Epistemology is the branch of philosophy and science that deals with the question of how do we know what we know? It’s a good question to ask if you are interested in such things as truth, and the limits of knowledge. In science, when we think of truth, we also think of proof, or evidence. The tenets of the scientific method teach us that without careful observation (e.g. controlled experimentation leading to logical conclusions) we would be left only with our beliefs, and they could very well be wrong. But, right or wrong, we know from human history that belief is a very powerful force. It compels human behavior in all sorts of situations. Especially shopping behavior.
So, what does this have to do with cosmetics? And, why the heck should we care about these science-y sounding things anyway? The simple answer is this: truth matters. Without truth, you have only belief, and this can lead you down the garden path to pure fantasy. Companies use science chatter to sell products. Purveyors of cosmetics (and especially anti-aging cosmeceuticals) use the language of science to try to persuade you to purchase their goods. Sadly, pockets get picked daily. This blog exists with a mission of bringing the light of science (truth) to claims made by some of the manufacturers of cosmetic and cosmeceutical ingredients and finished products. Today we are going to take it a step further. We are going to try to draw a clear distinction between the world of science, and the world of fantasy, as it applies to beauty products. I will confess to you up front, it is not an easy task.
Fairy dust and fairycide … the cost of believing
In Peter Pan we are asked to “believe” in fairies (there is that word again). We are even told that if we don’t, the adorable tiny Tinker Bell will die. Oh my! My conscience can’t handle the guilt of fairycide, so I clap, signifying my heartfelt belief. Tink is snatched from the jaws of death. Yes!!! Tears stream down my face. What a wonderful story! A little fairy dust is sprinkled liberally. Happy ending.
Ah, but you now ask, do fairies really exist? Hmmm. Well, I suspended disbelief long enough to save one from extinction just now, by clapping for Tink. But, then again, it didn’t really cost me anything. But suppose it did? What if instead of clapping I had to signify my belief with a $300 charge on the family credit card? Would I maybe want more reasons to believe? Or would I simply let that little light with wings fade to black? Goodbye bug!
Which brings us to snail snot. Patented stuff, so it must be real. Active ingredient in anti-aging products (cut and paste from the manufacturer, please note the spelling issues) : Helix Aspersa Müller (brown garden snail) glycoconjugates. A viscose (sp) fluid gathered directly by stimulating live snails to bubble the substance they produce inside their cells copiously from the granues (sp) in its body and specially (sp) on its soles. It is a complex compound of powerful biological structures: proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans, glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, copper peptides, antimicrobial peptides and trace elements (Cu, Zn, Ca, Fe). This all comes from snails put under stress. They put out a defensive stream of mucous-like goo.
OK, first principle in helping me to believe in your active … learn how to spell. People with college degrees in science generally know how to spell, or how to hire editors at the very least.
Second principle: tell me why proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans, glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, copper peptides, antimicrobial peptides and trace elements (Cu, Zn, Ca, Fe) from garden snails is any better than the same substances which my own body contains, in much larger amounts, tuned by my own DNA machinery. Or that I can get from grinding up other less offensive snotty critters than the same species I try to poison every spring in my garden. In fact, the mucous substance of snails has a chemical composition not altogether different from that of gastric mucous secreted in defense of high fat spicy foods. Why didn’t you just harvest some of that? Maybe it has to do with those patents? No patent protection on human gastric mucosal juices as a cosmeceutical.
Does snail snot work? In other words, is there any evidence for product efficacy? Answer: none that is clear or easily accessible. The manufacturer does lists a series of papers published in Spanish language journals that for some reason cannot be found in our medical library, or even on PubMed. There are some in vitro (test tube) studies that claim proliferation of fibroblasts, stimulation of new collagen a fibers, and other similar benefits. The problem? Seems almost anything you add to fibroblast cultures can stimulate them to secrete these same things. It’s considered a stress response. Just like snails under stress. Nothing very unique here. Doesn’t really add up to a physiology-based rationale for anti-aging efficacy,I must point out. There is more, but I won’t elaborate. In summary, the evidence is completely underwhelming. The methodology is weak. In fact, I think they should abandon this whole wobbly science rationale and just go for a simple marketing message: have you ever seen a wrinkled snail? Makes more logical sense than the science they purport and ask me to believe.
The only mitigating factor I found – it is available on Amazon for about $5 a jar. Our product containers cost more than that. The price of snails on the global market must really be down. I guess I can suspend critical judgment for $5 … not much more than a the clapping ransom demanded by Tinkerbell’s kidnappers.
OK, so you have probably guessed by now my opinion on snail snot. It’s actually been around more than a decade now. Hasn’t become the anti-aging ingredient of the new millennium, has it? Found in the bargain bin. But new competitors for ingredient of the month have overtaken it. Like whale vomit (seriously, folks).
But we still need to address our original question: how do we know what or who to believe? How does someone without dual degrees in mollusk physiology and human dermatology judge the quality of the science? Is it science, or is it just fairy dust?
There is no easy answer. To a layman, good science and junk science looks and sounds the same. Not to sound like a negative old magpie, but frankly I have investigated a lot of these touted new discoveries from the plant and lower critters world, and found the vast majority to be fluff at best, downright deceit at worst. I will warn you to be duly skeptical of the claims that manufacturers make. And do not think that there is some government agency acting as your guardian angel – it’s not happening. Nobody wants to pay for that kind of scrutiny, and trust in the needed bureaucracy would be non-existent anyway.
So, how do we protect ourselves against scams & fantasy science? Check in here and at and the handful of other “science beauty” sites. Visit the SkinCareBoards forum where users and experts regularly discuss these things. Ask questions. Does the science “add up”, i.e. match what is already known? Or does it require suspending the laws of chemistry and physics (as some magic water cures do)? Is there an evidence base (beyond the patent literature)? High or low quality? What do actual experts in the field think?
Finally, if someone asks you to suspend disbelief, at least insist that you be compensated with a very healthy sprinkling of fairy dust, preferably at $5 or less.
Note: this post by DrJohn was originally published by our friends at at FutureDerm. But we recently had people asking us about reprints since they could no longer find it there (the site recently underwent a facelift, so it could have been accidentally deleted … it happens). So here it is with a some modifications.
Haha, I work on medical epistemology and came across your site by accident, but I thought I would let you know that while you’re disrespecting other people for spelling errors, your drop-down menu for “Skin Care Science” doesn’t say ‘epistemology’ but ‘episthemology’. I first wondered if the article was about how to know things about heat.
Hmmm. A pissy epistemologist. 🙂 Hey – we had it right on the title!