Is Cosmetics Science Really "Bad"? Part III: Evidence to Support Claims in the Real World

This the third column in a series that examines the quality of cosmetic science based on Michael Shermer's "Baloney Detection Kit." As explained in Part I and Part II of this series, Shermer is a regular columnist for Scientific American, and his "kit" utilizes 10 probing questions to identify real science, borderline science or non-science (a.k.a. nonsense).

The first three questions were answered in previous columns that concluded cosmetic science is perhaps just below average. Responding to these columns, some readers found this author to be "too mild" on cosmetic science. For example, one reader commented, “There is good cosmetic science but in our field there is too much very bad science published. For me, this makes cosmetic science as a whole score lower than average.”

This comment came from a personal friend and a talented cosmetic scientist but that is not why it hurt. Rather, it hurt because he felt the need to say it. In response, I told him not to worry, with the promise of being "less mild" this time as I tackle the fourth, fifth and sixth questions of Shermer's kit in relation to cosmetic science.

The fourth question of the kit is: Does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works? An extraordinary claim must be placed into a larger context to see how it fits. If a cosmetic manufacturer claims that a consumer will look 20 years old again with the daily application of its 'wonder cream,' chances are high that the consumer will not believe them. As an example, it is interesting to see the group of aging women who were used in Unilever's Dove Pro-Age advertisements. Changing the features of these women in minutes is possible but requires Adobe Photoshop manipulation skills, and this is what consumers perceive to be the real world. No wonder consumers' perception of beauty is distorted, as shown in this promotional video.

Many cosmetic claims do not fit with how the world works, leading the general public to not take cosmetic science seriously. Although many industries do not excel at matching their claims with the real world, the impact of this greatly affects the cosmetic industry, as most individuals care about how they look. Conversely, only a fraction of the world population is interested in cars, wines, travels, etc., making the impact of beauty advertisements great. This point is illustrated in another video on a character named Amy.

The fifth question of Shermer's kit is painful for cosmetic science. It is: Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only supportive evidence been sought? As the science philosopher Karl Popper once said, "In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality." In other words, all is true until shown to be false, but truth without falsification is no truth; rather, it is untruthful to reality. The strength of a scientific argument is not in proving something, but the demonstration that it cannot be anything else but that. This is generally what is not happening enough in science, specifically in cosmetic science. This is called confirmation bias because people see what they want to see and this confirms that what they see is correct.

Shermer showed a video during his keynote lecture at the 2007 IFSCC Conference in Amsterdam and he asked the audience to look carefully at the men in the video dressed in white, who were playing with a basketball in a crowd of people, to tell him how many times the ball bounced. The video was shown, and there was some discussion among the audience on whether it was 16 or 17 times. Shermer said it was 17 and asked the audience to watch the video again without paying attention to anything in particular.

During the second showing, audience members started to laugh when they noticed three men in black gorilla suits jumping up and down. The audience did not see the gorilla suits the first time because they were busy looking elsewhere for what they wanted to see. Confirmation bias is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to avoid. This is why the methods of science that emphasize checking and rechecking, verification and replication, and especially attempts to falsify a claim are so critical and part of true science.

Cosmetic science definitely scores below average on this issue where science as a whole is already scoring low. After all, cosmetic scientists conduct most experiments to prove rather than disprove their point. On an absolute scale, this means that cosmetic scientists are scoring very low on Shermer's fifth question. Cosmetic science tends to report the positive and omit the possibly negative, and this is done on both a large scale and a small scale. As an example on a large scale, this author would like to remind readers of a defective detergent that created holes during washing. A small scale example can be seen in the failure of cosmetic manufacturers and suppliers to report negative observations to customers.

The sixth question of the kit is: Does the preponderance of evidence point to the claimant’s conclusion or to a different one? This is the classical argument of opponents of creationism. Although museums are filled with evidence of evolution, none of them alone support it, but the predominance of tens of thousands of evidentiary bits add up to a story of evolution of life. Creationists focus instead on trivial anomalies or currently unexplained phenomena in the history of life. Is this also happening in cosmetic science?

This author has not encountered such blatant mistakes in cosmetic science, although differences of opinion do exist. Placebo-controlled studies can be used as an example of this sixth question. Academics claim that scientists should test against a placebo to show whether an active or a drug works. Suppliers of active ingredients like to show that the active or drug works as well; however, cosmetic manufacturers want to show that their products as a whole work. The cosmetic manufacturers test against untreated skin or against  a normal skin care regimen, but consumer organizations subsequently tell the cosmetics industry that the work is not done properly. Why?

Consumers want to know whether the addition of an expensive active ingredient is justified. They therefore wonder to which extent the observed effect can be explained from the cheaper placebo alone; a totally justified question but not a reason for claim substantiation research. After all, if the active had no additional clinical benefit over the placebo, why would the cosmetic industry not sell the placebo to consumers at less production cost, the same market price, and a higher profit margin?

Therefore, cosmetic science is doing quite well on Shermer's sixth question but the industry failed on the fourth and fifth questions, resulting in a score that is not very positive for the cosmetics industry.

The verdict on Shermer's last four questions, however, could turn the outlook on cosmetic science around. Until then, all I can do is wish you the very best for 2010. May we all be honest to our profession and true to cosmetic science to protect the industry and our companies. This is not done with a quick lie to make a quick buck, but by a long-term investment into the desire to let cosmetic science grow for our companies and for all. This is why local and global organizations such as the International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists (IFSCC) needs the cosmetic industry's support. The cosmetic industry needs to show the world how good cosmetic science is and why it works. Here’s to the future, to 2010, and to cosmetic science!

—Prof. Johann W. Wiechers, PhD 
Technical advisor,
C&T magazine
Independent consultant for cosmetic science, JW Solutions
Gasthuispolderweg 30 2807 LL
Gouda, The Netherlands

*The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Allured Business Media.

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