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Ethical skincare: fat free jelly beans anyone?!

Natasha Dauncey

Being perceived as ethical is something that to which a lot of brands aspire. In the world of beauty it's synonymous with being cruelty free, using responsibly sourced ingredients, being environmentally conscious and corporate social responsibility. These are all of course very important things. But what about ethical or responsible marketing? How brands convey their key selling points, what they tell you about their products, the foundation for their claims. This can be at odds with the idea of being ethical. Take ingredients that promise to cure cancer, claims that a product is free of “toxins / chemicals” (implying that competitor products are somehow toxic) or claims that a product gets deep into the dermis of the skin. Sometimes it’s even less overt than this. For example, I recently came across a number of sites talking about the benefits of cacay oil (clearly the claims come from a supplier of cacay oil and have been copied and pasted extensively!) because they all say EXACTLY the same thing: that cacay oil has “twice the amount of linoleic acid as argan oil”. Sounds great doesn’t it, and it’s not untrue BUT it’s actually misleading because they’ve chosen an irrelevant comparator. Argan oil isn’t even considered a high linoleic oil, so why use that as a benchmark? Because saying cacay oil has a comparable amount of linoleic acid to safflower, grapeseed, sunflower and hempseed oils doesn’t sound as impressive does it?!  Taking data out of context and using it as a means to sell a product, is that ethical? 

I see a lot of parallels with marketing in the food industry (hence the seemingly random title of this post!). Take selling sweets as "fat free". On face value, the implication is that somehow these sweets aren’t that bad for you because they have no fat in them. And whilst it’s true that most sweets don’t contain any fat, the reality is that sweets in general are unhealthy because of the sugar content: whether or not they’re fat free is irrelevant! Yet when we are exposed to messages like this whilst shopping, we subconsciously assume that the fat free version is healthier than the version that doesn’t mention fat content. So these marketing cues really can really influence our buying behaviour.

Unethical marketing happens in all sectors of beauty, whether it's "green beauty" or more mainstream / synthetic brands. Claims around being "clinically proven" may sound impressive, until you realise the data is based on a tiny sample size (always written in the small print). Ingredients used in a formulation at really low concentrations so that they can form the focal point of marketing, even though the ingredient is unlikely to provide any benefit at that level. Or products touting a long list of active ingredients – at best the concentrations are unlikely to do much for you, at worst you may have a potentially unstable or irritating product on your hands (more actives = more potential for interactions between ingredients). “Cosmeceuticals” – a marketing term which is not at all regulated, but products with this label often command a premium price. That’s not to say that cosmeceutical products are all a marketing gimmick. But sticking that word on a label doesn’t guarantee an effective product, and in some cases, they’re no better than alternatives at a lower price point (I’ve tried a couple of cosmeceutical brands and have been underwhelmed for the price point, though I’m aware others have had positive experiences – so this is my personal view).  Or my other major bugbear - brands blinding people with science in skincare. They overuse scientific jargon to give the sense that the brand / product is "clever" and somehow more authoritative than a brand that just speaks in plain English. This only increases my scepticism of a brand! Yes of course there is a lot of science behind the skin and skincare, but much of it we don't really understand and we shouldn't pretend to. Also, let’s remember that a lot of the data behind ingredients is based on in vitro testing or animal data – neither of which equate to human studies. Are you happy to just take a leap of faith with a product just because an ingredient shows promise in a test tube?

As a consumer, it's becoming impossible to make informed choices about products when faced with these kinds of claims.  When you put this in the context of the fact that most marketing in the beauty industry taps into our fear of ageing, driving us to buy more and more products, many brands have little reason to change their behaviour.

I come from a background in pharmaceutical marketing, where claims are more tightly regulated (unlike in beauty), so all of this makes me feel really uncomfortable. Yes of course I want to sell my products but I want to do so responsibly, in a way that's truthful. I don't want to sell on the basis of fear (whether that's a fear of certain ingredients or a fear of ageing). Likewise, I don’t want to oversell on unrealistic claims, or obscure / unproven ingredients which is why I have a strong preference for simple but effective formulations with just a couple of active ingredients.

If a brand's claims sound too good to be true, they probably are. Remember that behind a lot of products are carefully crafted “stories” which are meant to sound compelling and differentiating enough that you want to buy the product. When you choose a product, do it because you like the texture, you like how your skin feels when you use it or you like the brand’s ethos. Don’t choose a product based on unrealistic claims because you’re likely to be left disappointed.

Being ethical should extend to responsible marketing as well, don’t you think?

Ethical marketing: fat free jelly beans



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