Edited 6/7/2018 for clarity, typos.
Frequently on skincare communities, people will ask “Does this product work?” This is especially true of products like La Mer, which is a whopping $175 per oz (or $325 for 2oz! – a whopping $25 cheaper than buying two one ounce tubs).
It’s important to not be wooed by marketing jargon when buying your products, and it’s important to know how they work, how they’re tested, and if they’re safe.
Consider this an introduction into the overview of products and claims regulation in the US, which will be part of a longer series on product efficacy.
The Chemical Abstracts Service, a division of the American Chemical Society, tracks more than 130 million organic and inorganic substances used today. Roughly 15,000 new chemicals are submitted every day, but only about 1% of all chemicals have been tested for safety – a worrisome statistic.
According to the Personal Care Product Council, there are about ~20,000 different ingredients that can be used in cosmetics. Many of those ingredients are multi-functional and can work synergistically with each other. For example, BHA is a common acne treatment but can also be used as a preservative, pH buffer, or anti-aging ingredient. Additionally, vitamin A is frequently paired with AHAs such as glycolic or lactic acid due to their ability to slough away dead skin, leading to better absorption and efficacy of the vitamin A.
Also of important note is the original FDA definitions of cosmetics and drugs:
Cosmetics: “Any product, except soap, intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering appearances.”
Drugs: “A substance that altered the structure or function of the body.”
These definitions were part of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and are still the definitions used by the FDA today to regulate the cosmetics industry. In 1938, skin was considered virtually impermeable dead tissue, so the description of cosmetics as “altering appearances” was perfectly acceptable. However, by the 1980s, doctors Van Scott and Yu patented modern AHA technology and demonstrated that AHAs could not only plump skin, but minimize lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of collagen in the skin. This would seem to meet the definition of “a substance that alter[s] the structure or function of the body,” and yet AHAs are not considered a drug (though high percentage AHAs and BHAs are frequently restricted to professional-only sale and use).
In the 1970s, a group of estheticians were given a jar of 100% petrolatum (now called Vaseline) and several pairs of cotton gloves. They were instructed to apply petrolatum to their hands each night, put on a pair of gloves, go to sleep, and remove it in the morning with gentle soap or cleanser. This “altering of skin structure and function” is another example of a product that meets the FDA’s standards for drugs, and indeed, Vaseline is now sold as an over-the-counter drug (OTC) with a “drug facts label” emblazoned on the back.
Many products that are now available contain biologically active ingredients and can interact with the body’s biochemistry, going far beyond the FDA’s 1938 definitions. These products are now defined as cosmecueticals and are often considered the “active” ingredients in most skincare circles online.
Another thing to consider when reading ingredients is the Fair Packaging and Label Act of 1967, which issued regulations requiring that all “consumer commodities” be labeled to list their ingredients in order of concentration, starting with the highest and ending with the lowest, up to 1%. The specific wording:
“The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA or Act), enacted in 1967, directs the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration to issue regulations requiring that all “consumer commodities” be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of business of the product’s manufacturer, packer, or distributor. The Act authorizes additional regulations where necessary to prevent consumer deception (or to facilitate value comparisons) with respect to descriptions of ingredients, slack fill of packages, use of “cents-off” or lower price labeling, or characterization of package sizes. The Office of Weights and Measures of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce, is authorized to promote to the greatest practicable extent uniformity in State and Federal regulation of the labeling of consumer commodities.” (Source)
Since this only affects “consumer commodities,” products packaged for professional use as exempt from this requirement. Additionally, ingredients that are in concentrations lower than 1% may be listed in any order. Unfortunately, this does not mean that manufacturers cannot advertise that their product contains such ingredients, even if they are in infinitesimally small concentrations. For example, a product may contain less than 1% vitamin C, but can advertise their product as containing vitamin C, which is misleading but legal. According to Milady’s Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary (2014 edition):
“When looking at an ingredient label and the first ingredient is not water, but perhaps ‘aloe gel,’ the manufacturer is not indicating that the ingredient is in a water-based solution. While the product label may claim it contains 80% ‘aloe gel’ it is highly probable that it contains approximately 0.5% (or less) of Aloe and 79.5% (or more) water.”
When possible, ask the manufacturer for clinical data or look to the company’s website for testing results to check efficacy of the product before making a purchase.