How Marketing Numbers Without Context Can Boost Beauty Claims: Percentages and Fractions Need Context

The rising use of data and science in beauty marketing has led to an increase in percentages, fractions, and statistics. When it comes to percentages and fractions, it is extremely important to understand what they mean.

Often, important contextual information is left out. This can have the effect of boosting the claims brands make about their products.

Let’s look at something simple to begin with, how fractions can be converted into percentages – and vice versa.

2/4 is 50%

250/500 is also 50%

2 and 250 are numerators, while 4 and 500 are the denominators.

This numerator is how many parts of the whole, and the denominator represents the whole.

This comes into play when we look at claims like 90% of people agreed that For’real Serum increased skin dumplingness. What we’re missing is the context of the denominator.

90% could be 9 out of 10 people, or 900 out of 1000 people.

9 out of 10 people is a small sample and probably subject to some sort of bias. If 900 out of 1000 people agreed though, that would be more convincing.

This issue with lack of denominator context is also pervasive in claims using “bioavailability”, “penetration”, “absorption” and “conversion”. These are often claims of comparison – but they’re usually missing the context of how and what they’re being compared to.

How tall is Ranbir if we’re told “Ranbir is 20% taller”? We don’t have the information to know! But we can figure it out if we’re told “Ranbir is 20% taller than the average American firefighter in 2020”

In a similar vein, what does “20% more hydration” mean? We don’t have the information to know! But we have an anchor if we’re told “20% more hydration compared to before use”.

Let’s look at some beauty relevant examples…

40 times more skin penetration…

An important piece of information that’s missing is how was this determined? Is the way that this was determined applicable to the way that their customer will be using it on their skin? Often this data comes from models of skin (things are designed to mimic some aspect of skin, but are not skin), and in vitro (something that isn’t the living, whole organism) or cells. An ingredient might penetrate 40 times more into an individual dermal skin cell floating inside a plastic dish of nutrients over 2 days…but we are not giant dermal skin cells floating inside a plastic dish of nutrients.

What really matters is how the ingredient penetrates human skin that’s part of a living, functioning, whole human person. As well, it’s more relevant if the ingredient or product is used in a way that mimics how we would use it. If penetration increases after 40 minutes of being in a microwave oven…I would argue that information probably isn’t relevant.

90% skin “bioavailability”…

Claims like these often have the same issue as the previous claims we just looked at — like how a measurement was made. But often they also lack another type of context. What’s being measured?

What these claims insinuate is that 90% of what you’re applying to the skin will be “bioavailable” to the skin. But what’s often missing is the context that the 90% is usually a measure of what is “bioavailable” after skin penetration (or the skin model, cell, or in some cases a piece of gel or paper).

Let’s say you have 100 red balls of various sizes.

You shake them through a sieve.

8 red balls have passed through the sieve.

We have 8 red balls out of the 8 balls that fell through the sieve (8/8, 100%).

Is that 100% “bioavailability”?

We need to remember that we started with 100 red balls.

So out of those 100 red balls we started with, only 8 red balls passed through the sieve (8/100, 8%).

So is the “bioavailability” 8% or 100%?

Well, you’re using (and paying for) the 100 balls, so I would say the 8% is the number that’s more relevant.

Note: I have “bioavailability” in quotes because in terms of skincare it’s not well defined. In pharmacology, bioavailability is the amount of a taken drug that reaches the bloodstream.

“Bioavailability” is often used in the marketing of  nutritional supplements, but the pharmacology definition doesn’t really make sense because how a nutrient gets used or absorbed can also depend on a person’s current nutritional and physiological state.

The meaning of “bioavailability” in skincare becomes even harder to pin down. It can sometimes mean the amount of an ingredient that reaches the lower epidermis – but there’s no strict or widely accepted definition nor is there a standard way to measure it.

Often “bioavailability” in skincare is just a marketing term to make a product sound more unique and effective compared to its competitors.

INCI Isn’t Everything: Daft Punk Shows Us Why

Knowing the components of something doesn’t tell us their proportions, quality and properties, or how they’re put together.

Like how Daft Punk sampled Eddie Johns’ song “More Spell On You”; snipped, stretched, looped, and rearranged it into “One More Time” — ingredients can be remixed to create something new.

What is INCI? INCI or International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients is an English language ingredient dictionary and system of rules for naming the ingredients used in cosmetics.

If no INCI name or naming rule exists, other chemical, scientific, or common names can sometimes be used, depending on the region.

An ingredient list is just that, a list of ingredients. In some regions, the ingredients will be listed in decreasing concentration – some allow them to be listed in any order.

In the US the FDA regulations allow ingredients less than 1% in concentration to be listed in any order (after things higher than 1% in concentration).

Based on the ingredient list of this baked good:

Flour, Milk, Vegetable Oil, Egg, Sugar, Salt

Can you really tell what it is? It could be a cake, a crepe, a popover, a muffin, or pancakes. It could be a lot of things.

Having the concentration of the ingredients gives us a better idea. All this information is missing from an INCI list.

