Foreword: I was trained in the scientific method. In fact, anyone who attended some sort of a middle school was trained in the scientific method, and while I admit that my college degree and subsequent research made me cling more to the values of the scientific method than someone who went on to pursue other fields, I think a reminder of its value can save your health and your pocketbook.
Another note that I will make before we delve into this is sometimes we, the public, can “jump the gun,” and assume things from research. So some flawed research may be the fault of the public’s need for fantastic news titles – when the scientists themselves do not want the claims published, rather they wanted to test the idea to see if they could get funding or interest in a bigger, more scientifically solid research project.
Social Media has connected us all, but without the filters of scientific review it can seem like a giant load of false or semi-false crap. No one is there to counter the claim that “This Herb will Reverse Aging,” maybe there are people with time on their hands that will research and point out the flaws in the claims, but they tend to be buried in comment sections and given lesser priority.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with tools to weed out products that are out to use big claims to delve into your pocketbook (and possibly risk your health). So next time you are “baited” to “click” on an article because it says “A Miracle Cancer Cure that Doctors Don’t Want You to Know About,” or “This Woman is Actually Reversing Aging,” or “Plastic Surgeons Hate this Product,” refer to the handy list below and as you read through that article with the fantastic claim, you can stop reading when the claim starts to go on shaky ground. See…you are saving time as well as money!
Apply the Filter as Follows:
- Is it an anecdote (a personal story)?
- How big was the sample size in the study?
- How long was the study conducted?
- How well designed was the study?
- Follow the Money
Is it an anecdote?
Examples: I applied this cream to my stretchmarks and they disappeared! I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but this pill saved my life! After only a few uses, I immediately noticed a difference
Anecdotes are scientifically useless, especially when it comes to health and beauty claims. The overall health of the human body depends upon your fitness levels, your sleep, your hydration, your diet, your stress levels, and your exposure to toxins that pollute your blood stream. So a person can notice a difference with the application of a product partially because of a product, but also because they may be paying more attention to their health. If you have taken a step to buy a product, you are already becoming more aware of your health and well-being just by acknowledging that there may be a problem. You may choose to eat better, take better care of yourself or pay more attention to sleep just because you have made a financial investment in your health or beauty regimen.
As soon as you start reading about some mother of three somewhere who tried some product and achieved unbelievable results, realize that you are being pulled into a marketing trick rather than an actual scientific claim. When we hear stories about people trying things, a trick is being used that lies within in the human condition that makes us feel like “we could be them.” So they use terms like Mother, Grandmother, father and other close family terms to pull us in to thinking or inserting ourselves into the story.
How big is the sample size?
There are 7 billion people on earth. We all have different work schedules, different stress levels, different diets and lifestyles. To say that 100 or even 1000 people in just one country is a proper representative of the human race is ludicrous. Sample sizes when it comes to health and beauty claims will be crucial in determining whether the products are based on actual solid science.
For example, one of the saddest things I see in the beauty industry is the collective amnesia when it comes to the value of pH in skin, hair and facial care. This is something that the boon of private labels and dabblers in the personal care market have a giant level of responsibility, and therefore, I believe, responsible for a lot of serious damage to skin and hair that is completely unnecessary.
It was in the late 1970’s that we first learned how truly important pH balance was in skin and hair care, with multitudes of studies showing that women with more alkaline skin pH not only had accelerated aging symptoms on their skin, they had a higher incidence of sun cancer. In response, every skin care company started to pH balance their skin and hair care lines. Think of some of the older brands sold in Target or Walmart – if they have been around since the 1980’s, you will most certainly see “pH balanced,” on the label. In 2010, the most definitive study (10,000 people over 10 years) published in the British Journal of Dermatology absolutely proved beyond a doubt that alkaline pH on the skin and hair increases skin compactness, fine lines, deep wrinkles, age spots, and sagging.
When time passes, sometimes we forget the “Why” we do things and move away from something that was actually beneficial. With the increase of “private labels,” “mix your own recipes” and businesses that feed those new trends, pH balance– once an absolute necessity – has been forgotten.
The study referenced had a great sample size. While it would be better to have an even bigger sample size. A well planned study with 10,000 people is in line with solid scientific principles.
How long was the study conducted?
The study we just referenced was done over 10 years. Think about how much your diet, your life style, your sleep schedule has changed in just the last ten years and you will understand that taking the time to do a long term study will catch a lot of the lifestyle changes that can skew a study one way or another.
