Photo Courtesy of Christina Afrique

As a cosmetic chemist it is my job to develop quality products that meet the needs of a target consumer group. In order to accomplish this task, I make it my responsibility to understand every intricacy of a given consumer segment to create their “perfect product.” Now, I can make the most amazing product, but if I cannot convince the consumer of how amazing this product is, then nothing I create really matters. This is where marketing’s role is critical.

It is a marketer’s job to communicate the value of the product or brand to consumers for the purpose of promoting or selling that product or brand. If a consumer is not convinced of the value of a product, then it will just sit on the shelf and eventually fade into non-existence. This is why the relationship between the research & development (R&D) team (which usually consists of cosmetic chemists) and marketing is vital when creating innovative products that meet or exceed consumer expectations.

How your products get made

The product development process varies from organization to organization and includes a variety of steps and checkpoints. Some companies are “marketing driven.” This means marketing develops concepts that are attractive to their target audience and either an in-house or outsourced product development team has the responsibility of developing a product that fits the criteria within the given parameters of the brand, price point, and other relevant factors. On the other hand, you have “science driven” companies where new products and concepts are more commonly developed around the availability of innovative research and technology.  It is then marketing’s responsibility to translate scientific concepts presented by R&D into something that is desired by or relatable to the consumer. Many companies may try to approach development from both ends of the spectrum.  

The reality is that where the cosmetic chemist’s role ends and the marketer’s begins can be a convoluted place where scientific jargon and marketing puffery combine to make magical claims that would make any woman think a product is going to be life changing. Of course companies are required to make truthful claims, but the U.S. FDA does not approve cosmetics claims before products go to market, making the cosmetics segment a “self-regulated” and sometimes ambiguous industry, especially compared to some international markets. This self-regulation has allowed many companies to find some very creative ways to differentiate their products in the marketplace.

What can you trust?  

So how do you as a consumer know what claims to trust and what claims are just words that sound and look good on the shelf? Here are a few things you should know the next time you are in the aisle deciding which product to add to your collection next.

Consumers should be aware that federal law states that a product that is designated as a cosmetic product cannot make drug claims, regardless of whether the brand can prove it to be true or not. If drug claims are made, then the product should be registered as a drug, and would be liable to meet higher standards and require FDA review and approval. The FDA defines a cosmetic product as products designed for “cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”  This eliminates anything that claims to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat or prevent disease, or affect the structure or function of the body.  

Unlike the drug industry, there are no regulations or standardized methods to prove claims on cosmetic products in the U.S.

Unlike the drug industry, there are no regulations or standardized methods to prove claims on cosmetic products in the U.S. Therefore, as a consumer, you must pay close attention to the asterisks on claims. Take this claim for example: 10x More Curl Definition!*  The asterisk implies that there is some fine print behind this claim to define exactly what “10x more” means. The definition behind the asterisks should be located somewhere on the packaging. In many cases, the fine print behind quantitative claims like this will define what standard the brand set to make the claim. In this example, the asterisk would most likely describe how the company defined “curl definition” and/or what additional products or regimen was used in order to achieve the curl definition. Without reading the details behind the asterisk, many consumers will naturally associate this type of claim to their personal experience of curl definition and believe that the product will allow them to achieve 10x more than their personal standard. This type of claim will definitely catch your eye, but dig deeper before pulling out your wallet.

This type of claim will definitely catch your eye, but dig deeper before pulling out your wallet.

The viewpoint of the consumer and reality of biological science does not always agree with popular claims, but in many cases it does not make it any more (or less) real. Let’s take “hair repair” claims for example. Unlike the skin, hair does not have living cells; therefore, once the hair is damaged it cannot biologically repair itself.  The damage can only be concealed or further damage can be prevented. Look at it this way…a product may not be able to permanently “mend” split ends back together, but it may be able to reduce the occurrences of split ends by protecting hair from further injury. This reasoning will justify marketing claims such as “repairs split ends” because to the consumer’s perception the product has solved the problem.

"Quench, hydrate, moisturize" - Same thing?

A number of commonly used descriptive words on packaging have no scientific differentiation behind them and commonly mean the same thing. For example, quench, hydrate, moisture-rich, moisture-infusion are all terms that just creatively mean moisturize. These terms may be the brand’s way of communicating how moisturizing a product is, but there is not a standardize test that determines when a brand can claim that one product is more moisturizing than another. These descriptors are often marketing’s way of spicing up the package copy and differentiating between their own product mix. Plus, saying “moisturize” all the time would just sound boring. Matter of fact, the industry term for the descriptive excerpt on the packaging is referred to as the “romance copy.” It is pretty much the equivalent of whispering sweet nothings into your ear and trying to woo you to buy the product. None of this takes away from the claim that the product is moisturizing, but you as the consumer will have the last say-so on whether a product lives up to the hype when it comes to your hair.

As you can see, the process of making cosmetic claims can be somewhat subjective at times. By law, brands should have supporting evidence to back their claims, but it is rare that brands are requested to present their evidence unless the FDA or a competitive brand challenges the claims. So my advice to consumers is to publicly support, acknowledge, and buy products that you believe are consistent in living up to their claims to help them stand apart from brands that may exaggerate or over-promise. The power of your voice and dollars can help set the standard for the type of products that are available on the shelf.

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Do you purchase products based off of product claims? What is your push to purchase?


This article was originally published in April 2015 and has been updated for grammar and clarity.