Is Cosmetic Science Really "Bad"? Part V: Who do you think you are fooling?

Editor's note: The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Allured Business Media. Join in the debate over this topic on Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine's discussion group and tell us what you think.

This last column in a series of five debating whether cosmetic science is "bad" is accompanied with a health warning: Readers who got only slightly upset with previous episodes definitely will be upset this time. Stop reading if you think cosmetic science is top of the class in life sciences and if you think it is perfectly okay to fool customers. Because this column is about you. Readers who care about cosmetic science should continue reading, although they might feel they are fighting a lonely battle.

In previous episodes of this series (see Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV), I applied Michael Shermer's Baloney Detection Kit to cosmetic science. Within this kit there are ten questions to address and eight of them previously have been discussed. The feedback was strong, especially when I mentioned that each cosmetic chemist is accountable for how our industry is perceived by the public at large. It was the same reaction, again and again: "Yes, things are not optimal but the fault is not mine, it's someone else's." My response to this is: Who do you think you are fooling? There is nothing left to do but to continue to to the last two questions.

The ninth question is: If the claimant has proffered a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation? This question was included to differentiate between real science and non-science, such as Ufology or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Evidence that there was something else in the air that night—say volcanic ashes to commiserate all those international visitors that were stuck in Europe after In-Cosmetics earlier this month—or videotapes of men plotting crimes are simply ignored because they do not fit the preferred theory. But is this really done in cosmetic science?

How many theories are actually proffered in the first place in cosmetic science? In this series, I have already noted that cosmetic science is a descriptive science rather than an explanatory science. To put it bluntly, cosmetic science is nothing more than a long series of case studies where scientists observe and report. Cosmetic scientists do not explain their data. The few explanations that are given are theories borrowed from adjacent fields of science such as dermatology, molecular biology, psychology and sensory science, to name a few.

There is only one field where cosmetic science excels above other scientific disciplines and in that particular discipline, other scientists borrow our industry's skills and capabilities: formulation science. Here, cosmetic scientists are simply the best! And how do they do this? They try, they observe and they describe. But do cosmetic chemists and formulators explain what they do? Normally not. Sometimes they do but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Take, for example, Manufacturing Cosmetic Emulsions, the latest book of T. Joseph Lin, PhD. He explains things in a simple language, where manufacturing cosmetic emulsions starts to make sense and becomes fun. Most of the time, however, cosmetic scientists do not offer such explanations. They offer descriptive statements on yet another molecule in yet another application, meeting yet another unmet consumer need. In case you do not believe me, pick up the top article on the pile to the left of you and read the introduction. If it is a cosmetic science paper, it describes recent progress made in the first paragraph but the but... already comes in the second paragraph. A really big but! Despite all the progress made in the first paragraph, the author has suddenly achieved absolutely nothing and starts to wonder how cosmetic science survived until now.

Miraculously, all the issues mentioned in the big but are subsequently solved with the introduction of a new cosmetic ingredient. Is there any explanation given at all? Unless you are fooling yourself, not really. Can cosmetic formulators now explain more than they could before? No. They observed that new ingredient X lacked some of the negative characteristics that existing ingredients Y and Z had. While there's nothing wrong with this, the same article fails to mention that new ingredient X has other disadvantages. Why do cosmetic scientists not report these? Because cosmetic scientists want to sell.

I do not think that cosmetic science is violating this ninth rule dramatically, as cosmetic scientists generally offer no explanations. Cosmetic scientists carefully pick the disadvantages of a product that work to their advantage with whatever new technology being promoted. They do this because they want to sell. But is that science? Is it the purpose of cosmetic science to sell, or is it the purpose of cosmetic science to explain first and then subsequently utilize the explanations in selling activities?

Selling and science both start with the letter s and both have seven letters, but that is where the resemblance stops. Two valid entities, but with different purposes! The difficulty is that, in the cosmetic industry, there are too many salespeople that call themselves scientists and too many scientists that have become sales professionals.

But was this really worth the health warning I gave at the beginning of this column? The poison must be in the tenth and last question of the Baloney Detection Kit: Do the claimants’ personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa? Michael Shermer writes about this, stating that “all scientists hold social, political and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant their interpretations of the data." But how do those biases and beliefs affect their research? At some point, usually during the peer-review system, such biases and beliefs are rooted out, or the paper or book is rejected for publication. This is why one should not work in an intellectual vacuum; if these biases in one's work are not caught, someone else will catch them. Here is where, I believe, cosmetic science has a few big issues.

