Beauty creams – are they a tub of lies?
Dispatches’ recent investigation into anti-ageing creams and their effectiveness has stirred things up in the world of cosmetics. We go in search of the real truth behind the claims.
The means of drawing consumers to buy expensive new skincare products are endless. Incessant advertising, beauty consultant recommendations, celebrity endorsements, all with extraordinary assertions that they will instantly make you look younger and rid of crow’s feet and laughter lines. With their programme The Truth About Beauty Creams, Channel 4s Dispatches aimed to see whether these creams had any credibility or if we were all being hoodwinked by an industry currently worth half a billion pounds. The programme opened with the claim: ‘Beauty companies don’t have to test their creams like medicines in clinical trials to show they work’. Obviously shocking, but misleading. Cosmetics still demand a standard of trials, there are several layers of approval a new cosmetic product destined for UK beauty counters must go through.
Dispatches questioned the levels of vitamin A in the Boots No 7 Protect & Perfect range. They say the reaction levels to the ingredients are dangerous. However, all new products are required to undertake a full safety assessment, under a piece of European Union legislation called the Cosmetics Directive. These comprehensive assessments can only be carried out by medically qualified, registered pharmacists, chartered biologists or chartered chemists with extra relevant experience. There are only around 400 people in the UK allowed to carry out these tests. The Cosmetics Directive also controls what ingredients are allowed to be in the product, and the levels permitted. So in order for the range to even be on our shelves it must have gone through these stringent tests.
Also, according to the rules of the legislation: ‘Information relating to each cosmetic product, including its formula, its method of manufacture and its safety assessment, must be readily available to the competent authorities on request’. So although their trials may not be published to the public, they are in no way hidden. The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) states: ‘product-specific trial data is generally not published. This is certainly not an indication that trials were not carried out.’
Moving along the chain of necessary approval, any claim advertised in the UK is scrutinised by independent watchdog organisations before they can be publicised. Television advertisements must be passed by Clearcast before production and transmission, and both broadcast and print advertisements are regulated by the Advertisement Standards Authority (ASA).
Interestingly TV programmes are not screened before being aired. Clearcast’s code states: ‘The general requirement is that evidence must be comprehensive and well-organised and… where research is submitted as evidence, Clearcast expect this to be well designed and conducted’. They also retain the right to have research assessed by a qualified researcher wherever there may be any doubt.
The ASA is in charge of administering the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing. This code states: ‘All medical and scientific claims made about beauty and health-related products should be backed by evidence, where appropriate consisting of trials conducted on people. It also affirms: ‘References to the relief of symptoms or the superficial signs of ageing are acceptable if they are substantiated. Unqualified claims such as ‘cure’ and ‘rejuvenation’ are not generally acceptable.’ This means any claim needs an army of trials and a wealth of evidence to appear in any public advertisement.
However, on the programme Guy Parker, Director of Complaints and Investigations for the ASA admitted: ‘Quite often with a cream the reason why the product is effective at temporarily delaying the signs of ageing is because if contains a sun protection factor.’ So, shockingly, any cream containing SPF is allowed to call itself ‘anti-ageing’ under their rules. Whatever else is in the formula is irrelevant — with an SPF they can carry the invaluable words “anti-ageing” on their packaging. Also, both Clearcast and the ASA are independent bodies, so who regulates their decisions?
For example, L’Oréal’s claim for Revitalift is as an: ‘Anti-wrinkle and firming cream to reduce the appearance of wrinkles’. The name suggests a link with a facelift, but read the small print on their advertisements: ‘This product has been developed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and make skin feel firmer; it has not been proven to have a physical life effect’ — misleading? You decide.
The other main angle for the programme’s argument was the skincare trials. This involved 30 women of a similar age testing five leading anti-ageing creams, while another group tested a plain moisturiser for four weeks. Their skin was analysed in detail before and after the trial by a dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon. They concluded that none of the creams had a positive effect, and in fact some of the testers’ skin had got worse. Dr Raniero De Stasio, Research Director for L’Oréal UK and Ireland even admits on the programme that their Derma Genesis product is a ‘temporary effect that will reverse over a few weeks when you stop using it… it’s a little bit like having a nice meal out, you’ve paid a lot of money for a temporary effect.’
Many beauty cream advertisements do promise results within a time frame, without defining a cross-section of people. Both Nivea Visage Q10 PLUS Anti-Wrinkle Light Day Cream and Night Cream, which were tested in the trials, claim: ‘The appearance of fine lines is visibly reduced within hours’ and ‘The appearance of deeper wrinkles is reduced in only four weeks’. Therefore their effects should have been seen in the time frame of the programme, but they weren’t. Nivea defended their product, stressing the research and development behind NIVEA Visage Q10, which has involved testing on over 2,500 people in clinical trials. Their official response to the programme was: ‘Beiersdorf [Nivea headquarters] is very disappointed by the coverage in last night’s Dispatches programme… the tests conducted on behalf of Channel 4 were on a sample of only five people with inappropriate equipment and the results cannot be considered relevant.’
And looking at the bare bones of this trial there are obvious weaknesses. Only five subjects tested the creams and for a relatively short amount of time. There was also no regulation of skin type, quality, diet or consistency between the testers, and they were all at different stages of the ageing process. The dermatologist on the programme said sunlight causes 90 per cent of ageing, yet there was no control over how much sun exposure the women had over the four weeks.
One issue the programme did uncover in the process of conception to sales for a beauty cream is the shaky ground of the sales consultants. Dispatches gleaned information with undercover cameras and leading questions to unsuspecting sales staff. But the fact remains that the staff replied with unsubstantiated and at times, outlandish medical claims. One beauty consultant from the Christian Dior counter in Debenhams said of their cream: ‘It’s actually slowing down the ageing process of the stem cell, so therefore it’s making your stem cell last longer, the longer it lasts the more stem cells it will produce.’
According to the CTPA there are 25,000 beauty consultants in the UK, all trained by the beauty brand they represent. In an attempt to regulate the claims and quality of these sales staff, 85 per cent of retailers and beauty companies have worked with the London College of Beauty Therapy to develop a nationally recognised qualification. The BTEC Retail Beauty Consultant Diploma was launched in August 2006 and according to the CTPA is now being introduced by a wide range of cosmetic companies.
In the meantime these sales consultants are usually motivated by their commission-supplemented salaries – Debenhams pay staff on their beauty counters a two per cent commission on every product they sell. When we discussed the requirements for an applicant with their resources department they responded: ‘You don’t need any qualifications, you don’t even need that much experience, we recruit in the same way we would a sales advisor. It’s not a make-up artist position; it’s just about selling products. You will have to reach your targets.’ They also admitted staff would sometimes be asked to move around the counters to cover other brands, without any additional training. Pitched as skincare experts ready to diagnose your facial needs, the experience and qualifications of the beauty consultant are actually very misleading.
As for the programme’s implication that beauty magazine recommendations are not to be trusted because writers are under pressure from advertisers, we can guarantee all of the beauty products in Beauty Angels are tried and tested by our dedicated team.
When buying an anti-ageing cream it’s foolish to expect miracles, and we now know to be wary of sales consultants’ advice. But otherwise the temporary effect can be skin boosting and confidence giving. Along with a healthy diet, plenty of water and a good moisturiser, one of the high profile anti-ageing creams can provide a blast of benefit to dull skin. Just take the time to find one that suits your skin, and remember that no one can turn back the hands of time.
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