold over the Internet can cause problems…

Belle:  That can be very dangerous. There’s been quite a few cases, as well, of people buying extremely dangerous things over the Internet, like face peels, so acids and things like that that are very strong. There’s cases of people using them and causing damage to themselves. Because in one case, maybe the acid that was sold wasn’t the correct concentration because it’s not regulated properly so they used a higher concentration than they thought they were doing even though they followed the instructions. Or the instructions weren’t read properly and they use this acid that’s supposed to only be used by trained people, or people that know what they’re doing’s hands and cause damage that way. So, yes, via the Internet can be very, very dangerous.

Kylie:  How well educated do you think the general public are about products? For example, clinically‑tested, does that actually mean anything? Or does it mean that someone tried it out a few times on a rat while wearing a lab coat?

Belle:  Yes, I’m not sure about how, in generally, how much people really know! I know that people can be quite skeptical of beauty claims, and people see adverts and go “Oh, what is this?” Even if just in general, but then they’ll still buy the product because they think “Oh, actually this sounds quite exciting and new.”

Regarding things like clinically tested, on a cosmetic product, it doesn’t really have much meaning. It means that it has been tested but because beauty companies and the makers of cosmetic products tend to keep the science they’ve carried out and the testing they’ve done under wraps a little bit, it can be hard to see what that actually means. Is it a properly controlled clinical test? Have they tested it on four people versus three people that have used another product or have they just tested it on four people? There’s no way of telling what it really means.

The same goes for lab testers. So, things can say this has been tested in a laboratory, which means someone’s done one test on it in a lab. There’s another one that is dermatologically‑tested, which means that maybe someone’s tested it. One dermatologist has tested it and found that actually this product is fine. It causes no damage. But it doesn’t mean that the claims that the product puts forward, necessarily are substantiated by that. It’s a bit of a minefield!

Kylie:  I guess that raises the question again, is this one of the reasons why you blog anon, you don’t want to compromise yourself and your background of knowledge?

Belle:  Yeah. That’s part of the reason. Also, I don’t want to compromise anything for the future as well. I think it’s just a little bit better this way!

Kylie:  That’s OK. The blogger called the Digital Cuttlefish, doesn’t reveal their true identity, and yet still appreciated for the product that they put online! You’ve mentioned on your blog how you, yourself have become lured in by some of the advertising. You mentioned spotting a brand with appealing packaging, promises, and values. How much of a part does the packaging and the advertising play in luring in the customer, in your opinion?

Belle:  I’d say an absolutely huge part, massive. I think a lot of products, maybe old products, are sold as a lifestyle choice, or buying into the lifestyle or the life of who you want to be. That’s what they’re selling. One place where it’s really obvious is with perfume sellers. Perfumes don’t have claims or anything. They don’t claim to do anything other than be a scent. But looking at the adverts that they sell, they’re selling a lifestyle. I think a lot of cosmetic products go along that line. But they can do it with claims and words as well, so they’ve got a little bit more to play with. So, yeah, it’s massively important.

Kylie:  Another one of your more recent posts called “New Year, New You: Burn Pounds in Seconds and Banish the Cellulite” – it lists a number of ingredients that basically did nothing at all for cellulite. How do products get away with this?

Belle:  Well, you can put any ingredients you like into a product that you want, as long as they’re safe. So you can use these ingredients. The reason why people put these in is because they’re associated with effects. A lot of the ingredients that were in that were ingredients that were used in herbal medicine and Chinese medicine and things like that. They’re are familiar names to people. So, people can see the products and go “Oh, it contains this. This must be good,” Or they’ve been tested in different scenarios and have different, other scientific properties that have been proven in different scenarios associated with them.

Kylie:  You mean like quantum, for example! That always makes me laugh, if I see something being promoted as quantum – it’s like “What? What?!”

