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Why There Are Growing Calls for Beauty Product Regulation

The growing popularity of science-backed beauty and wellness offerings has experts calling for regulation to distinguish genuinely innovative products from those selling false claims.
Skincare, facial and woman with beauty, product and skin, wellness and grooming with retinol, serum and collagen. Face, girl and model relax pamper treatment, mask and acne cosmetics, oil and vitamin
From medical-grade serums to gut-boosting yoghurts filling shelves, the “science bit” has taken over. (Shutterstock)

Jennifer Aniston once said: “Here comes the science bit … concentrate” when selling shampoo in the late 1990s. But with everything from medical-grade serums to gut-boosting yoghurts filling our shelves, the “science bit” has truly taken over.

However, experts warn that more regulation is needed in the beauty and wellness industry to ensure that consumers are aware of genuinely innovative products compared to those selling false claims.

Analysts at Kantar put the growing popularity of science-backed beauty and wellness products down to people having more access to information through social media. This has resulted in greater awareness of the benefits of specific ingredients, they say.

Dionne Officer, a research analyst at Mintel, said 67 percent of UK adults wanted beauty brands to provide more scientific validation. Additionally, 36 percent of all products that claimed to be science-backed in the last five years were launched in the last 12 months Mintel data shows.

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The value of the gut health industry alone is expected to rise from £41 billion ($52 billion) to £70 billion by 2030. The Zoe nutrition plan, co-founded by the epidemiologist and gut health expert Dr Tim Spector, has more than 130,000 sign-ups since its launch in 2022.

The skincare brand Lyma, which is putting its products through doctor-led trials, had a waiting list of thousands when it launched last year. This week, the company, co-created by an accredited plastic surgeon, brings to market a £4,995 ($6,334) medical-grade at-home laser.

Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator for McGill University, said consumers were “quick to believe something is good for us if it’s brand new and cutting edge.” He said: “Consumers may have tried a product with yesterday’s molecule in it and been disappointed with the results, but just like with diets, there’s always a fresh new thing to try with the promise that, this time, it will work.”

Lyma’s founder, Lucy Goff, whose company boasts its products are based on scientifically backed breakthroughs, says there has long been a fascination with longevity since Greek mythology and recent technological innovations can help improve how the body works.

She added: “The problem is that so many companies and brands have jumped on the well-tech bandwagon when it’s a marketing ploy and this is where the government has to act more responsibly to put consumer benchmarks in place so consumers know what they are buying into, empowering consumers to be educated in what is credible science and what is marketing hype.”

The UK government department responsible for the cosmetics laws is the Office for Product Safety and Standards. These laws are enforced by Trading Standards. However, there is no standard around certain claims or rules around what can be dubbed scientifically proven to work.

Goff gives the example of the sun cream market, saying that there is a “consumer benchmark” on the back of the bottle to “show how well a product will work” but this does not exist for other creams and supplements. “The benchmark should be not what the company is telling you but what is peer-reviewed science backing that up … consumers are not educated in this area and brands are manipulating that, and that is what has to stop.”

Timothy Caulfield, a research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, coined the term “scienceploitation” to describe how brands borrow language from emerging areas of science to market unproven products.

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He takes the example of a recent boost in interest in “gut health.” While microbiome and gut health is an exciting emerging area, he says, it takes years of research to explore what works and what does not.

Dr James Kinross, a senior lecturer in colorectal surgery and consultant surgeon at Imperial College London, says “most supplements that allege to target the microbiome, don’t.” He added: “Having said that, there is lots of good evidence for pro, pre and synbiotics, the problem is accessing this information to make helpful decisions.”

Kinross said that the “real problem is that most of these products don’t do what we really need which is to optimise the microbiome for health to prevent disease.” He advises that eating 30 grams more fibre a day could be the best and simplest way of helping your colonic microbiome.

“The consumer is often asked to spend a lot of money on these products; sometimes as part of a subscription model or sometimes as part of a platform that charges you for the pleasure of handing over all of your data to Silicon Valley. Be very wary of these products,” he added.

Kinross invests “in products that have reproducible science, which are cost-effective and those which have an ethical data policy.”

Caulfield said consumers should be sceptical of brands even if they are led by scientists or professors because “a lot of academics are under pressure to hype their work up.” He gives examples of stem cell genomics and microbiomes. “They are exciting areas of science but think how few clinical applications we have,” he said.

Caulfield said it was getting harder for customers to distinguish between good and bad products because there was “so much noise” and you could find something that “legitimises” false claims on the internet.

His advice is to look for claims that are not clearly explained to avoid products that will not deliver as much as they promise. After all, while times may have changed the old L’Oréal adage remains, and as Aniston would say, it’s “because you’re worth it.”

By Sarah Marsh

Further Reading

Why Beauty Brands Want a Bigger Piece of the $1.5 Trillion Wellness Pie

The State of Fashion: Beauty finds that brands have a growing opportunity to tap into emerging wellness subcategories — from sleep to sexual intimacy to ingestible beauty — by upgrading existing products or expanding portfolios, provided they do so with credibility and authenticity.

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