Snake Oil vs. Evidence in Skincare: Can You Sense A Revolution Coming?

TL;DR: Skincare industry today is a jungle. It tangles us with unsupported claims, promises of magic and fear-mongering. It makes our journeys to good skin days difficult and expensive. Worry not, the light of science-based knowledge is already there to guide us through the dark forest, to a place where skincare product claims are backed by evidence, prices make sense, and beauty influencers have science degrees.

Our skincare routines today would benefit from better information rather than better serums. I’ll try to explain where I am coming from with this thought.

Science about skin today is more advanced than ever. Yet, most people have probably never been more confused about the good and evil in the skincare world. Do silicones cause acne? Are organic ingredients better? Can you be breaking out because of fancy plant extracts in a product? Are other preservatives safer than parabens? (In case you are curious, the answers are No-No-Yes-No, but this is not the point of this post).

If you are on a hunt for the best skincare possible, even if money weren’t an issue, the task is daunting. The price tag does not mean much. There are hundreds, thousands of extremely expensive products. They all claim to be the best. They also have their own definitions of what the best in skincare is (they even call the other side “dirty”). The same is true in any price range. It sometimes feels as if you were choosing a philosophy, or a political camp, and not a moisturizer.

Yet, for the benefit of our skin, we shouldn’t be following ideological camps. We should be adopting an evidence based approach, as we do in medicine. Evidence based approach is not perfect, but it is truly the best method of figuring out what works that humankind has managed to come up with over the centuries. It means that we use real world data to test if an ingredient or a product can help. Why does it matter for your skincare? It maximizes your chances of choosing effective skincare, so you get both a bang for your buck and a glowing complexion.

Sounds great, but why doesn’t the evidence-based approach in skincare seem to be mainstream? Why are most skincare blogs not going wild discussing latest scientific discoveries in the world of skin health and skincare? Why are people still making their skincare choices based sometimes exclusively on packaging aesthetics?

I refuse to believe that this is a “female thing” as is often suggested (the argument goes approximately like this: “Women tend to make emotional decisions. They are not interested in data and evidence. Women are the main consumers of skincare, therefore this industry is geared to have emotional, and not rational appeal”. And it would be totally wrong in my opinion).

In fact just about a century ago, this is how most of the medical world looked. The packaging wasn’t that pretty, but the selling was definitely made through a marketing story. Today’s marketers can really learn from the giants of the past with their dramatic narratives of demon exorcism and virality of bloodletting (no pun intended). Luckily, times have changed, and despite occasional glitches like homeopathy or anti vaccination movement, more and more people in the world make their medical decisions based on solid scientific evidence for effectiveness of treatments. And it helps people live longer than ever.

I think that the 130+ billion usd cosmetic skincare industry is still at a “snake oil” stage - as medicine used to be in the beginning of the 20th century. It is run by marketing geniuses, not scientists. But you can sense the wind of change, too. While junk detoxifying face masks are still selling like hotcakes, it is no coincidence that brands like The Ordinary who almost fully disclose their product formulas to consumers represent one of the fastest growing segments in skincare in the recent year. Or that we witness a new rising generation of YouTube skincare gurus like LabMuffin with advanced science degrees featuring detailed explanations of chemical processes in their videos.

I believe that the cosmetic skincare industry is being disrupted as we speak. Snake oil claims are being challenged, misinformation called out and companies embracing evidence-based approach to skincare getting wildly successful. Of course, this “information revolution” in skincare will certainly lose a battle or two, think the popular bogus “clean beauty” trend and free-from claims. In the 19th century, effective drugs like aspirin were already “fighting” against leech therapies, and the odds were not in favour of the former for quite some time. Still, as in medicine, evidence-based approach in skincare is posed to win the war against the snake oil shamanism of the past. And both our complexions and bank accounts will only benefit from it. Exciting times!

— Written by Maria