Skin care industry exposed. Shocking! (Yawn) |

Skin care industry exposed. Shocking! (Yawn)

Prediction: we are about to tick off everyone. The skin care industry from component makers to formulators to product makers to retailers to blogger/sellers to consumers to regulators. Did I leave anyone out?

We at barefacedtruth are sometimes accused of being unflinching iconoclasts (true), inveterate muckrakers (sometimes true), and snarky SOB’s (a scintilla of truth). But think about it – our skin care blogging, dermatologic pontificating, and science truth defending mission would be a mundane (can we just say it – boring) task otherwise. So we tend to spice it up. Add a little salsa. We tried celebrity gossip, but our subscription to Allure ran out. We got a freebie from Gothic Beauty, and while fascinated by vampire cosmetics, we found that the blood sucking going on there “paled” in comparison to the daily inner workings of the mainstream cosmetics business.

Shocking secrets

First consider this. There are all sorts of cosmetic industry exposed rants out there in the internet. So many dirty secrets to reveal. Products with toxins (oh horrors!). Products labeled organic that are not (shame!). Lying labels. Insect parts. You name it.

So, with all these “exposes” has anything changed? Of course not. Shock waves? Hardly. Organized product boycotts? Never. Apparently very few people care about such things.  Admittedly, , most of these scares are overblown. Perhaps the chicken little syndrome is at work.

Fantasy Science

Mind you, nobody is talking about THE BIGGEST SCAM OF ALL. The invention of fantasy science nonsense, day after day, by cosmetic ingredient manufacturers. They do hire scientists, by the way. Which means they must actually know what they are doing (i.e. pulling the EGF-harvested wool over our eyes). Which makes it even worse – they are not stupid, they are cynical.  They have sold out. Profit counts more than scientific integrity.  More on all that in a minute.

I get it that this is more about fashion than science (at least the cosmetic world – make up, hair colors, and that whole branch). But you would think that the science of anti-aging skin care would be more about, well, science. Sadly, it’s not.

It’s more like a long running TV sitcom. The script is very formulaic. It’s what everyone expects (wants).  The jokes may differ, but even they start to sound the same, week after week. Popular? Another sitcom with the same formula pops up from another network. Minor variations on a theme. Why? Because it’s all about the story. The (pseudo)science is just there for entertainment value. It doesn’t need to actually work. Or even actually make sense within the bounds of known biochemistry or physiology. It just needs to tell a pleasant story. And have some nice pictures (usually of wrinkle-free women).

I Wanna Look Like Her

Speaking of which, here is a sidebar observation. There is a whole industry that licenses stock photography for use in advertising and web sites. If you go to one of these sites and search on ”mature woman” you will get hundreds of choices, but nearly all are striking for this – they are women who look mature but have few if any wrinkles. It looks like they took young models and gave them some grey hair. How many people in real life do you know who are, let’s say, 60 years old but have no wrinkles.  Here is another part of the industry formula. Nobody wants to buy anything from skin care companies that show wrinkles. A wrinkled model? Product must not work.  So we would rather suspend belief so as not to challenge our fantasies that at 60 we can be wrinkle free too.  Are we selling science, or selling hope. And is that being driven by us, or by the industry. Or is it a classical case of “folie-a deux”.  I won’t tell it’s not true if you won’t.

What does this mean? That we (the consumers of skin care products) are complicit with the ingredients manufacturers and those further up the food chain (formulators, manufacturers, sellers) who become engorged on their fantasy science. We believe them not because they are believable, but because we need something to believe in. Let’s all clap for Tinkerbell; quickly before she dies. Maybe the only company out there with an honest approach is the one selling products aptly named “Hope in a Bottle”. That’s what we are buying, after all. Although I do notice that even that company seems to be falling prey to the same non-science and marketing excesses as the majority of companies.

A Miracle Discovery Each Week

OK, so here it is. How the industry works. It starts with a couple hundred companies that make ingredients for the personal care industry. If you want to know who they are, click on companies” on the left column menu at Most ingredients actually come from a smallish group of companies, concentrated in France and Switzerland. Very Eurocentric industry. Given the economic state of affairs over there these days, they may actually be significant industries to those countries.

