OK, this post is going to be a bit more personal – because frankly this is something that’s been on my mind for quite some time and I think really needs to be discussed.
There’s a big problem in science-based beauty writing – especially from retailers, and I think it boils down to one big issue: Bias.
Science writing has always been difficult. It’s the translation of an experiment or analysis that’s very specific, distilled down to its essential point, and then presented in a way that will attract clicks.
“Moon leaf extract treats acne” is a much more appealing story than “Moon leaf extract reduces ratings on an acne severity grading scale compared to a placebo…in this study on Japanese people…but there was no effect on the Caucasian people in the study…it might also be due to changes in the weather – we don’t know. This is a preliminary study and another group should replicate it to validate our results. P.S. Our moon leaf extract may have been contaminated.”
You tend to lose all the nuances of a study once you summarise it into a single sentence. Often those nuances are important. This is something I worry about when writing for other websites and when I’m quoted in articles. Editors want clean and strong facts, and readers or customers want definitive and clear advice. Now add on to this the issue of bias, when most of us sit down to write we have a goal or idea and, we consciously or not, tend to focus on research that supports it. Writing a piece on green tea? I may read the supportive studies more closely or dismiss and be overly nitpicky with the studies that showed negative or no effect. Promoting a product that contains green tea? That bias presumably becomes stronger.
We’re humans, it’s hard to be impartial. I’m biased, I certainly have conscious ones and I definitely have unconscious ones. Do I like niacinamide based on its research? Or have I spent more time reading about niacinamide because I’ve been told it was well-researched? Do I favour my own formulations over others and do I lose out on improving my own formulations because of this bias?
Cosmetic research as a whole is neither vigorous nor impartial. It’s often funded by the manufacturer or a brand that is promoting its use. Most research on cosmetic ingredients extends to a single study – that will never be replicated. Most cosmetic research isn’t even done on humans – it’s performed on cells, on models, on animals, on plates of plastic. Most cosmetic products are studied in isolation.
It’s really difficult to take this loose, ephemeral, wishy-washy data and give a hard answer – that is unless you’re comfortable leaving out the gaps in the data, confounds, and specific conditions in the study, and unfortunately some science-based writers and retailers are. I get it – it’s not a great feeling to have someone reach out to you for advice and give them an answer that is at its core a long winded sigh of ‘Mayyybbbbeeeeeee’. That I can sympathise with, I can’t sympathise with people or companies who misconstrue or occlude information to position themselves as an expert or to sell a product.
I’m considering taking “skincare expert” out of my headline because I don’t think I am one – I’ve been told an “expert” just needs to know 1% more than the population, but I don’t think that’s enough. I think “expert” implies someone that has answers – and answers I do not have. What I do have is results from other people’s research, an opinion, and a desire to share both.
I want to be very clear: I know there are many writers out there that do seek out research, are curious, do their best to read it, understand it, and explain it to their readers. I also understand that not everyone has journal access or a relevant background. To them, I say get in touch with me – and I will help you get access to the paper and explain concepts. My issue is with the writers and companies who do have access, who twist and misconstrue, who leave out information that doesn’t support their view, those who are satisfied without questioning their conclusions, who write too confidently, who are OK with presenting a question as a fact, and who should know better.
So to my fellow writers, these are my suggestions to help our readers and customers make better beauty and skincare decisions
Clear and functional sources
Be proud of your sources, don’t source-puke a long list of unclickable, poorly formatted text in the hopes that people will be daunted and just trust what you wrote. Don’t just link to the journal’s homepage or a textbook. Take the effort and help people find where you found your information.
We live in the age of Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs), it’s a permanent link that will always point to that resource – even if it gets moved to a new location. Use them! Or at least stick to a style guide for your sources, the ACS style guide is commonly used.
Source and quote material that is relevant to your topic. Don’t source tangential things to try to make your writing look more researched. Was the experiment performed on humans? If not, you should point that out. Was it performed on humans, or animals, or cells? Was it a review of other research?
