Is Cosmetic Science Really "Bad?"

Jul 14, 2009 | Contact Author | By: Johann W. Wiechers, PhD, JW Solutions
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Title: Is Cosmetic Science Really "Bad?"
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If one were to believe average science writer Ben Goldacre, PhD, in his new book titled Bad Science, cosmetic scientists seem to be telling a big bunch of lies and purposely misleading the public; they also lack integrity in the name of getting their products sold. They are portrayed to be at the bottom of the social ladder and the embodiment of evil, yet for others, they bring hope, albeit for money, in a bottle. Who else has had enough with public opinion of cosmetic science?

Last Thursday, I was stuck at the Luton airport in the United Kingdom. My flight was delayed by a couple of hours, and I had to kill time in a vertical position since there were no open seats in the departure lounge. There was also no socket unplugged to charge a computer and do work while sitting on the floor, so I automatically found myself in the only sane place left—at the bookstore in front of the science section.

Here, I found an interesting new book titled Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, PhD. According to his Web site, “Goldacre is an award winning writer, broadcaster and medical doctor who has written the weekly 'Bad Science' column in the Guardian since 2003." He is obviously a critical mind with a long history in identifying bad science. I went straight to the index of the book to see whether he mentioned cosmetics and to my astonishment, he dedicated a whole chapter to cosmetics. From that moment forward, I knew the wait for my plane was not going to be too long.

As I am sympathetic toward the ideas of the Skeptics Society—a scientific and educational organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, professors and teachers, in addition to anyone curious about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas, and the promotion of science—I will pick up almost every book that is critical of science. After all, cosmetics is a field where many extraordinary claims are made, often helped by celebrity endorsements. Therefore, some critical thinking would not be out of place in relation to cosmetics. However, I had honestly not anticipated that a whole chapter on the subject of cosmetics in a book entitled Bad Science was possible.

Goldacre began with a discussion on moisturizing creams, which may be considered nonsense since everything moisturizes. In fact, I often joke that if someone were to grind a computer disk and apply it, it would moisturize skin. So Goldacre has a good point on that one, but it does not mean that skin moisturization is not a scientific subject that can be seriously studied, as is done by many in the cosmetics industry. 

Goldacre went on to discuss a wide variety of cosmetic subjects but his main theme was that all cosmetic research is done in vitro whereas humans live in vivo. He goes on to argue that the human being is a delicate system of biochemical reactions and if something increases on one side, it is compensated for on the other—resulting in an end effect of zero. Although I somewhat agree with this statement, this is also the reason why the cosmetics industry formulates with multiple actives having multiple points of action. And with respect to the end effect being zero, results of clinical studies have shown the benefits of personal care products, measured by skin bioengineering techniques that are unbiased and impartial.

After reading the chapter, I felt that although Goldacre had a good point, the end conclusion was incorrect. He argued that because the clinical work proving the efficacy of a cosmetic product is never ever published in peer-reviewed journals, cosmetic science is therefore bad science. True and false, Goldacre! True, the efficacy of cosmetic products is often no longer published, but that is because editors of cosmetic science journals and cosmetic scientists have had enough with reading about active ingredient number 4,237 being a tyrosinase inhibitor. Due to this lack of novelty and originality, good (albeit somewhat mundane) cosmetic science is often not published in peer-reviewed journals. The issues Goldacre highlights make sense on their own, but the conclusions he subsequently reaches are not necessarily correct. Now, that is what I call bad science.

I decided to examine this further. Although almost everything moisturizes, this does not disqualify every skin moisturizing product. And stimulating something on one end of the physiological or biochemical reaction scheme of human skin may be corrected elsewhere, but this, too, does not disqualify every cosmetic product, certainly not those with convincing clinical evidence. While it is true that many cosmetic products are expensive and their price in the store is no relation to their content, this does not make cosmetic scientists a bunch of liars. Look at the salaries of certain football players, baseball players and pop stars. Is there a correlation between their achievements and the money they earn? I am sure that Michael Jackson had already earned more money before his recent death than most cosmetic chemists will earn in their entire lives, but that does not make him "Bad." Goldacre's book reads like a “Thriller,” since he views the cosmetic world as “Black or White.” OK, there might be an occasional “Dirty Diana” walking around, but “Beat It” (her), nobody is perfect. Cosmetic scientists do not need friends like Goldacre since “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” Why is the public perception of cosmetics so bad as to deserve a whole chapter in a book about bad science?

To identify what bad science is, one first needs to know about science. Michael Shermer, PhD, of the Skeptics Society has published a book entitled The Borderlands of Science–Where Sense Meets Nonsense, in which he differentiates between science, borderline science and just plain nonsense. He outlines the criteria for the various categories of science. After having read this book, based on his criteria, I could only conclude that cosmetic science is—in its entirety—borderline science at best. Yet while some treat cosmetic science as a real science, others treat it as non-science, aka: nonsense. How should one differentiate the various forms of science?

In two columns in Scientific American, another Michael (Shermer) describes the "Baloney Detection Kit." These are ten criteria by which one can differentiate bad science from good science. To resolve this issue, I will apply Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit to cosmetic science in my next column to see whether or not cosmetic science is good or bad science. Only then will we know whether cosmetic science is really "bad."

Who needs friends like Goldacre if we have Shermer? But that is for next time. In the meantime, Michael Jackson, this one is for you—someone who knew everything there ever was to know about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary concepts and moonwalking.

Prof. Johann W. Wiechers, PhD 
Technical Advisor, Allured Business Media
Independent Consultant for Cosmetic Science, JW Solutions
Gasthuispolderweg 30 2807 LL Gouda
johann.wiechers@versatel.nl