How To Make Beauty Product Claims Without Getting Into Trouble

The beauty industry is getting more and more competitive with each launch.

As a result, brands within it have to hone sharper points of differentiation to set themselves apart from the pack. Product claims involving ingredient sourcing, results and safety standards are crucial for those points of differentiation. However, unsubstantiated claims can get brands into trouble.

Denise Herich, co-founder of The Benchmarking Company, and Karen Yarussi-King, president of Global Regulatory Associates, recently participated in a Beauty Independent webinar series on the science of beauty sponsored by Codex Beauty Labs during which they talked about how founders can navigate murky claim waters.

According to Benchmarking’s data, consumers seek out products with compelling claims. Nearly 85% of female beauty buyers look for efficacy claims, and 86% conduct their own research on brands and their claims prior to heading to a store to buy a product or buying a product online. Herich says, “Consumers have a lot more time, so what are they doing? They are going online to research and reading more reviews and consumer claims for beauty and personal care products than ever before.”

Below, Herich and Yarissi-King delve into what beauty consumers are interested in, common mistakes brands make with claims, and the benefits of a global regulatory review.

Denise Herich, co-founder of The Benchmarking Company, recommends beauty brands perform studies to validate the safety of their products and demonstrate their effectiveness. She notes retailers look for studies performed by independent companies.

THE IMPORTANCE OF Independent Studies

Before buying a product, customers want proof it’s going to perform. There are several ways brands can offer them proof, including customer testimonials, before-and-after photos, recommendations on social (Herich describes word-of-mouth raves as G2G or girlfriend to girlfriend), ratings and reviews. “They create great buzz, and they can really support your claims that you have,” says Herich, noting they’re also passive. “You can’t really truly verify that those people use the product as directed and followed a specific protocol.” She suggests brands go beyond those manners of proof to take a more substantiated approach, and perform studies to validate safety and demonstrate effectiveness.

One oft-ignored benefit of consumer studies that Herich highlights is they provide insight into whether a product works for its intended audience. “We’ve had a number of brands who do tests and—guess what?—halfway through, something’s not right,” she says. “This is a great thing to know before you go and make a multimillion-dollar marketing mistake.”

Consumer studies can mitigate risk down the line, too. “Should a consumer challenge you and want to do a class-action lawsuit against your company, well, you’ve already done a study, and this has never happened with this exact same audience as an example,” says Herich, underscoring retailers are attracted to studies that have been done by independent firms. “It’s the away-from-you validation that a lot of retailers really like,” she says. “That’s nice that you have product reviews, but, unless you have an independent claims study, they’re not going to look too seriously at you if that’s what you’re relying on. They’re not a substitute for the actual real thing.”

Pro Tip: Once brands have hard data, Herich advises them to amplify it via influencer praise and positive customer reviews. Benchmarking has found 86% of consumers says product reviews influence their purchases. In reviews, Herich shares consumers are drawn to high ratings and a significant volume of positive feedback. Specifically, most women like to see a 4.2-star rating or above before buying a product they’re not familiar with—and they like to see a good number of ratings. “Don’t give me 20 people who rated this,” says Herich. “Thousands, of course, is better than a hundred, which, of course, is better than dozens and so on.”

Retailers are keen on testimonials and recommendations from people resembling the consumers a brand is targeting. “They look for claims that are from women with similar skin concerns and the same age, and what’s becoming much more important is 82% of women want claims derived from a panel of women of the same ethnicity,” says Herich. “It’s becoming much more personal.”

Brands should go through every claim with a fine-tooth comb to ensure they can back each one up. If a brand claims it has or doesn’t have an ingredient in its formula, it has to verify that claim is in fact true.

A Look At Acceptable Versus Unacceptable Claims 

Brands aren’t required to make claims, but they help entice customers. “What is required is that you are substantiating the claims that you place on the package,” says Yarussi-King. She outlines five ways to substantiate claims: Consumer perception, professional grading, bioinstrumentation, in-vitro and the formula itself. Puffery or emotive claims—like pronouncing a cream lotion is luxurious—don’t require support, but declarative claims—e.g., “this product provides moisture for 24 hours”—require objective support measured by bio-instrumentation.

The difference between an acceptable claim and an unacceptable claim can come down to wording. Yarussi-King cites the following as examples of acceptable claims: “improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” “cleanses skin and deep cleans pores,” and “removes or absorbs oil.” Examples of unacceptable claims are: “reverses the signs of aging,” “reduces the number of pores,” and “balances excess sebum.”

In the United States, claims are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, the agency overseeing marketing and advertising policies, and the Food and Drug Administration, the agency overseeing cosmetics regulation. They have the power to enforce standards. Yarussi-King and Herich stress brands should go through every claim with a fine-tooth comb to ensure they can back each one up. If a brand markets its product as paraben-free, it has to examine every single raw material to guarantee that assertion is true.

Herich says a common mistake brands make is to promote claims derived from previous versions of a formula. Yarussi-King points out that brands tend to make claims not in alignment with the ingredients in their formulas. She says, “I see a lot of times, from manufacturers, a product will say 100% turmeric extract, but, when we get the raw material data, it’s only 20% of that raw material.” Yarussi-King emphasizes, “The claims that you’re making have to match the formula, not a new version of the formula or an old one, but the exact version that you’re talking about.” She says brands should be especially careful when dealing with ingredients like CBD. Herich explains, “If you’re using it as a cosmetic, you can’t say that it healed something or you feel no more pain or something, that’s a drug claim.”

Pro Tip: Many acne products, sunscreens, antiperspirants and diaper rash creams are regulated by a monograph that denotes stricter regulation than conventional cosmetics products have to obey. “They are very specific on which ingredients can be used and at what level, what claims can be made on the package, and what warnings are required,” says Yarussi-King. “They’re looking to regulate it more heavily than a cosmetic because it’s intended to cure or diagnose or treat a disease state.”

Yarussi-King mentions the acne fighter salicylic acid is considered a safe and efficacious ingredient by the monograph. “If you were to use tea tree oil and try to say that your product was anti-acne with tea tree oil, you would be considered to be misbranded because it’s not an approved active ingredient,” she says.

Around the world, countries have different rules for regulating beauty products, from raw materials to formula testing.

A Global Regulatory Review Approach

Countries have different rules for regulating beauty products, from raw materials to formula testing. For example, in China and Australia, ingredients used in cosmetic products must be on the countries’ approved list of ingredients. In the U.S., ingredients used must not be on a prohibited list. Countries even diverge on their regulations for the order of ingredients on cosmetic labels and the types of names used for them.

If beauty entrepreneurs desire their brands to expand internationally, Yarussi-King counsels that they take a global regulatory approach to building their businesses. “I try to tell my clients to do a global regulatory review because, invariably, you start in the U.S. and then—especially if you sell in a place like Sephora—you’re going to Europe, you’re going to the ASEAN markets, you’re going to China, you’re going around the world,” she says. “Rather than having to reformulate due to regulatory requirements, it’s best to know and adhere to them upfront.” She proposes brands start by sticking to the strictest standards and going from there.

Pro Tip: Certifications aren’t necessary, but they don’t hurt. In the European Union, brands aren’t allowed to put cruelty-free on packaging, but they can achieve Leaping Bunny certification to convey that their products are cruelty-free. Certifications can be valuable in showing a brand is vegan as well. Yarussi-King says, “These other certifications, for the most part, are for that extra organic cruelty-free, sustainable [stamp]…The only way you could potentially get in trouble is if you said you were 100% organic and somebody challenged that, right? But, if you were certified, you can go back to them obviously and say we went through the process.”