Skincare 101: Lies They Tell You

Lindsay Lohan by Richard Phillips

How to Develop the Cynicism and Curiosity Required to Navigate Towards Your Best Skin

The cosmetics marketplace in the United States is the Wild West, and consequences are playing out on your face. 

You Must Self-Educate: 

You're searching for good skincare. Depending on your taste, you might browse, Whole Foods,, or select products from your facialist. All of the above retailers and brands, regardless of the variety of their ethos, sell products that are governed by the same rulebook and enjoy equal freedoms of consumer obfustication.

You've picked a product. Let's begin with two questions: Can you assume the ingredients within are safe, and can you trust the claims made on the jar?

Safety First

Kafkaesque regulations govern cosmetics in this country. The FDA's explanatory page on their website is titled "How Cosmetics Are Not FDA Approved, but Are FDA Regulated."

You sense that we're heading down a rabbit hole of bullshit. 

The United States has not passed a federal law to regulate personal care products since 1938, when President Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).

The Act was in part prompted because manufacturers were putting radium into lipstick and a color dyeing agent called p-Phenylenediamine into mascara, which caused death and blindness respectively. (Look out for products with mercury still on US shelves.)

The FDCA outlined rules that would in theory protect consumers from toxic substances in their personal care products and prevent companies from making false marketing claims.

Despite the regulations on paper, unsafe ingredients have gone straight into bottles and onto our faces without oversight. The European Union has banned over 1,300 ingredients and limited the levels of 250 ingredients in the personal care category over the past 20 years alone. Meanwhile, the United States has only partially banned 30 ingredients in personal care in its history. 


Most skincare products fall into the FDA's category of both a cosmetic and a drug. A product is a drug if it makes a claim that it will treat something. For example, the FDA will consider aromatherapy a drug if it claims to help you sleep better or quit smoking. 

Drugs are technically supposed to be tested and pre-approved, but over 85,000 chemicals have been introduced into commerce since WWII, and less than 10% of those have been tested for safety in human health. 

In contrast, cosmetics companies do not have to get FDA approval before they launch products on the market. So who is responsible for the safety of the products?

The companies.

"Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA."

The FDA says that it regularly advises "manufacturers to use whatever testing is necessary to ensure the safety of their products and ingredients." Emphasis on the word "whatever."

Finger Wagger

Pause. Maybe you're thinking "ok, so they don't pre-approve, but there are laws that regulate once on the market, so the FDA can enforce once the product is out, and companies will therefore be disincentivized from creating harmful or misleading products." 

Someone mansplain to me how this qualifies as "regulation": The FDA does not have the authority to issue a product recall if it is known to be hazardous or misleading.

They will write a letter to the company if they think a product should be recalled, which is endearingly WASPy of them.

When it comes to personal care products, the FDA is a finger wagger and that's where their authority ends. 

Given that the FDA can only regulate post-market launch, their enforcement would need to go through the Department of Justice. Scan through the Department of Justice cases over the past couple years and you won't find anything related to cosmetics or skincare products. When the FDA does refer a case to the DoJ, it is considered a "complaint" and the government needs to prove the allegation by a preponderance of the evidence. 

Trust The Brands Anyway?

Do you think the entrepreneurs and corporations competing in the cosmetics industry have been self-policing? Like first they lobby Congress for less regulation, fight individual and class action lawsuits that evidence the harm of their products, and then they turn around and set a high internal bar for honesty and safety?

My agenda is to identify the products that will actually help with anti-aging and skin health. But if you're really here for the tea, know that research ties ingredients in personal care to the upswing in infertility, birth defects, respiratory issues, and cancer rates. 

Can You Trust Skincare Claims?

The FDCA prohibits the marketing of adulterated (unsafe ingredients), or "mislabeling" practices, meaning claims should not be misleading. We now understand that the FDA has a castrated influence over ingredient safety; let's review their regulation of false claims. 

From the FDA website describing the FDCA:

“Misbranding” refers to violations involving improperly labeled or deceptively packaged products. Under the FD&C Act, a cosmetic is misbranded if--
  • "its labeling is false or misleading in any particular"

This rule is about as enforced as my fantasy no-sugar diet. 

Take for example the common fake skincare marketing claim that a product is "hypoallergenic." The term implies that the product is gentle and safe for sensitive skin, and extra beneficial for those who suffer from allergies to substances in other skincare products.

