Why does skincare feel like a scam and how not to fall victim? | Inconvenient truth about innovation in skincare

Maria from WIMJ

From a business perspective, the skincare industry is part of the so-called fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, together with mayonnaise, dishwashing tablets, and chocolate bars. How much innovation do you think is happening for mayonnaise? Lighter texture, new packaging—that's pretty much it. Unfortunately, it is the same for your moisturizer—at least in 80% of cases.

When you, as a consumer, think about innovation in skincare, you probably have in mind new actives and more effective formulations that actually do something for your skin. As consumers, we expect something more similar to pharma: new molecules, new approaches that treat issues like photodamage, pigmentation, or breakouts. That is not how FMCG industries think about innovation. For them, innovation is giving old products a new feel: adding new flavors, a silky texture, cute packaging, and an exciting marketing spin. This type of innovation is cheaper and faster; no clinical trials are needed. Just tweak the formulation, run a focus group with a few consumers to track their reactions to the product's marketing story and how it feels during application, and you're done.

The skincare industry is run by marketing; over 70% of skincare companies’ budgets are spent on marketing, and only 4% is allocated to innovation (including packaging!). These numbers are even more concerning for most small skincare brands that don't own any research facilities. In comparison, pharmaceutical companies spend 15-40% of their budgets on R&D, with most of this funding going towards the efficacy of treatments and clinical trials.

This is why, when you hear about an innovative product in skincare, it is more likely to be a marketing scam than a true innovation. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are rare. Over the last three to four decades, only a few truly new breakthrough actives have appeared in skincare; most of them are sunscreen filters and peptides. The most potent class of skincare actives still remains retinoids—which were discovered in the pharmaceutical field over fifty years ago.

With this knowledge, as consumers, we should not be surprised that most cosmetic skincare products simply do not work, especially for concerns other than skin moisturization.

The industry reaps what it sows: no investment in efficacy research = no true skin results. What is left is differentiating on marketing: celebrities, beautiful packaging, and exciting brand stories.

But we want skin results; we want products that work and truly help our skin health and appearance. What should we do?

Here is a five-point plan to help you avoid being scammed.

  1. Be critical of the skincare brands marketing. Take anything with a grain of salt. If anything sounds “too good to be true”, it’s probably not true.

  2. Start your skincare research with actives, not products. Learn what ingredients have a good evidence record for working toward your skin goals. It takes time, but your skin is worth it. To get you started, check out the actives WIMJ researched for the main skin concerns: anti-aging, acne and clogged pores, and pigmentation.

  3. Evaluate products based on their ingredient lists and the concentrations of active ingredients they use. Skip the packaging's front and go directly to the ingredients' fine print on the back.

  4. Be wary of the product advice you get in beauty stores and estheticians' salons. Usually, they have an interest in selling you certain, more expensive products because they receive a higher commission on them. If you see a one-brand cosmetic line on display in a salon, that is the first sign that you are dealing with a sales representative of this brand.

  5. Less is more when it comes to skincare and consistency is key. Typically, you only need 1-3 effective active ingredients in your routine to achieve your skin goals. The rest of the products you use should be as gentle and straightforward as possible - for example, a mild cleanser, a reliable sunscreen, and a basic, fragrance-free moisturizer. Avoid complicated skincare rituals and lengthy multi-step routines. These are more focused on entertainment than dermatology. If you want results from your actives, you must stick with the same routine for 3-6 months or longer. Do less, but be patient and follow through with your skincare plan.

Despite the dire state of innovation in the skincare industry at present, I believe that things are changing. I shope that our What’s In My Jar is part of this transformation force. After all, any business is ultimately driven by consumer demand. The less we succumb to current “snake-oil” marketing tactics, the more pressure will be placed on the industry to abandon them and re-focus on product effectiveness. Some brands have already started leading the way (brands like The Ordinary may not be perfect but they are certainly a huge step in the right direction), and I am confident that we will see many more signs on the positive change in future.

What do you think? Join our community discussion on this topic here.