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¾ cup white sugar

1 egg

1 cup milk

¼ cup vegetable oil

But the way that it’s put together is also very important (also information missing from an INCI list).

Step 1: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C).

Step 2: Stir together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a large bowl. In a separate bowl froth the egg with a fork, then add the milk and oil. Pour all at once into a well in the flour mixture. Mix gently until the batter is lumpy.

Step 3: Pour the batter into paper lined muffin pan cups.

Step 4: Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden.

Only now do we know that they’re muffins.

Just like the ingredient list of something we eat, a cosmetic or skincare ingredient list can provide us with valuable information.

It might highlight potential allergens or things we are looking to avoid. An ingredient list might give you a general sense of what it will be like. But it can’t tell you everything, and it’s not worth aching over.

You simply can’t divine concentrations, formulations, raw material information, and manufacturing processes if that information just isn’t there.

It’s Not Fungal Acne

Fungal acne is not a diagnosis.

“Fungal acne” often refers to the idea that a person who has not seen improvement in their acne from conventional treatments is actually suffering from acne caused by fungus. The fungus is often identified as the genus Malassezia, formerly called Pityrosporum.⁣

Fungal (or yeast, a type of fungus) infections of the skin can occur. Malassezia fungus can cause small red bumps or white-headed pimples on the skin. It might look a lot like acne, but it’s not acne. It’s a condition called malassezia or fungal folliculitis.

It’s described as acneiform, which means “looks like acne” but it isn’t acne.

Proponents of “fungal acne” will often recommend changing the products a person uses to being free of ingredients that supposedly feed fungus. This is akin to “detoxifying” and is a common trope in pseudoscience.⁣ Many of these “not fungal acne safe” ingredients also happen to overlap with acne triggers.

There’s little to no human evidence that removing the often highlighted ingredients will have benefits against fungal infections of the skin. The evidence given is often from cell culture studies, anecdotal, or taken out of context.⁣

A story shared by a Redditor highlights why self-diagnosing “fungal acne” can be dangerous. This Redditor self-diagnosed what they thought was “fungal acne” and went on a “skincare detox”. The infection continued to reoccur. Finally, after visiting a doctor, and a skin swab…it was confirmed to be a staph infection. This means during this time the Redditor was self-treating their “fungal acne”, they were letting a potentially dangerous staph infection go untreated.⁣

Fungal folliculitis can be identified by doctors through tests, their training, and experience. If the infection is confirmed to be fungal folliculitis, treatment often involves topical (or in severe cases systemic) antifungal medication.⁣

⁣It’s important to get a proper diagnosis, so the proper treatment can be given.⁣ It’s important not to self-diagnose. There are many conditions that can look like acne or how “fungal acne” is described, but can be harmful if left untreated.⁣

I’ve seen some experts use the term “fungal acne” colloquially online. We don’t need to simplify the terminology we use. We’re capable of using complex words like niacinamide or emulsification.

Call it by its name. Fungal folliculitis.

But only after a diagnosis is made.

An Open Letter About Sunscreen Shaming

I think a lot of us have forgotten that the bad effects caused by sun exposure have only been recently well understood.

While we’ve observed for a long time that sun exposure causes sunburn, the impact UVA has on skin’s appearance and photoaging are a relatively recent understanding and concern.

Sunscreens marketed as an appearance maintaining essential is arguably modern.

The first widely used “sunscreen” was Red Vet Pet. Used by American soldiers during WWII, it was a by-product of oil refining with a strong red hue. In the later 1940s, pharmacist Benjamin Green would base his Coppertone product on it, but it was marketed to improve one’s ability to tan.

One of the first effective commercial sunscreens, Gletscher Crème, was introduced by Franz Greiter in 1946. Rudolf Schulze published the first method to measure sun protection in 1956. It’s estimated that Gletscher Crème only had a Schulze Factor of 2.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Schulze’s method would be adapted as the Sun Protection Factor and slowly start spreading around the world.

In 1965, doctors J. Graham Smith and G. Rolland Finlayson presented their summary of the sun’s impact on skin, “The changes in human Caucasian skin commonly believed to be due to aging are primarily the effects of prolonged repeated damage to the skin from the sun”. There’s no discussion on the different effects caused by UVA and UVB.

One of the first standards to measure the UVA protection of sunscreen was published in 1994 by Brian Diffey. And it wasn’t until 2011 that the US FDA harmonized and set down rules as to what sunscreens could be labelled as “Broad Spectrum”.

Japan’s cosmetic industry would adopt the UVA protection test, persistent pigment darkening, in 1996.

The European Cosmetics Trade Association (COLIPA) wouldn’t publish their standard for testing sunscreen for UVA protection until 2009.

While sunscreen use might reduce the risk of some skin cancers, it doesn’t reduce the risk of all of them.

Wear sunscreen to prevent skin cancer messaging is often blunt and not inclusive.