Issue 1
As stated above, putting sales above cosmetic science leads to a reduction of the quality of cosmetic science. Let me illustrate this with a real life example. One day I found myself somewhere on this planet at a scientific cosmetic event where an exhibition was held. One of our colleagues who was performing his or her booth duties at the exhibition was about to change jobs. The following week, (s)he would be performing the same booth duty at another exhibition on another continent for another supplier company. This intrigued me enormously, and I asked the individual how (s)he could serve our formulating colleagues with less than even a weekend of preparation? The answer, however, was simple. You read the product folders on the plane; both the new employee and employer seemed to have accepted this as their way of working. Neither party said that this was not good practice. Rather, they fooled themselves into thinking that this was okay. Selling was, and is again, more important than being completely correct and fully informed.

Issue 2
How many scientific publications do you read? Phrased differently, how many scientific publications do you receive each week? How many of these are peer-reviewed? Only journals like the International Journal of Cosmetic Science (IJCS), the Journal of Cosmetic Science (JCS), Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine and the IFSCC Magazine are peer-reviewed. Undoubtedly, the Fragrance Journal and the Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists in Japan are probably also peer-reviewed. Since the IJCS reappeared on Medline, the journal has flourished. Serious cosmetic scientists want to publish in peer-reviewed journals but the majority of what they publish is not peer-reviewed. Hence, cosmetic scientists are not believed.

This could be easily solved if all cosmetic scientists would only submit work to peer-reviewed journals, but this will not happen because cosmetic scientists prefer to publish in non peer-reviewed journals where they have more freedom and may not have to substantiate their claims. But as George Washington said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.” We cosmetic scientists prove George Washington wrong. We think we can fool all the people all the time; but how successful are we really? Are we believed? Whatever the supplier tells us is checked by the manufacturer. Subsequently, the consumer is checking the claims of the manufacturer. But if these products do not work, the consumer will stop buying the product, the manufacturer will stop buying the ingredients and the marketers of the supplier companies will search for a new concept.

Two of my friends, Tony Rawlings, PhD, and Paul Matts, PhD, wrote an article about what they call the "dry skin cycle." One deterioration leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next; a vicious cycle. Similarly, we can also identify a "dry cosmetic science cycle." If cosmetic scientists adhere to the wishes of marketers and bosses that solely want to sell, we start to fool ourselves and our customers and let cosmetic science dry out. Nobody believes us any longer, even if we do a good job. That is the sad reason why Michael Goldacre, PhD, included a whole chapter on cosmetics in his book Bad Science.

But Tony and Paul cracked the problem of skin moisturization scientifically. We can do the same for the perception of cosmetic science. There is no need to fear that we will no longer sell if we stop fooling ourselves, our colleagues and our consumers. But where do we break that vicious cycle? Where do we moisturize cosmetic science? It should be broken at the beginning of the cycle, which is where we cosmetic scientists are! If we place science before selling and apply peer-review principles to everything we communicate; i.e., stop fooling ourselves and also stop our marketing colleagues or bosses if they want to "beef up the numbers" once again, we might be getting somewhere. Exactly the same situation happened in the financial market. They beefed up the numbers and we all enjoyed the ride until things went wrong; but that should not stop us from trying to break the habit. Of course, it will take us many years but if we do not try, we do not win credibility, appreciation, respect and ultimately money. And of course, we won’t get it right first time.

Just remember that nobody is perfect but that all of us are capable of greater things. The time to start these greater things has arrived. It is up to us to decide who to quote: George Washington, who could not fool all of the people all of the time, and therefore stuck to the truth and built a great nation; or George W. Bush who said, "You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on." Which president do you think our descendents will remember 200 years from now? How would you like to be remembered in 200 years' time? Stop fooling yourself. Dare to moisturize your cosmetic science. Let’s again make it something to be proud of. Cosmetic science is only as bad as you and I make it.

-Prof. Johann W. Wiechers, PhD
Technical Advisor, Allured Business Media
Independent Consultant for Cosmetic Science, The Netherlands
[email protected]

More in Claims/Labeling