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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Column: Butt-ugly science

U-G-L-Y? Science can fix that.

I’m looking down the beauty aisle at Rite Aid. They’ve got facial scrubs with “sea algae enzymes” and wrinkle creams with “high potency plant stem cells.” They’ve got an Olay anti-wrinkle cream with “a touch of precious marine proteins” and “intracellular fortifiers.”

Terms so scientific, even a nerd like me is dazzled.

There’s a product out there called Valmont Cellular DNA Complex, made from “specially treated” salmon egg DNA. Wow, if only my body could absorb fish DNA. I’ve always wished for gills.

These products use science as a selling point. The companies irresponsibly use scientific jargon to impress me – without ever defining the über-technical terms.

Just because it sounds like science doesn’t make it true.

“What they’re claiming could be totally bogus, but we have no idea,” said Daniel Eisen, director of aesthetic dermatology for the UC Davis dermatology department.

In his years in the field, Eisen has read no scientific literature supporting the topical use of marine proteins or those ever-popular antioxidants.

Eisen, who is also co-director of dermatologic surgery at UC Davis, said the real problem with scientific claims made by cosmetic companies is a lack of scientific evidence. Usually, scientists publish research in journals, and they provide enough information for others to repeat the trials. Sometimes findings are confirmed and sometimes they’re rejected – it’s a transparent system that turns hypothesis into fact.

But cosmetic companies don’t do that.

“Most of the time these [cosmetic] studies are done in-house,” Eisen said.

Makeup companies don’t reveal the set-up of the experiment. Who knows if they used the appropriate concentrations of effective chemicals? Who knows if they tested products on real people or in vitro skin samples (skin from dead people)?

If companies want to use medical lingo to sell products, they should play by the clinical trial rules.

Here’s how a real study would go: Mary Kay (a cosmetics giant) would provide their special face cream and cream without the active ingredient (vitamin C, fruit acids, etc.). Then they’d measure the difference in results between the two. This is called a controlled experiment, and it’s the same process we use to test the efficacy of medicine like Tylenol or Lipitor or Preparation H.

But Mary Kay doesn’t do that. They know customers just need claims to sound science-y. They don’t need the data.

However, claims on packaging aren’t all made up. They’re often the truth with a twist. Eisen said that fruit acids, like glycolic acid, can help cells turn over faster. Unfortunately, the high concentration of acid needed to reduce wrinkles can also irritate skin.

In his recent book, Bad Science, physician Ben Goldacre points out that cosmetic companies often include ingredients in “talismanic concentrations.” They include only a little fruit acid – not enough to hurt, but not enough to help either.

“Companies still name them on the label, wallowing in the glory of their efficacy at higher potencies,” Goldacre writes.

All companies exaggerate the power of their products in order in make money. This food shrinks your waistline/That car gets you babes.

But cosmetic companies abuse our respect for science. We know that there is special medical jargon, so when Olay uses phrases like “amino-peptide and B3 complexes” on their packaging, we feel like we are part of the medical world. The product is more than just gunk to make a girl look nice – it’s a miracle cure!

Judging by product ads, cosmetic companies use scientific language to target older women. On one side of the aisle are the beauty products: mascara and eye shadow advertised by glamorous Hayden Panettiere. On the other side are the anti-aging products. These creams and masks don’t have spokespeople – they have technical charts of hydrated cells and diagrams of smoothed-out wrinkles.

To younger women they sell sex; to older women they sell science.

It’s not just feminist nerds like me who should be upset. When cosmetic company quacks run around in lab coats, it damages the credibility of real doctors and researchers.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT has actually never wished to have gills. She’s too scared of sharks to swim in open water. E-mail her about your own galeophoblia or selachophobia at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.


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