What Is Science-Washing, And Can The Beauty Industry Do Anything About It?
Clinical skincare has been a driving force in the skincare market, accounting for 34% of prestige skincare sales in the United States last year, according to research and analytics firm The NPD Group. The rise of clinical skincare has brought with it a rise in science-washing or marketing that promotes science without having a scientific basis as skincare brands supposedly rooted in science trot out their scientific qualifications.
In a post, Michelle Wong, the science educator and cosmetic chemist behind the digital platform Lab Muffin Beauty Science, identifies three key attributes of science-washing: “using science in areas where science can’t tell you the answer,” “making claims beyond what the evidence shows,” and “eagerness to accept claims that seem scientific without critical appraisal.”
Wong goes on to elucidate how science-washing occurs in beauty marketing, including the adoption of technical scientific terms irrespective of their applicability and appeals to scientific authorities even when they’re wrong or touching on areas outside their expertise. She concludes, “Science only works when it’s relevant, when the right bits are used, and with recognition of its limits.”
We were wondering what beauty entrepreneurs, executives and experts think of science-washing. So, we asked eight of them the following questions: What does science-washing mean to you, and how do you see it manifest in the beauty industry? What do you think should be done about it?
- Krupa Koestline Cosmetic chemist and founder, KKT Consultants
Beauty consumers, especially skincare consumers, are savvier than ever. They are on social media learning about ingredients, their benefits and basic chemistry like pH values, but the problem with that is that social media content lacks nuance. Everything is posted to be click-baity, to attract someone's attention with either an image or a 15- to 30-second video. Sadly, none of us would be able to pass our general or organic chemistry classes just by watching TikTok or IG Reels.
With that said, because consumers now have some understanding of ingredients, they are more prone to accept science-washed marketing. For example, a lot of hair brands are highlighting skincare ingredients in their formulas like vitamin C, but vitamin C in haircare products are mostly used as pH adjusters.
Or they highlight ingredients like arnica oil or citrulline as a key ingredient, but there are no studies showing their effects on hair or scalp. Sometimes brands will also conduct "science experiments" that are very visual on social media to show how effective their products are like the vitamin C serum on apple slices experiment or adding vitamin C into Iodine experiment. The nuances are removed from these types of social media videos.
Another issue with science-washing that I've noticed is that consumers are now equating higher percentages of active ingredients as better and more potent. There are so many issues with this.
Take retinoids, for example. There are so many forms of retinoids, and 1% of one tretinoin is very different from 1% of retinaldehyde. Yet, brands will market a high percentage of retinoid on their packaging, even if they're using a very gentle derivative, as if it's extra potent. The other side to that is that, with many active ingredients, higher doses don't always equate to being better. It could be more irritating.
Transparency is always the best policy when it comes to beauty marketing. Does this mean printing the percentage of each ingredient on the packaging? That information without any context doesn't benefit consumers either. If brands are transparent as to the true purpose of each ingredient either on the packaging or their website, that could be a first step.
Another strategy is to increase consumer education and awareness so they aren't as likely to fall for science-washing. I know a lot of experts like myself, other cosmetic chemists and dermatologists are trying to provide more educational content so consumers are better equipped to make their choices. I think we can all do more to encourage people to ask more questions about our background.
- Ron Robinson Cosmetic Chemist and Founder, BeautyStat
To me, science-washing is the belief that science is absolute. In reality, science is about degrees, context and nuance.
As it relates to the safety and performance of ingredients, people like to use science to either demonize or glorify ingredients. It's either good or bad.
In reality, many ingredients can be good or bad depending on the level used, how it's used and in what situation.
I think that more education and, in some cases, more testing needs to be done in order to help consumers understand the differences here.
- Ginger King Cosmetic Chemist and Founder, FanLoveBeauty
Science-washing means there is no actual clinical data to support any type of claims, but rather using it as a mean to market beauty products. This occurs because the beauty industry inherently is always looking for the next best thing, but there is not always the best next thing available.
It then comes down to beauty marketers saying what story can we tell because people like stories. This is also why you see many folklore-use ingredients without clinical data to prove them, but people believe it as it's part of the culture.
