Is it really "clinically proven"?

Don't be hoodwinked by ads spruiking the benefits of scientific-sounding, "clinically proven" ingredients
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  • Updated:30 Apr 2009

02.Claims under the microscope

We flicked through magazines and browsed marketing bumph to see what sort of sciencey-sounding claims cosmetics companies like to use.

Here are some of them.

Magazine covers


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Cover A One clinical trial does not “clinically proven” make

Trilogy Rosehip Oil was “clinically proven” to have several marvellous benefits in one eight-week trial of 20 people. We don’t dispute the trial results – although, when you think about it, the “79% of users”, which is 15.8 out of 20 people, is an odd number to report. But with only one small trial, and no suggestion of any other evidence of its effectiveness, it certainly doesn’t meet the TGA’s requirements for the use of the term “clinically proven” (see Regulating claims in ads and marketing).

Cover B Skin deep terminology

Use the word “clinical” in an ad, and you get instant science cred. Make it longer, by adding “dermo” and it sounds really, really medical. The irony is that “dermo-clinical” seems to be an invention of the ad industry, and the term is yet to be adopted in the scientific and medical fraternities.

Cover C Meanwhile, back in the real world…

“In vitro tests” sounds scientific, drumming up images of labs brimming with test tubes and microscopes. And of course that’s what in vitro is: tests that take place within glass, for example in a test tube or petri dish.

In the case of cosmetics, particularly anti-ageing creams, the tests are done using specific active ingredients on skin cultures or cellular components. While they may be shown to have a demonstrable effect, this won’t necessarily translate to use of the product as a whole: other ingredients may interfere with the active ingredient, it may be very diluted in the final product, and many substances, simply can’t penetrate the outer layer of skin.

Cover D "A few people reckon it works" does not equal proof

The key to proper scientific trials is objectivity. If a product is going to show any effects, these should be objectively measured: for skin tests this usually involves photography or silicone moulds of wrinkles taken before and after treatment.

“Perception” is not measurement, and a “consumer perception study” is not objective. A “self-evaluation” – asking users if they thought the product was effective – is not objective. A “self-evaluation of 28 women over 4 weeks”, as L’Oréal boasts on one face cream package, is not only non-objective, but 28 women is not very many, and four weeks isn’t a very long time. All things considered, we’d take these claims with a grain of salt.

Cover E Tetrahydroxypropyl Ethylenediamine by any other name would not smell as sweet

Cosmetics companies love telling us about the magic ingredients in their products, and something you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce must be good. But possibly even better is a secret trademarked name, such as Pro-Xylane or Nutrileum, implying it’s so secret and fantastic they don’t want their competitors to know what it really is.

Cover F Apples and oranges

“Hair is 4x smoother” than what? Read the fine print and you’ll see they’re comparing the shampoo plus conditioner plus serum against a shampoo alone. Is this a fair test? Shampoo strips sebum, a natural lubricant, from hair. This makes the hair cuticle rough and hair tangles more readily. Conditioner deposits a coating on the hair that smooths the cuticle and reflects light, so your hair looks shiny and is easy to comb through. So it’s not surprising that their test combination produced superior results to shampoo alone. But most conditioning combinations would probably do the same.

Cover G As flimsy as a RoC

The British Advertising Standards Authority demanded that an ad for RoC Complete Lift be pulled on the basis that it was misleading for consumers. Despite the fine print stating that the “measurable lift” was only cosmetic, rather than physical, the authority felt consumers wouldn’t appreciate the difference. This hasn’t stopped the company using this ad here in Australia, however. What we particularly love, apart from the fine print that seemingly negates every implication of the large print and imagery, are the details about the clinical evaluations.

So what does the (cosmetic) measurable lift of up to 2mm really mean? According to the fine print, the facial contour results averaged a 0.7 mm “lift”, and results of 2mm were obtained from only three of 18 people. For eyelids an average 0.8 mm “lift” was obtained, and only four of 29 subjects had results in the order of 2mm. At $50 a pop, would you be tempted to try this cream? The answer depends on whether you’re swayed more by the dominant text and imagery, or the itty-bitty fine print.

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