Dr. Adewole Adamson a dermatologist, researcher, and professor explains:

“In Blacks, melanoma usually develops in parts of the body that get less sun exposure, such as the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. These cancers are called ‘acral lentiginous melanomas,’ and sunscreen will do nothing to reduce the risk of these cancers…

Even among Whites, there is no relationship between sun exposure and the risk of acral lentiginous melanomas. Famously, Jamaican singer Bob Marley died of such a melanoma on his great toe, but sunscreen would not have helped.”

Sometimes we forget what it feels like to not know something – once we’ve learned it. A lot of the understanding of the sun’s effects and sunscreen protection labels are relatively modern.

Not all of us had the opportunity to grow up in households or communities that were sun protection prescient. Not all of us knew the effects that prolonged sun exposure could have on our skin. Not all of us cared when we were younger.

To shame someone for not having consistently worn sunscreen throughout their life is to say that their skin – the interface of their body to the world – is irredeemable.

Would I prefer people to wear sunscreen more often?

Yes.

But you haven’t failed if you didn’t start wearing sunscreen when you were a child.

And some people just don’t care about getting wrinkles or pigmentation.

There needs to be space in the beauty community for them as well.

Seeing oxidation and reduction

Why do our cosmetics change over time?

Sometimes it’s because of oxidation, the loss of electrons. Ascorbic acid is easily oxidized, losing two electrons, becoming dehydroascorbic acid. Enzymes and antioxidants in our body can give dehydroascorbic acid back those two electrons, reducing it back into ascorbic acid.⁣⁣

Your foundation getting darker after it dries isn’t oxidation, even though it’s often called that. It’s just the water or solvent in the foundation evaporating. If you’ve ever painted, you’ll know that wet paints tend to dry darker.

Methylene blue is a deeply blue organic dye. It is can be used in analytical chemistry as a redox (reduction-oxidation) indicator.⁣⁣
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In oxidizing environments, methylene blue is a bright blue, in reducing environments the methylene blue accepts electrons and becomes leukomethylene blue which is colourless.⁣⁣
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In the vial is an alkaline solution of glucose. Glucose is a reducing sugar, which means it can donate electrons. This creates a reducing environment for methylene blue, so the methylene blue is reduced to leukomethylene blue.⁣⁣
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When the vial is shaken, oxygen is dissolved into the solution – this oxidizes the leukomethylene blue causing it to lose electrons, turning it back into bright blue methylene blue. In turn, the oxygen is reduced to water.⁣

As the oxygen is consumed by the reaction, the glucose reduces the methylene blue – turning it back into the clear and colourless leukomethylene blue. In turn, the glucose is oxidized to gluconic acid.⁣
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In the video, you’re seeing excess oxygen dissipating out of the solution, as well as oxygen being consumed by the reaction.⁣

This experiment is repeatable by shaking in more oxygen, but won’t go on forever – eventually, all of the glucose will have been oxidized to gluconic acid and the glucose is needed to reduce the methylene blue.⁣

Oxidation was first observed with oxygen, hence its name. However, the modern definition of oxidation is the loss of electrons. Anything that can gain electrons, causing something else to lose electrons, is an oxidizing agent.⁣⁣
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Some common oxidizing agents that aren’t oxygen are elemental halogens like fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine. Fluorine (F2) is such a strong oxidizer it can oxidize water into oxygen! ⁣⁣
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2F2 + 2H2O → 4HF + O2

Yes Virginia, vegan collagen is real!

When Algenist launched the Genius Liquid Collagen with “vegan collagen” my first thought was, “What? Only animals have collagen!”⁣

Well, you’re looking at a vial of collagen that has been produced by yeast.⁣

Collagen is the main structural protein in animals, there are over 28 types of collagen. Type I collagen makes up about 90% of the collagen found in humans.

Collagen gives our skin its strength, flexibility, structure, and durability. Collagen is a triple helix, made of three coils of amino acids wrapped around each other. This coiled structure allows collagen to be stretched without breaking.⁣ Check out an earlier post I wrote about collagen for more information.

Plants and microbes don’t normally make collagen, but turns out they can! With some help from science, of course.⁣

Vegan collagen is often produced from modified yeast and bacteria, scientists have been doing this for decades. Collagen can also be produced by modified plants, like the tobacco plant.⁣

In one method, 4 genes that encode for the building blocks of collagen were added into a yeast’s genetic structure. The human genes were expressed in the modified yeast and they started producing the building blocks of human collagen type I. These building blocks were collected and treated with pepsin (a digestive enzyme), which assembled them into collagen and broke down any material that didn’t form properly.⁣

Why make microbe or plant-based collagen? It’s often purer and it doesn’t rely on animals. Though it occurs rarely, animal collagen can cause foreign body or allergic reactions. Animal sources of collagen are fish, pigs, and cows.⁣

Collagen is useful as a moisturizer for the skin, but also has medical applications. Collagen is used as a material for cosmetic filler, as carriers in drug delivery, as sutures, and as scaffolds for tissue engineering. Collagen can also be modified and used for neuron regeneration, blood vessel repair, bone regeneration, wound healing, and more!⁣

M Nokelainen, High‐level production of human type I collagen in the yeast Pichia pastoris, Yeast, 2001. DOI: 10.1002/yea.730