It’s no secret that we are all subject to marketing and advertising on a daily basis. Nowadays, it seems like even thinking about skincare will get you bombarded with countless ads and sponsored post on social media. But how trustworthy are some of the marketing buzzwords used to describe the effects of skincare merchandise? Manish Shah, M.D., an anti-aging expert and board-certified Denver plastic surgeon, reached out to us to discuss ethical patient safety issues and to help us understand what the language frequently found on labels really means.
“There are many ways marketers attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the consumer with empty phrases and jargon,” says Shah. “A phrase such as ‘clinically tested’ and ‘doctor recommended’ is used to mislead consumers into thinking a certain product has more credibility than it actually does.” Shah explained that, when these phrases are used, it says nothing for the results of the clinical tests or what the products were tested for. In terms of products being truly doctor recommended, Shah warns that “consumers don’t know what doctor recommended the product in most cases and if those doctors are getting some sort of incentive for endorsement.”
Here are a nine commonly used skincare buzzwords Shah says to be wary of:
1. “Patented Technology”
“Patents are not necessarily a foolproof sign that something is groundbreaking or effective,” says Shah. “Marketers use this language to convey innovation and superiority that their product might not necessarily have over its competitors." Patents are sometimes authorized through technicality instead of breakthrough meaning any new combination of ingredients, methods or production process can be patented as long as it is new.
2. “Maximum Strength”
This is a term used often to describe skin cleansers and moisturizers. “It’s a relative term and the consumer doesn’t really know what it is relevant to," says Shah. "It’s language that entices the shopper to make the purchase without really telling them how it accomplishes ‘maximum strength’ results.”
3. “Clinical Strength”
From painkillers to hydrating serums, companies love to bill their products as having “clinical strength.” Shah says consumers should practice healthy skepticism with such claims. “A product that claims it has clinical strength, in many cases, could have been tested by the doctors developing it," says Shah. "If you think about it, you can’t really pinpoint what that phrase means because it is relative and we have no context as to what the company considers clinical strength." The perception is that the product is better because the world clinical makes it sound more credible.
4. “For All Skin Types”
“For all skin types is a difficult promise to deliver on,” says Shah, who has more than 14 years experience in the skincare industry. “Not all skin is the same. If someone has an allergy to an ingredient, or some form of dermatitis, they really should speak to their doctor about what products are best to include in their regiment instead of blindly trusting a label."
5. “FDA Approved”
The FDA has different protocols for skincare products that make cosmetic claims as opposed to those that make more medical claims such as promising to increase production of collagen in the skin. Since that is a body function, the FDA treats those differently than normal skincare products. However, the FDA just stipulates that the product being sold is safe to use in the manner in which it is directed to be used. “FDA approval is not credential that shows the superiority of results,” says Shah. "Do not be sold on the sole factor of an FDA approval."
6. “Anti-Aging," "Revitalizing," or "Age Defying”
We’ve all seen these on the labels of some cream or serum, or advertised in a commercial where beautiful models and actresses are displayed in all of their airbrushed and well-lit perfection. “These terms are somewhat misleading in that they give the perception of an unrealistic turning back of the clock,” says Shah. "To many consumers viewing an advertisement, it might seem like buy and using that product will help them look like an ageless actress and that is not accurate.” Aging gracefully and maintaining a more youthful look has a lot to do with nutrition, exercise, genes, consistent skin care, stress levels, and cosmetic procedures when necessary. But according to Shah, people cannot cling onto just one aspect in order to look their best and no one product will reverse the clock.
Shah explains that an actual botanic is technically an ingredient that is derived from a plant, but “botanical” may be used in advertising to refer to something that is synthetic but acts similar to a plant-based ingredient.
- What you think it means: Proven to make skin look tauter.
- What it really means: Essentially nothing. “There is no objective way to measure firming,” says Shah. “When a brand says their product has been shown to firm your skin, that claim can only be based on very subjective consumer perception.”
9. "Instant Results"
Keep in mind that “instant results” aren’t the same as “long-term results.” Meaning, you may use a product that gives you instant moisture or has a quick-acting firming effect, but those results may fade after a few hours and require reapplication. Shah’s final advice? “Check a product to make sure it specifies whether its “instant” effects are long lasting or short term.”