Beauty Bible Author Reveals Truth About Cosmetics And Science

I have only heard about the Beauty Bible compiled by the redoubtable Jo Fairley recently and I haven’t read it yet.  In fact I haven’t actually even seen it for sale anywhere.  A quick check on Amazon reveals that like the actual Bible, there are various versions so I am not sure where to start.  Anyway anybody who names their book the anything Bible is clearly not lacking in ambition for their work.  

I will give the Beauty Bible the benefit of the doubt for now.  Let’s assume that it is full of valuable and useful information for the consumer.  I want to talk about Jo Fairley’s reported comments on the Cosmetics Design website about what is that women want. It turns out that women aren’t interested in the science behind products, they only want to know whether or not they work.

Well as someone who writes a blog about the science behind cosmetic products, what do I say?  Ouch I suppose.  I am sorry I have bothered you all.

But I am not sure Jo Fairley really gets how science works.   Because it is scientists who are sticklers for having data to support their ideas.  This is a very big contrast to the actual Bible, which was written by God and is unquestionably true.  Science doesn’t work like that.  The biologist Thomas Huxley pointed out how often “a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.”  A scientific idea is good only if it is supported by the data and as soon as data comes to light that doesn’t support the idea, the idea has to go.  So really scientists are no different to how Jo Fairley presents consumers.  They are only interested in what works.

This is one of the reasons science gets a good reputation in the long run.  Science delivers.  I don’t think the cosmetic industry actually does use much in the way of actual science in its promotions.  What it does is to give things a scientific gloss to hitch hike on the prestige of science.

I remember back in the nineties L’Oréal latched onto liposomes.  These are a real scientific thing – a particular form of liquid crystal if you are interested.  L’Oréal renamed them Action Liposomes and ran television adverts showing diagrams of liposomes penetrating the skin to deliver benefits deep down below the surface.  As I say, liposomes are real but the rest of it was pure fantasy.  Liposomes just don’t penetrate the skin like that, and if they did there is no real reason to think that would be a good thing.

A professor of colloid science was so outraged he wrote them a letter pointing out the outrageous travesty their advert was of current research.  He was pleased to note that the adverts were quickly withdrawn and for years afterwards would happily tell people about it.

A couple of years later I ran into somebody from L’Oréal who was involved in the project.  He had no memory of the letter from the scientist.  He said that the adverts were dropped simply because their market research showed that they weren’t very effective.

So although I basically agree with Jo Fairley’s point, I don’t think it is the case that cosmetic companies are losing sales by overcomplicated pitches involving too much of the science stuff.  I think they know exactly what they are doing.  All the time people have a positive impression of science, cosmetic adverts will have a place for pseudoscientific gobble-dee-gook that gives the impression that the products have some credibility.  It would be nice if that meant some actual science got out there as part of the process, but that really is the last thing on their mind.

Note – the image illustrating this blog post is an Amazon link.  It is the easiest way to find an image when you are talking about a book or a product.  In the interests of full disclosure I must point out that I will receive a microscopically small commission if you click on it and purchase it.  Trust me, the chances of the amount of cash involved influencing my editorial integrity are pretty slim.  I may be cheap but not that cheap.

13 thoughts on “Beauty Bible Author Reveals Truth About Cosmetics And Science”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Advertisements with science “lingo” are mostly depicted as fairy tales about a newly developed hero ingredient’s quest against the evil forces of pores/dryness/dullness etc. I have a suspicision that this kind of magical thinking might be reflected in expressions like “hero” or “holy grail” products that beauty journalists are so fond of. Plus, as you said, the credibility aspect is very important. Reminds me of the techno babble in Star Trek.

    1. That is a good point. A lot of the scientific jargon in cosmetic adverts is much like Star Trek techno babble, though less plausible.

  2. Collin, just an illustration of how much Jo Fairley believes in science: I read an earlier incarnation of her bible and found there was a lot of “information” along the chemicals are bad and they will kill you line of thinking.

  3. Hi Colin,

    I read the same article and must say I came away with a completely different take.

    My impression was that Jo was advocating companies provide evidence that their products actually work – i.e. did it reduce wrinkles or improve skin tone.

    She was arguing against the scientific gobbledegook advertisers use to convince customers that their products are cutting edge and scientific.

    You get a better idea of what works by testing the products on real women – which is the idea behind her book and her 20,000 product testers.