Every week these insider publications put out the list of “new ingredients” available for purchase. Amazing how these labs can turn out a new ingredient every week. Takes our University years to accomplish. I guess these guys are just so much more efficient. But then they are not constrained by minor things like the laws of physics, biochemistry, medicine, or logic.

OK, so now these hot new ingredients with flashy names are hawked to the product makers. Now, I need to tell you right up front, I am not a cosmetic chemist. But I have met quite a few, and they are an interesting breed. They can be quite well versed in cosmetic ingredients chemistry on the one hand, and totally undiscerning about the underlying science of actives on the other.  What they know about these ingredients is what they read on the sell sheets (excuse me product information sheets) from the manufacturers. OK, I get it that not everybody can be a dermatologic physiologist. But they all have at least a bachelor’s degree in a science subject, and should understand the process of scientific discovery. But they are appallingly naïve, and unquestioning. In fact, I would venture to say, they are on a par with the consumers. “Just give us a good story. That’s all we need to make products that sell.” I don’t think it is that they are charlatans at heart. I think it’s because their job description does not include questioning the ingredients guys.  They want to be hired by product companies, who want new products with new ingredients to keep their lines fresh.

Consumed Up the Food Chain

Product companies, next up on the food chain. As long as the consumers aren’t going to ask questions, why should they kill the golden goose? Besides, we hired scientists (formulators) who guard our integrity about all that science stuff, right? And we need those story lines for our marketers to sell products. We all need to be on the same page of this script, or else this won’t work. The emperor’s new clothes may be a little thin on thread, but what the heck. Beautiful, aren’t they? And wrinkle free!

OK, so we have started to “lay bare” the dirty little secrets of an industry that likes to inappropriately align themselves with Nobel prize winners (see that abuse here). But in reality they have much more in common with Oscar winners, like Walt Disney (a great storyteller) than let’s say Nobel chemist Linus Pauling (although he could also weave a yarn or two himself – but that is a story for another day).

Who Cares?

So, what do you think? A big ho-hum? Or I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore?  If history is to be our guide, the consensus response will be complacency. Yours may differ. Ours does.

We will receive lots of advice. Some unpublishable. We will get a few letters in support, and the usual hate mail. It will all blow over in a few minutes of internet time.


Assuming we are still here, there will a be a part 2 where we lay out some egregious examples for you. Also, barefacedtruth has secured press credentials to a large industry trade show. We are thinking of doing some liveblogging from the convention arena. Stay tuned.



  1. Dennyjune says:

    Would love a tell all looksee at a trade show! Lead on

  2. DragoN says:

    Nice write!!!

  3. Gerti says:

    So true and soooo sad.

  4. Mirabelle says:

    Just discovered your site, and all I can say is, “where have you all been all my (post pre teen) life!” Great job at explaining, exposing and educating about the science and industry of skin care. Look forward to more reads…

  5. radicallan says:

    haha i really enjoyed reading this. i can’t tell you how many websites i’ve seen that ‘mum wrinkle trick’ ad..

  6. Jina says:

    Do you want to know what’s funny, recently I got a call, sounded like a call centre, saying they were a Swiss company and if I wanted to purchase cutting edge cosmecuticals at a fixed price. I was already late for work so I just hung up. This is a first, just wondering if anyone else has had a call like that.

    • drjohn says:

      Our marketing gurus tell me that call center marketing works, which is why there is so much of it. Preventing such calls is also a big business. Swiss is a code word. Isn’t that where all the good stuff comes from? All the leading edge cosmetic science? I’m betting it’s made in China, the headquarters are in Hoboken, NJ. , and the calls originate in Bangalore. Is there a “do not call” list in Canada, jina?

  7. A Khan says:

    Great work at explaining how the industry really ticks over, from the bottom up. The universal care our skin needs doesn’t change and we all ought to pay more attention to the ingredients required to maintain healthy skin.

  8. Traci says:

    Re the stock photography – it’s no wonder the same women “model” for so many companies. I’ve been wondering: do you have an opinion on the Environmental Working Group?

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