Belle:  Yeah, exactly. They use keywords as well, things like antioxidants and vitamins. People see those as being good for you, so they are good. Therefore, if they’re in a product, that product must do good. It’s that kind of association. I think the biggest issue about ingredients like that in formulations is the levels they use. Because very often they don’t state what concentration or level is in the product. It could be that the product just contains only a very trace amount, which means that it’s probably not going to have any effect, even if some effect has been proven with it in the past. It’s difficult to know, and it can be very difficult to judge what effects you’re going to get, even if there’s an ingredient in there that has been proven to do something in the past.

Kylie:  So, how do we know? How do people become skeptical, become better educated about cosmetic claims?

Belle:  It’s difficult. Obviously, you can request more information from the company. You can ask them about certain claims and ask to see what kind of evidence they’ve got or how they know that it works. Now, what response you get is obviously going to differ depending on what research they’ve done.

One thing to add in is that, definitely all the big cosmetics and beauty manufacturers do quite a lot of research. They want their products to do something because they want people to buy it again. They want people to think this product is good. I like it. I want to use this again. So, they do research and development on their products. They also want to make sure that they’re safe, because that could be the worst thing ever if they put a product on the market that’s unsafe and people don’t want to use.

So, the best thing to do is ask and try and find out more about what they’re trying to say and what’s in the product. They’re all cosmetic products as well, so it’s up to you if you buy them or not, really. So you’ve got a choice to make. Often you find that for one problem, so shampoo, you’ve got a huge choice of shampoos that you can choose from.

It’s a personal preference as well, because they have different fragrances, and they do affect your skin and hair in different ways, and people choose ones that they like. I think it’s more of a trial and error, really.

Kylie:  Buyer beware – and buyer should be aware of what’s going on!

Belle:  Yes, exactly. It’s just about making informed choices about what you’re buying and especially some products can be very expensive with big promises, and you have to think about do you want to make that investment in that. In reality, do you think it’s actually going to work or you can do a bit of research as well about ingredients that are in products and see what other people are writing about it. There’s a few things that you can do.

Kylie:  This is probably more a personal question. What has been the most ludicrous thing that has just had you head‑desking, in terms of cosmetic claims?

Belle:  The one thing that I don’t like and has been picked up on in the UK, this year in fact, is the use of airbrushing and artificial enhancements in advertising. A company was picked up earlier on this year because they over‑airbrushed some of the images that they were using to advertise a product, and it was found by the Advertising Standards Authority that the results that they gave with the airbrushing were way beyond anything that the product could achieve. So, the adverts got banned. Things like that are really, really overt – because how do you tell how much something’s been airbrushed or not? It’s impossible to see that. Also, mascara adverts tend to use artificial eyelashes. So, they’ll show a before shot without artificial eyelashes and then can show them with the mascara with artificial eyelashes to make the effect bigger.

Another in the UK, they do have to say now if they use artificial eyelashes, they’ll say on the advert, especially in print and on the TV. But I’m not sure about in other countries and things like that. So that’s another way that things can be enhanced.

Kylie:  That really shocks me. That’s astounding. Having to put a small disclaimer: “Oh, by the way, we actually put falsies onto this woman in order to make the lashes look… It’s not the product at all. But we’re selling you the product“!  What do you hope for the future of the blog?

Belle:  I just hope that more people start using it. It’s very new. Also I’m open to suggestions if people have seen a product that they’re unsure of or they want to question what’s in it or just find out more about something. I’ve done a few blog posts already. Some have been a little bit negative. The next one I want to do is more of a positive one about a product that I do like and that I use. I don’t want it to all be about judging the beauty industry and discussing how things are all terrible and wrong, because people enjoy using these products and enjoy using new products. I think it’s important to enjoy it as well.

Kylie:  To reward the good as well as point out the pseudo‑science that exists in the industry.

Belle:  Yes, definitely.

You can read the Skeptical Beauty Blog at http://skepticalbeauty.wordpress.com.

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Mike Nam

    I copy edited a beauty blog for a big website for almost a year, and I never even thought about some of the claims these products make. Most of the time, the blog seemed to be focused on value based on price and how they related to all things chic and fashionable.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Exactly – and these days with products being available online (ebay has lots of cheap deals, etc) – how many do we check up on?


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