When we are in our first years of life, the skin cells we see at the surface are actually younger than the skin cells we see on our face in our 30’s. The skin cells are “born” at the base of the skin layer and migrate upward to the skin surface. That migration only takes about 10 days when we are first born, but as we grow older, the migration takes more time – with 50 year olds having skin cells that are 30-40 days old at the surface of the skin. Thus any study that doesn’t last more than 2 months is not going to show the cumulative effect of the skin care over the life span of the skin cells. Add to the fact that our skin changes and with our diet and changes with the seasons and we see that we need at least a year to determine how the skin or hair care is effected by the changing temperatures and humidity and even the most subtle changes in diet.
How well designed was the study?
There is A LOT that goes on when designing a solid scientific study. I will focus on three areas in particular: sampling practices, controls, and testing environment.
A good sampling really can help with the viability of a scientific study. For example, if you are trying to determine whether the skin care formulation is good for the vast majority of people, you want to make sure that your sampling is representative of the human population. Therefore you need to make sure genders are represented about equally, you have a range of age groups in your sample size, you have a representation of different climates, you have a good sampling of different ethnic groups for example. But if your product is designed for one particular skin type or ethnic group, you will want a majority of your sampling in that specific group.
With skin care and hair care especially, you can find one population reacts extremely well to a formulation where as other populations have adverse reactions to certain ingredients. Skin and hair care will never be “one size fits all,” but you should be able to know what population your product works best on and who shouldn’t use your products.
Controls are a basic scientific practice in studies. In medicals studies, the “controls” are the people given placebos instead of the medicine to be tested. In skin and hair care, the controls are the people that use their regular skin or hair care. The control will tell the people doing the study if it was the product they are testing that helped the customer or if there was something else happening that caused the change.
Testing Environments of course need to be controlled for temperature, humidity and other factors that can skew the test, but I mention this for a different reason and I saved this one for last because it is a really common to see article reference scientific tests that are by definition not complete enough to determine whether something is good for your health or your personal care products. In particular – I am talking about the difference between in vivo and in vitro. In Vitro means that the tests were performed in a lab and not tested within the human body. In Vitro tests are a crucial step in the determination of whether a product will be good for a person’s health or personal care, but they only represent the first step. It is almost a preliminary test to see if it is worthwhile to continue to check to see if a product will be good for a human. But the science should not stop there, nor should we infer any type of benefit until in vivo (tested on humans/full organisms) tests have been done.
We have complex digestive systems – each person having similar, but also unique traits just within their digestive system. And while the vast majority of chemical and structural components of the skin and hair are the same, they differ from human to human in how they are structured and the exact amount of each chemical component. Add to the fact that we have food in our diet that can change the composition of our body temporarily and you can easily see that what happens in a petri dish or test tube doesn’t predict what will happen in the human body.
Follow the Money
This can be the easiest way to determine whether something is worth your money or your time. If the person or company conducting the scientific research is the exact same person or company trying to sell the product in almost all cases, you can be sure the data is skewed to make the product look better.
Companies that truly want to see if their product is good for health or personal care will pay for trusted independent researchers to test their products. It is an investment in consumer trust that we need to start demanding of companies more than we currently do. Too often we can see that the studies done “in house” will ignore data that might not help their claims or they choose samplings that will make their products seem better than they are.
One example I use to illustrate the insidiousness the misinformation machine would be my recent research done with regard to an ingredient in a homemade laundry detergent. I knew from research maybe 8 years old that the ingredient in question (and I can’t mention the ingredient because it is owned by a very powerful company) was something that should never really be near someone’s skin, especially children’s skin. But when I tried to find the links to the research on a basic Google search, all that came up with was sites like “NaturalMomma.com,” “HealthyParenting.com,” (these are fake examples). A quick look at the whois.com directory showed me that these natural sites and healthy living sites were owned by the company trying to sell that ingredient. We have a name for that now in the industry, “Green Washing,” which I will delve into in another blog.
So sometimes “following the money,” can take a little time, but you soon get to a point where you can spot a “Green washer.”
We live in an age with literally thousands of “informational posts” coming at us, And even trusted sources can’t be relied upon 100% of the time. But the scientific method has been the same for centuries and can be applied to technology as new as the internet. So apply a quick filter everything you read and you will save time, money and possibly improve the health of your skin and hair