Why do accomplished, intelligent women spend so much money on skincare products that don’t work? Why do they put so much energy into looking a certain way? These questions hover in the back of my mind every day in my dermatology practice.
I see women spend $300 for a one-ounce jar of face cream, use it for a few months, then realize they don’t see results. So, they purchase a new product at $500 an ounce. Once again, they come to the same conclusion: it’s not working. They search again and purchase something else. My heart goes out to them. I know what they are actually buying, and it isn’t what they think.
Too many patients arrive at my office in a state of anxiety because they found a fine line on their forehead. They have no concerns about cancer. They just want that little wrinkle to go away.
Why is it that every newsflash of some so-called breakthrough discovery has millions of already-fabulous women lining up to spend money they may or may not have to reach for a goal they never seem to attain? The answer lies within a $500 billion cosmetic industry that wants to sell products. It lies within a sector of cosmetics called the skincare industry.
Do these products truly support healthy skin? The answer is in the science, but how do those scientific findings apply to the claims of specific creams, gels, and lotions? The answer is not simple or easy. In fact, it’s a long and winding road with several detours.
Cosmetics and advertising
“Cosmetics are not a modern invention. Humans have used various substances to alter their appearance or accentuate their features for at least ten thousand years, and possibly longer.” In ancient Egypt, women used lead-based powder called kohl to darken their eyelids. In ancient China, both men and women stained their fingernails various colors to show their social class. Cleopatra is famous for her milk baths she claimed made her skin soft and smooth.
In modern times, an important element has shaped our global culture: marketing. Cosmetic print ad campaigns have been around for more than a hundred years. In the 1920s, the Sweet Georgia Brown company sold Wonderful Vanishing Cream and Magic Pink Lovin’ Cream (whatever that means). A company called Durney’s published ads for Gay Paree Vanishing Cream to make a woman’s skin glow—or so they said.
In the 1950s, television brought a wide-open opportunity for marketing into our homes. Over the next twenty years, the cosmetic industry created an entire cultural mythology that told women what they need for the best-looking face and hair. What started out as catchy commercials in the 1950s became a universal belief system today.
Let’s consider shampoo, for example. Ask any woman over seventy what she used to wash her hair as a young girl, and she’ll look confused. She’ll probably say she can’t remember. Then she might say dishwashing liquid, brown soap, or some type of oil. In 1908 The New York Times published an article on how to use castile soap—also used for dishes and laundry—to wash hair.**
A 1920s radio ad for Luster-Cream Shampoo promised that shampooing would increase sex appeal. In 1952 a TV commercial for Drene shampoo showed a teenager getting ready for a date by washing his hair. By the 1970s Farrah Fawcett commercials told consumers that shampooing less than several times a week was unhealthy
What about the instructions on many shampoo bottles that say, “Lather, Rinse, Repeat”? Why repeat? There are no proven health benefits to shampooing twice, although repeating the process empties the shampoo bottle twice as fast.
This is just one simplified example of the progression of marketing and myth-building. How many moms today teach their children to wash their hair every time they shower? What started out as an ad campaign turned into a cultural norm.
So, what caused the invention of shampoo? Did soap makers hear about a breakthrough in science showing that people need a special soap for hair, and need to use it almost every day in order to be healthy? Or did a smart copywriter come up with a tantalizing way to sell the product and then double sales by adding one little word to their simple instructions: Repeat?
Unfortunately, most of the time this kind of information is just marketing, pure and simple.
Shampoo is only one example. Dozens of beliefs we commonly hold true today were made up more than fifty years ago by someone at a typewriter working up an ad campaign.
Here are just a few of them:
- Dermatologist-tested products are better.
- Women over fifty should use skincare products designed for mature skin.
- Hypoallergenic means you’ll never have a reaction to that product.
- The more expensive the product, the better it is.
- Take your makeup off before you go to sleep or you’ll get wrinkles. (What you’ll actually get is a dirty pillowcase!)
- Sleep on your back to avoid wrinkles.
This is the cosmetics industry—a $500 billion playground so mixed in its messages that the consumer has no idea what is truly helpful and what is simply hype. I sat down to write this book to bring some sense to the nonsense out there—to deliver the facts and tell the truth about what’s really helpful and what’s glitz and glam. But first, I want to make it clear that, as a dermatologist, I’m here as your advocate, to help you understand what best supports your skin, so you can make informed choices and avoid wasting money on products that don’t do what you expect.
If someone wants to use an expensive product that feels creamy and smells great—although it doesn’t do much to keep their skin healthy—that’s their choice, and I honor that. My primary concern is that they make an informed decision.
Fayne Frey is a dermatologist and author of The Skincare Hoax: How You’re Being Tricked into Buying Lotions, Potions & Wrinkle Cream.
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