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Marketing ingredients in skincare

We all want our skincare products to do more than a mere moisturization. We would love it to fight acne and pigmentation, wrinkles and the sagging skin. However, cosmetic products that have a real clinical effect are considered drugs and regulated by FDA as such. So what is left there for the skincare products?

Well, if a product doesn’t claim that it treats a particular skin condition, yet contains the ingredients at the level that are safe and efficient to use, it can have a visible effect. Just like moisturization doesn’t cure atopic dermatitis, yet can be supportive in easing the condition and preventing the relapses. That’s what many customers are aware of and therefore although do not expect miracles, still look for the prominent ingredients on the label.

The challenge is that manufacturers are allowed to hide the percentage of these ingredients, to protect the “secret sauce” of their products, and are only required to list the ingredients in the descending order until the 1% line. Obviously, consumers have no idea where this line is. While some ingredients might be effective at or slightly below 1%, when added at 0.01% or lower most likely what it used for – to be the “claims ingredient” or a “marketing ingredient”. The one that doesn’t do anything yet helps the marketing team to claim that this product is made with it.

A case study with the luxury brand’s “facial oil”

Let’s take a look at the marketing statement of this $180+ facial oil:

Key Ingredients: Formulated with a blend of six ultra rich, luxurious oils: Evening Primrose Oil, Jojoba Oil, Macadamia Nut Oil, Argan Oil, Safflower Oil and Japanese Yuzu Oil for a delicate fragrance.

However, when we look at the ingredients list, it is obvious that all mentioned oils are added at a below 1% level, which is easy to figure out since they are listed way below the several fragrance ingredients, which are usually used below 1% as well:

INGREDIENTS: DIMETHICONE, CAPRYLIC/CAPRIC TRIGLYCERIDE, ETHYLHEXYL PALMITATE, PEG/POLY(1,2-BUTANEDIOL)-52/32 DIMETHYL ETHER, ISOPROPYL MYRISTATE, MINERAL OIL(PARAFFINUM LIQUIDUM/HUILE MINERALE), DIETHYLHEXYL SUCCINATE, ETHYLHEXYL METHOXYCINNAMATE, DIPHENYLSILOXY PHENYL TRIMETHICONE, PEG-20 HYDROGENATED CASTOR OIL, FRAGRANCE (PARFUM), WATER(AQUA/EAU), ISOSTEARIC ACID, BIS-ETHYLHEXYLOXYPHENOL METHOXYPHENYL TRIAZINE, DIPROPYLENE GLYCOL, LINALOOL, LIMONENE, BUTYLPHENYL METHYLPROPIONAL, BHT, TOCOPHEROL, ALPHA-ISOMETHYL IONONE, CITRONELLOL, GERANIOL, BENZYL BENZOATE, ARGANIA SPINOSA KERNEL OIL, CARTHAMUS TINCTORIUS (SAFFLOWER) SEED OIL, OENOTHERA BIENNIS (EVENING PRIMROSE) OIL, MACADAMIA TERNIFOLIA SEED OIL, SIMMONDSIA CHINENSIS (JOJOBA) SEED OIL, SODIUM ACETYLATED HYALURONATE, ALCOHOL, RED 17 (CI 26100), SACCHAROMYCES FERMENT LYSATE FILTRATE, BETA-CAROTENE (CI 75130), PIPERIDINEPROPIONIC ACID, CAMELLIA SINENSIS LEAF EXTRACT, PHENOXYETHANOL

While I am sure the product is most likely doing a good job, the difference between the marketing statement and actual percentage of the featured ingredients is striking.

Science versus reality industry

In this study, the rosemary extract was tested at 5% concentration as an anti-inflammatory ingredient and didn’t show a statistically significant improvement over placebo. However, as per the CIR report’s page 85 the maximum concentration use of the rosemary extract in face and neck products was 0.05%. That’s 100 times less than an already weak effect shown in the study. So what’s the incentive of the cosmetic companies to add it to the product, if it is not effective at this level? The only reason would be to feature it on the ingredients list. After all, everyone loves natural sounding ingredients, right?

We can see the same story unfold with another popular extract: green tea. In this study a 10% extract in a cream paired with a green tea supplement were compared to the placebo in the attempt to fight photoaging and, unfortunately, although histologic improvement was detected, there was no clinical (visible) improvement over the placebo. Moreover, some people treated with the green tea extract complained about irritation. And, similarly, as per the CIR report the highest concentration of the leaf extract used was 2% in leave-on products and 1% in rinse-off products, while the seed extract was reported to be used in only up to 0.1% and in rinse-off products up to 0.0013%. Which obviously makes sense: why use it at a high level if the only visible result would be an irritation?

There is also a whole class of ingredients that simply can’t work and do not work at all in skincare products, where you can disregard the concentration altogether. The so called “snake oil”. Examples include amber extract, cashmere extract, gold, stem cells, probiotics and so on. But we will leave these aside for now and will touch upon in another post.

So how to figure out where the 1% line is? Here are some of the popular ingredients that are usually used below 1%. If the “claims ingredient” is located below it, you might as well question its value.

  1. Sodium hyaluronate – hyaluronic acid can bind up to 1000 molecules of water! Therefore even 1% of it in the product could simply turn it into a thick gel and won’t leave any free water to bind with other ingredients. That’s why it is usually used at 0.01-0.5%
  2. Sodium citrate – citric acid is used to calibrate the pH level of the products and are typically used at 0.1-1%
  3. Citronellol, Geraniol, Limonene, Linalool, Citral – components of essential oils used as a natural fragrance alternative. Each of them is usually present at a level way below the 1% line.
  4. Preservatives: Phenoxyethanol, Parabens, Sorbic Acid, Potassium sorbate, Dehydroacetic acid – each of these preservatives used at a level below 1%.
  5. Tocopherol, BHT – Vitamin E and a synthetic antioxidant that help to extend the shelf life of the oils and are rarely used at a level was more than 1%.
  6. Tetrasodium EDTA – a chelator that helps to ensure the stability of the product. Although it doesn’t add any value to the skin itself, at least it is used at a pretty low concentration.
  7. Peptides – used mostly below 0.1%

Keep in mind though that since companies are not required to list the ingredients below 1% concentration in the descending order, they can put marketing ingredients first and the rest of the supportive ingredients to follow. Is it overwhelming? Tricky? We think so too. It’s time for more transparency and honesty in the cosmetic industry!

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