Words from Wiechers: What is 'Normal' Skin Care?

Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.
Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.

Editor's note: "Words from Wiechers" is an article series considering the many lessons the cosmetics R&D industry can learn from the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D. He was an industry leader, advisor and advocate for pure research until his passing in 2011.

Presenting Wiechers's insights is IFSCC Education Chair Anthony J. O'Lenick, Jr. The present piece addresses a topic of debate on the regulatory front: where to draw the line between a cosmetic and drug. It was adapted from chapter 2 in his book, Memories of a Cosmetically Disturbed Mind.

In this chapter written in 2000, some 18 years ago, Johann warned: “The battle between drugs and cosmetics is not yet over … you might even argue it has not yet begun.”

This insight is still valid today; the basic concept echos through most of Wiechers' works since, as a pharmacist by education, he was keenly aware of the conflict that sometimes exists between drugs and cosmetics.

Hooked on Semantics

Johann points to the use of the term normal and the desire by many to avoid the “normal” signs of aging through the use of cosmetic products.

He states: "Normal is defined in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th Edition, as 'conforming to a standard; regular, usual, typical; free from mental or emotional disorder.' In cosmetics, however, the word normal functions as a pivot in differentiating between drugs and cosmetics. The definition of a medicinal product contains the phrase 'with a view to … restoring, correcting or modifying physiological functions in human beings.'

"An important question, therefore, is 'What is a physiological function in man, and when am I correcting [or] restoring?'"

Cosmetics Have Function

In typical Johann style, he asks: “Can you say that cosmetics do not modify a physiological function? Just take skin moisturization, as an example. Dermatologists use words like xerosis, ichtyosis and keratosis to describe different types of dry skin.

"Since when did all our cleaning, perfuming, changing our appearance, correcting our body odors, protecting and keeping in good order—in other words looking after ourselves—serve no physiological function? Is that what we really believe in our industry?

The Lesson

"The battle between drugs and cosmetics is not yet over. As drugs and cosmetics will continue to come closer and closer together, you might even argue that it has not even begun. There will never be a clear answer to the seemingly simple question: 'What is normal?' And if you thought that was tricky, just wait until I get onto the meaning of 'natural...'"

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