Three Things Beauty Bloggers Should Know About Science


I know that a lot of people who read Colin’s Beauty Pages are beauty bloggers. So I thought you might like some tips on how to cut through the hype behind beauty products to get through to the reality.  Here are three things to bear in mind when looking at the science stuff that sometimes gets used in the promotion of cosmetic and personal care products.

Only trials matter

Scientific theories are a big part of the business of science, but in themselves they don’t mean very much.  Facts, data and evidence are the crucial things.  A theory without any evidence is a like a mobile phone without any charge in its battery.

What this means is that if a product makes a claim then you should only be impressed by evidence for that claim. A good example came up recently when a number of media outlets reported on a press release about a pill that could stop your hair going grey.  That sounded really interesting.  I imagine nearly everybody on the planet might consider taking that one.  The claim was backed up by a reference to a proper scientific journal, which is a good start.  Sadly the paper itself just reported some lab work which elaborated a theory about the hair turns grey.  It was a perfectly valid bit of science, but it didn’t demonstrate the claim.

If a product is marketed as doing something out of the ordinary, the only convincing reason to believe it is if a trial has been carried out in people which shows that it works.

Sample Size Is Important

Companies do carry out trials, and many of those trials are carried out to the right degree of scientific rigour.  But some aren’t.  Some are simply too small to show the effect claimed.  Unfortunately the rules of statistics don’t allow an easy rule of thumb to be applied to tell you whether there are enough people in a trial.  This is something that foxes professional scientists from time to time, and papers get published which draw conclusions that are not justified by the data reasonably frequently.

One term that gets misused both intentionally and by accident is ‘statistically significant’.  All this really means is that the results are not what would be expected from chance alone.  It doesn’t mean that they are meaningful to the end user.  Imagine you had an anti-wrinkle cream that reduced the size of wrinkles by 2%.  With enough diligence you could do a study that showed this, and a statistician would happily confirm that the result was indeed statistically significant.  The end user who might have paid a lot of cash for the product would probably not regard the result as significant at all, even if they could actually see such a small effect.

If you don’t have time to go over the original report with a fine toothed comb, the best bet is just to use common sense.  If they are claiming to have changed the face of the cosmetic industry but have only tried it on 20 people then they are probably being optimistic.  If a well known brand has done a trial on several hundred they probably know that they need a lot of numbers to show a small effect.

Cherry Picking

Cosmetic scientists are not big contributors to the scientific literature, but most scientists spend a lot of their lives doing research that they hope is worth publishing and which contributes to scientific knowledge.  As a result there are millions of papers out there full of all sorts of interesting and useful stuff.

This is generally a good thing and is one of the reasons we all live such safe, comfortable and long lives.  But there is one danger, which is that with so much available it is possible to pick out facts that support a case you are trying to make.  The temptation to cherry pick the bits that fit is one that people with something to sell often give in to.  This is one that crops up a lot in health orientated products.

So although science is just about the best method we have come up with for learning the truth, it isn’t perfect.  It can be misunderstood or manipulated.  You need to keep your critical thinking skills as sharply honed when dealing with the ‘science stuff’ as you do the rest of the time.


3 thoughts on “Three Things Beauty Bloggers Should Know About Science”

  1. Loved this post as well, Colin, and as a beauty blogger who tries to go beyond getting sucked into the hype, I loved all your considerations. In addition to the points you mentioned, I also thought it might be good to see whether the tests they conducted were in vitro or in vivo. I have had some companies send me “proof” that their collagen product works to increase the amount of collagen you have in your skin, but 1) first of all they sent me a summary, and 2) even from the summary it is apparent they just did the thing on some cells in a petri dish. I highly doubt the effect seen in the petri dish can be extrapolated to humans in anyway.

    A corollary of that is the fearmongering we see in a lot of “this ingredient/product causes cancer” type of claims. A lot of their “proof” they refer to are studies done on animals, with huge amounts (like 100x normal human exposure) of the neat ingredient in question. In daily use, it really doesn’t translate over to humans because results cannot always be extrapolated from mice to humans, and in practice we don’t encounter that much of the stuff, even cumulatively over time. In fact a lot of these studies they refer to (like the “parabens cause breast cancer” one) are really not as conclusive as consumers are lead to think, and some of them also have other similar, subsequent studies that don’t confirm the results of the original. There is a lot of selective fishing for facts that suit your case and then taking them out of context going on, and it does wear me out a little as a consumer who tries to stay informed.

  2. You could add requirement for independent replication to the point #1. Any single trial can be biased because of ‘researcher degrees of freedom’, that’s why the results need to be replicated by other researchers before we can start taking them seriously.

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