    You could listen to brands talking about the latest advances in probiotics that lead to the development of their product or you can listen to the results of testing that product on several thousand people.

    I’m not suggesting the Bible is without its flaws or favourites or that the testing database is anything like as rigorous as a double blind study, but I think it is a good attempt to inform people of what other people, just like them, found worked well for them.

    Jo doesn’t think product marketing that talks about the science is resonating with customers. That doesn’t mean you should shut down your blog today, because lots of people do want to know about the science, and this is the place to get it – because you’re really not going to learn much about the science of a product by reading the marketing blurb.

    I actually agree with her. I think beauty marketing is dull, uncreative and solely informed by what the other companies in your sector are doing….with a very few notable and honourable exceptions.

    Jo also had a pop at me-too formulators who copy and tweak other people’s work and call it innovation – which I hope you didn’t take offence at, as you could say exactly the same think about IT, Food, Retail…i.e. almost every part of our economy.


  4. The thing is though that the testing is not 100% accurate – I know because I was a tester for one of the books, for a start I was blowed if I was going to test it on one half of my face only, I may have oily skin but I need some moisture on my skin. The packaging is there in all its influencing glory – I understand that in the first book all the products to be tested were sent out in plain white bottles or jars – and the questionnaire is very long, and I confess I got bored half way through and made up some of my answers (hangs head in shame). So there you go!

    1. @Ed and @Jan The thing is clinical trials are part of a long tradition going back years where sources of bias have been identified and elminated as far as possible by trial and error. As Jan points out, packaging and branding influence things enormously. Things like labelling plain samples A and B mean people subconsciously rate A higher. And getting the right number of questions on the assessment form is also crucial. Even the least faint hearted can be put off by a longish form. And every question you ask reduces the reliability of all of them. Opinion pollsters will confirm that the way questions are phrased and the order in which they are presented can influence things. So although the idea of a 20,000 strong panel sounds impressive I reserve judgement on how good the data it produces is. But I can see how it would be easy to sell the concept. Also, signing up as a tester does sound like a good way of getting hold of some cheap product -I read on the website that there is a £30 sign up fee which sounds like a good deal. But again, I wonder if that means that people value the first samples they receive more highly and downgrade them once they have got their money’s worth?

      I am not saying that the Beauty Bible team are necessarily making a bad job of what they are up to, though Jo Fairley’s public support for global halfwits the EWG and Jan’s anecdote are not encouraging. There is a lot you can do with statistics if you know what you are doing. But I will say that I know of a company with a bigger database which has the ability to deliver small panels with very precise demographics and who certainly do know what they are doing. I’ve got good results with them and they offer a really valuable service. (You may well know who I am talking about Ed). But I will read the Beauty Bible with interest when I have some time.

  5. I think it’s also a pertinent point that what journalists are fed is reams and reams of technical information that most of us haven’t a hope of deciphering – usually we have to take the bottom line info and use our common sense and the balance of probability and somehow feed it back to readers in a non Star Trek way. It’s true, I think, that in the past women didn’t really care what was in a product as long as it worked (I’m pretty much still in that camp to be honest), but the internet has made information so available that anyone with a nano of interest can find out as much as they need to know. Both markets are well catered to now. I think what The Beauty Bible provides is ‘real woman’ views delivered to the ‘real woman’, science aside. Personally, if I know a product has been made by a certain formulator (or formulators) I’ll be far more likely to believe the information provided. And that’s only possible because I’ve come across them on the internet and can have real conversations and ask real questions. Personally, I’d like to see formulators more at the forefront of the products they make – they’re so much more credible than the usual Star Trek.

  6. Formulators don’t tend to write the sciencey marketing claims used to sell the product – that tends to be done by the client / marketing dept.

    Often the reason an ingredient gets included is for marketing reasons, so that you can make impressive product efficacy claims based on the ingredient data.

    However, just because the data from an ingredient supplier suggests an ingredient will do something, doesn’t mean it will when it is in your product.

    You also tend to get “ingredient inflation” – our product is better than the competition because we use 20 actives to their 10 – but it doesn’t work like that, especially if you’re not using the recommended minimum dosage or have to make other compromises to accomodate the ingredients.

    Does using three types of hyaluronic acid really give you more than three times the benefit as I’ve seen a couple of brands claim?