At the end of the day, being a cosmetic chemist, of course, if there are clinically proven ingredients or formulas, they will be treated as holy. However, marketing stories are also needed to romance the consumers as not all consumers are science-driven. If the particular ingredient has been used for centuries, passed down through generations, they have the right to believe it works.
Beauty is part art, part science. The psychology of beauty plays an important part. If it is just science without a story, people don't take the time to do the self-care, to embrace their senses in the product that they believe work wonders. So, whether it is science-washing or greenwashing, consumers will only be fooled once with the product. The proof in the pudding is in repeat sales.
- Barbara Paldus Founder and CEO, Codex Beauty Labs
Science-washing is when brands make unsubstantiated claims or cherry-pick data to support their point of view. In either case, they make over-reaching statements without having done the science to support them, or they conclude over-generalizations without considering the full set of scientific literature. We see science-washing manifest in beauty particularly with product claims.
In our opinion, and we live by this rule, brands should publish quantified measurements of their product performance (skin benefits and carbon footprint). Specifications could be defined and unified across the industry (it’s hard to argue with a corneometer on skin hydration), allowing for an objective standard that all beauty brands can abide by. Accredited tests labs would be independent third-party arbitrators, with no financial interest. That way, consumers could compare facts with prices.
- Emmy Ketcham Cosmetic Chemist and Co-Founder, Experiment
To me, the science-washing that we’re seeing today is just bad marketing wearing new clothes. The root issue is one that's been there all along—cosmetics are not pharmaceuticals. There are limits to what they can truly do for your skin. Brands, especially those without strong regulatory input, are often overstating efficacy or being misleading in their marketing, whether that's through the opaque language of the past or technical jargon we're seeing now.
Gone are the days of simply marketing your “secret floral complex” as the elixir of youth. Now, consumers are demanding to know the what/how/why of your formulations. In the long term, this is a good thing for the industry and consumers. Putting the science at the forefront of marketing an inherently scientific product (cosmetics are formulated by chemists, after all) has already led to an increase in formulation transparency. Brands, however, don't typically employ scientists to their marketing teams, so it's not surprising that there have been missteps along the way.
I see the next wave of transparency being applied to claims validation: Are you relying on supplier data to back up your claims? Were they tested using instrumental or perception analysis? Context is important when communicating product efficacy, and sharing this information with consumers is a step in the right direction.
- Flora Kim Dermatologist, Flora Kim MD Dermatology
As a dermatologist, I witness every day the confusion and frustration of patients who just want to make the right choices for their skin. Information is empowering, but it can also be overwhelming, and sometimes unfortunately incorrect. There are so many messengers and so many messages in the beauty space that fiercely compete for attention. Who and what do you believe?
Now add enticing yet hard to define words like “science” or “clean” to the mix. What do these words mean exactly when spoken by each brand? The burden is on the consumer to figure it out—that is if the powerful marketing hypnosis hasn’t already cast its spell, or sheer exhaustion from repeated bombardment of what is purported to be best and true has not already whittled down the consumer to a state of submission.
When I think about the relationship consumers have with beauty and how the level of importance consumers give it is what fuels the beauty industry with such tremendous reach and influence, what bothers me is when I see those who take advantage of a consumer’s innate desire to make the right decision—or just as equally exploiting a consumer’s silent fear of making a mistake—to achieve a self-serving agenda.
Consumers may know their beauty goals, but trying to figure out how best to reach a desired outcome is when and why they turn to the beauty industry for help. This is where the industry needs to show up with a strong moral compass and truly put the needs of the consumer first. When the primary focus of a brand is to sell, it may use all the clever tactics and words it feels the consumer wants to hear so it leads to a sale. That is why you see “greenwashing” one year, then “science-washing” the next, until the next trend appears, amplified by strategic marketing and media.
When the focus and mission of a brand is to truly serve the consumer, by definition, there can’t be any “washing,” but just an honest straightforward dialogue rooted in inviting the consumer to completely understand you, inside and out. In some ways, it’s like a dating relationship where brands have to stop pretending to be something they are not because they want to be liked, and instead, embrace vulnerability via transparency as that is the path to consumer loyalty and a real lasting connection.