The word "hypoallergenic" has no scientific meaning, and has not been subject to testing. In the early 1970s, the FDA proposed that the word should be defined so that it could be fairly used by the industry.

They suggested a test: could a company show that human subjects suffered less adverse skin reactions with a hypoallergenic product against a similar product without that claim? 

Cosmetic companies complained that to test the claim would be an economic burden on them, but they did manage to pay extensive legal fees to fight the FDA's regulation. 

After 4 years in courts, Almay and Clinique, which both use the word hypoallergenic frequently on their products, won the appeal in Federal Court, deeming the FDA's regulation invalid. 

"Dermatologist-Approved" and "Dermatologist-Tested" and "Non-Comedogenic" are similarly fictitious marketing claims that appear on products in obvious defiance of the FDCA. 

Opposite Land

Unsubstantiated skincare claims are unregulated - but how about when a company falsely claims a treatment and in fact the product contains ingredients that are the opposite to the alleged outcome? 

The Department of Toxic Substances Control begins the overview of their findings on the toxicity of nail products: 

"When nail care products claim to be free of unsafe chemicals, despite how the label reads, just the opposite is often true."

Skincare companies likewise get away with claiming whatever you most want to hear, while infusing their products with ingredients that damage your skin upon application.

Often the ingredients aren't just ineffective, they do exactly the opposite of what they claim. 

This frustrates me particularly when it comes to acne treatment. Imagine all the self-conscious teens standing in CVS right now, scanning the shelves looking for help - maybe you've been there yourself.

It's unjust that the bottles promoting themselves as acne cleansers, scrubs, and treatments in fact contain ingredients that aggravate the skin and cause increased breakouts. 

Below is a small sample of acne cleansers which contain inflammatory ingredients that literally make acne worse:

It's as if you sought help from a dentist, paid for his services, and he proceeded to inject your gums with plaque. Or if your gym force fed you donuts when you walked through their doors: you're paying for exactly the opposite of what you're intending to buy. 

What's Going On?

In an ideal market, safe and effective skincare products would sell better than their toxic and inflammatory competitors, and companies would be incentivized to introduce innovative products that offered increasingly better treatment. 

Why are companies like Neutrogena releasing "acne fighting products" that cause more acne? 

Obvious hypotheses would be: 1) good and bad effects from products often take a long time for a person to recognize on their skin, and 2) manufacturers are using cheap ingredients for the sake of cost-effectiveness.

A more subtle guess has to do with the psychology of what consumers think they want from skincare. 

When you were a teen standing in the skincare aisle, it probably seemed intuitive to you that the best acne cleanser would be one that provided a "deep" clean.

Zits seem dirty, so a cleanser with a scrub is appealing. We associate cleaning agents with foam, so it makes sense to look for a foaming cleanser. We link oil with acne, so a cleanser that leaves our face feeling tighter, tingling, and drier seems effective. Most of us would also prefer to put something on our faces that smells like apricots than a concoction of medical ingredients, so we reach for the pretty apricot bottle.

The ingredients required to make a product do all of the above are also very irritating for the skin.

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg outlines how the makers of Pepsodent, the first successful toothpaste in America, managed to market their product to consumers so it was used regularly. When Pepsodent entered the market, only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste, and 10 years later, 65% did. 

Unlike other toothpaste products, Pepsodent included ingredients that made the mouth tingle and caused the paste to foam. Initial consumers associated both those sensations with effectiveness, and Pepsodent launched marketing campaigns that taught Americans to associate tingling and foaming as cues for cleaner teeth. As a brand manager at Oral-B explained to Duhigg: 

"Consumers need some kind of signal that a product is working. We can make toothpaste taste like anything--blueberries, green tea--as long as it has a cool tingle, people feel like their mouth is clean. The tingling doesn't make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people it's doing the job."

She continues to address the foaming aspect:

"Foaming is a huge reward. Shampoo doesn't have to foam, but we add foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair. Same thing with laundry detergent. And toothpaste--now every company adds sodium laureth sulfate to make toothpaste foam more. There's no cleaning benefit, but people feel better when there's a bunch of suds around their mouth." 

And More Later: 

When a government fails to monitor an industry, the burden is on us to self-educate. In the next installments of this series, I'll cover why "natural" and "all organic" skincare products are often bogus, why a $250 skin cream is likely less effective than olive oil, and how to read the back of every skincare bottle before purchasing. 

The outcome of your self education is that you'll save a lot of money on skincare and you'll have prettier skin, win-win.