    There’s a real opportunity for smaller, niche brands, to do something different to the mainstream. Organic products are one example. But the annoying shame of it is that they seem determined to simply copy whatever Avon or L’Oreal are doing on TV.

    There are some great examples of brands engaging emotionally or in a different way with their customers – Dove’s forensic artist campaign was one. Today’s launch of Lush’s Christopher North product range is a lot of fun as well – they’re not using made up scientific bollocks to sell their products, and are the better for it in my opinion.

    Just to touch on Jane’s suggestion that the formulators should be helping to market the products – one problem is that the same formulator often works for many brands, often competing brands or those in different segments. So that’s an idea that would only work for companies with their own formulators and unfortunately (or fortunately for Colin!) many British companies don’t have that expertise in-house.

  7. Hi Colin

    just spotted this refreshing and great debate on your blog, I wish I spotted earlier.. As you know I m a chemist with my own brand so I m in a position to approach journalists about my brand Forest Secrets Skincare. However I m still puzzled about the best way to engage with journalists also because they are challenged by having so few words available for their pieces that detail goes out of the window and science is very much about detail. It would be great to hear suggestions from journalists..
    The other thing I wanted to mention is my experience with the beauty bible as a brand owner. My products scored very well on the panel but never got featured. Chased and chased but no joy.. When I heard Jo’s talk at the naturals symposium organized by the Society of Cosmetic Scientists last May she mentioned how important it is to have the right packaging for a natural brand. So I wonder if my brand was not featured because she did not like the look of it, not a scientific reason, but an emotional one for sure…

  8. I have to first of all disclose that I am a bit of a product junkie but I’m also reasonably educated about stuff around ingredients having some kind of evidence to back them up.

    I have been a tester on three beauty bibles (see product junkie comment above) and being a bit of a geek I did the half face testing (for some reason, unlike Jan, I wasn’t instructed to do this, although I did record that I did it) but in comparison with my regular regimen. Doing a half face test and using nothing on the other half strikes me as pointless because vaseline is better than nothing. The questionnaires are indeed exhaustive and I think if (IF!) everyone filled them out accurately then it’s a reasonable degree of user experience.

    Pretty much all the products I’ve ever tested got neutral reviews from me (one for a hideously expensive ‘natural’ product got a very very negative review because it completely effed my skin up for weeks). What I found curious is that despite actually being rigorous in my testing and my feedback is that not one of my reviews, which usually commented on whether the key ingredients had any kind of scientific evidence to support their claims was ever quoted. The only quotes for all the products I tested came out with glowing reviews.

    I think for sure consumers want to know ‘what works’, but personally I’m not really convinced by some sleb telling me something is the bomb, I actually want some kind evidence that claims will be met with action to some degree. I think it is in the cosmetic industries’ interests (and this includes Fairley who gives props to a number of skincare companies, most of whom make hugely unsubstantiated claims for their products) to keep consumers ignorant.

    This means that it’s actually less about ‘what works’ and more about ‘what makes me feel nice’. I have no problem with what makes me feel nice. To use an example, I’m a fan of temple spa skin truffle gloop. I have no illusions that it actually really ~does~ anything more to my skin on a practical basis than say some regular moisturiser. I find the idea that the presence of truffles, gold and diamonds in it will have some kind of lasting benefit, risible. But it has a nice cosmetic effect for a few hours and that is fine.

    What I do really object to is it being hawked as some kind of anti-ageing wonder cream given the only ingredients which might have any potential anti-ageing effect are in unspecified percentages (such as Palmitoyl tripeptide-5) or in a form that has doesn’t appear to have any clinical testing to support it (the Vit. C).

    So the bottom line is we only know if it works or not if we, as consumers, are a little more educated about what testing actually is and a lot more sceptical about inflated claims made by manufacturers and their supposedly independent professional fans. This stuff is not rocket science and it makes sense to do a little research before forking out sometimes hundreds of quids for hope in a jar.

  9. heh, thank you but I suspect it would need a bit more oomph to make a post of its own (despite my propensity for waffling).

    One thing which always makes me smile as a social researcher and a qualitative one at that, is that I have to regularly defend myself against ‘proper’ researchers who argue that qualitative research is not generalisable or reproducible. And then I see the ‘clinical’ trials involving 30 participants.

    There is little incentive to fork out huge amounts of quids for independent research into something which is not really life enhancing in the same way as medicines are and which you can flog anyway using the most specious evidence.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.