- Ekta Yadav Doctor and Podcast Host, Skincare Anarchy
As someone who has been in a biomedical laboratory since the age of 7, I have seen how the community of scientific innovators have shifted into more public domains such as mainstream media and marketing. Although the spotlight on science is never a bad thing for us as a population, the allowance of scientific principles to be compromised is something that has been a major setback and distraction from the essence of what the scientific method and other such principles represent.
As scientists and doctors, we are trained from day one to say “I don’t know” if we don’t have any definite proof of why certain phenomena are occurring or if there is not significant data surrounding the complex mechanisms of a disease or process. We are reprimanded for making lofty claims by the scholars of our communities so that we recognize the true meaning of the concept correlation does not imply causation.
After interviewing hundreds of brands on my podcast, Skincare Anarchy, and learning about the science behind their products, the biggest issue I have seen in the beauty and wellness spaces has been this disregard of the above principle. The assumption of causation has led to the creation of a plethora of redundant products and practices in the beauty and aesthetic communities, which has fueled the momentum we now see on social media outlets such as TikTok, where everyone is a self-recognized scientist.
Gone are the days of citing authors of reputable literature, and instead we see their work being misused and misreported by those without even the basic understanding of simple words such as “theory” or “hypothesis.” I truly believe that the concept of science-washing stems from the unchecked process of using published work in unethical ways by companies and oftentimes influencers.
If you approached any Ph.D. or M.D. candidate and asked them something as simple as “Will my skin go back to how it was 10 years ago if I use XYZ products?,” the response they have been trained to give will be founded in directing you to published papers, textbooks and citations that offer information about this subject. No one who is properly trained in the realm of any scientific discipline will say without doubt that there is a cure or answer to anything. This is simply not in the spirit of good science or innovation.
Long story short, I don’t think any of this falls onto the shoulders of consumers. The principles I’ve mentioned above such as the correlation and causation assumptions or even the lack of proper hypothesis testing are aspects that we as medical and scientific scholars must uphold and correct when we see them being used improperly to market OTC products to the masses. The ethical components that come with obtaining any higher-level degree in science demands our dedication to upholding the only constant we can claim: the inability to say that there is ever a final answer.
The snowball effect we are seeing right now in the beauty community with regards to hiding behind scientific claims that are not only false but, more importantly, misrepresented and reported is truly something that should be addressed by the science community first. We must then follow in those footsteps as beauty enthusiasts and always provide consumers with the discretionary understanding that nothing that is being sold OTC is a cure in any way.
I believe that the responsibility of properly utilizing scientific data falls on our shoulders as scientifically trained individuals, and the root cause of the spreading of the misinformation is due to the lack of checks and balances from the scientific community at large.
- Dennis Gross Founder, Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare
Science-washing is inaccurately using science to prove trends for marketing purposes, with the intent to encourage purchasing. We live in a world where brands can take extreme liberties in what they claim about their products, ingredients and promised results. Many consumers are unhappy with their purchases and looking for solutions that actually work.
However, it can be difficult and frustrating for the consumer to sift through the noise of false correlations and junk science, especially if they don’t have access to a dermatologist for guidance. Even worse, when a consumer falls into this pitfall, companies are taking advantage of their time, resources and results they could have seen with legitimate treatment.
With so many voices vying for consumer’s dollars, it’s important to amplify reputable physicians, chemists and innovators that not only excel in their fields, but respect the impact of the product on the patient and planet. Many consumers join our masterclasses and take advantage of our free skin consultations to get a better understanding of their skin. It helps if consumers can think critically about their skin health to avoid these pitfalls.
Skincare and cosmetics are a personal, intimate experience, so there needs to be significant investment in the clinical performance of a product before it ever makes it into the consumer’s hands. Third-party party, clinical research is necessary to differentiate between science-washing and accurate clinical claims. This process also ensures the safety and efficacy of the product.
As the market gets flooded with more products and information, its important that consumers have credible sources, resources and experts they can rely on for true, accurate information. Science-washing is a cheap trick. It’s up to the media, companies and physicians to do due diligence to provide accurate scientific education to consumers regardless of profit.
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