Often results from experiments on cells or animals are presented in a way to make us expect the same results when applied to our skin. Unfortunately, these results don’t always predict the results we can expect on humans. These types of studies can be useful in discovering how or why an ingredient works the way it does or if it’s possible for an ingredient to work – but they can’t replace results observed on actual people.
A review of ethanol’s effects on liver cells has been presented as evidence that ethanol applied onto the skin will cause the same damage – while there is a possible mechanism, that study isn’t strong evidence. Our skin acts as a barrier, ethanol evaporates quickly, other skin components like hyaluronic acid may reduce the effect, and human skin cells may respond differently than liver cells – these are just some factors that can change ethanol’s effect when put on our skin – but aren’t often mentioned.
We all make mistakes and we don’t all have editors or peers who can double-check our work. Saying something that isn’t common knowledge or you’re unsure of? Take a quick hop into Google and confirm it, otherwise, you might mischaracterize copper gluconate as a copper peptide.
If you’re citing research, read it! Finding a line that supports your point and skipping the rest of the paper is irresponsible, can be misleading to your readers, and most of all you’ve done yourself a disservice by missing out on some valuable knowledge.
Research is not an easter egg hunt. Searching for “Vitamin C+ Hyperpigmentation” won’t give you an unbiased and complete result. Because of the way paper abstracts and titles are written, searching for “Vitamin C + Hyperpigmentation” will likely only return results where Vitamin C was found to have a positive effect on hyperpigmentation.
Instead try a broader search like “Vitamin C + Cosmetic”, “Vitamin C + Topical”, or “Vitamin C + Skin”.
Stop “SCIENCING!” the shit out of things
It is absolutely OK to not know something, or to not have an answer, or to have an opinion that isn’t researched. You can be honest with your readers and customers, I think they’ll appreciate that. Your opinions as a person or brand are valuable – as long as they’re transparent. Don’t use science as a veil, science is a process of discovery and learning – not a marketing angle or sales tactic.
“It’s important to keep in mind as you study chemistry or any other science that scientific theories are not laws of nature and can never be absolutely proven. There’s always the chance that a new experiment might give results that can’t be explained by present theory. All a theory can do is to represent the best explanation that we can come up with at the present time. If new experiments uncover results that present theories can’t explain, the theories will have to be modified or perhaps even replaced.”
— John E. McMurry, Chemistry (7th Edition)
I think this is something that I can improve on as well. I will try to make it clear when I’m unsure about something and when I come across research that doesn’t “prove my point”.
Along those lines, I’d also like to thank you, the reader, for your wonderful questions. There are often times when I get a new insight from a question, or it makes me realise that there’s a gap in my understanding. I would love to give you answers to all of your questions, but I don’t have them. Sometimes I can only show you a map, but I can’t mark out the path. My broad advice is to let go of the notion of a “perfect routine” or “perfect product”. While the search for the perfect routine or skin care product isn’t a mythical quest – we’re not there yet. We don’t even know for sure if it’s better to apply a moisturiser before or after sunscreen – we have some educated guesses, but no strong proof! We’re even further from an answer that would apply to all sunscreen and all moisturiser combinations.
Skincare, as it is now, is a field of ‘maybes’. Maybe some of those expensive and rare botanical extracts have amazing anti-ageing effects and maybe it’s just the glycerin in your lotion that’s making your skin glow. Many skincare questions don’t have real answers yet and there’s even less information on whether or not an ingredient is better than another.
You should think about what your ‘evidence filter’ is set to. Is skincare fun and exciting for you? Do you have the budget and time to try newer and more novel ingredients? Then set your filter wider, enjoy the cornucopia of beautiful and fun products out there. Enjoy the process of applying them to your skin, of searching for them, of reading about other people’s experiences with them.
If that’s not what you want, then set your filter tighter, use ingredients that have more research on them – like a sunscreen with strong UVA and UVB protection and prescription retinoids. Take fewer risks and spend your money on skincare that has been shown to work for most people. You may be missing out on some truly effective ingredients, but you’re also avoiding ingredients that are just marketing.
In the long-run who will benefit more from their skincare routine? The person that seeks out the many novel and exciting products, or the one that picks the few researched and qualified products?
We just don’t know.