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As Beauty Continues to Grow, So Does Consumer Confusion

Published April 27, 2023
Published April 27, 2023
Peter Kalonji via Unsplash

Beauty products are launched at mass daily, accompanied by an influx of new terms, ingredients, and technologies for people to learn. While innovation in the category will bring more awareness of cosmetics and more money to businesses, the constant barrage of new information can often become confusing to consumers, who are left not knowing their peptides from their probiotics. Recently, Vitabiotics Perfectil commissioned research into consumers' understanding of ingredient terms by surveying 2,000 women. The results show that misinformation and unclear explanations are leaving many questioning the products they use daily.

The study found that:

  • 72% of those surveyed say they need clarification on some scientific terms and technological developments in the beauty business.
  • 69% have bought a health or beauty product without understanding the label.
  • 50% buy products containing ingredients they don't understand if they trust the brand selling the product.
  • 46% rely on good reviews when buying a beauty product.
  • 20% buy beauty products that their friends recommend.
  • 13% buy beauty products they have seen influencers use.
  • 26% believe using buzzwords is important to show how the beauty industry is evolving.

Terms confusing consumers:

  • 43% didn't know a free radical was a molecule in the environment that could damage the skin.
  • 42% didn't know a peptide is a short string of amino acids that can help to make proteins 
  • 38% didn't know selenium is used to support healthy hair and nails.
  • 68% did not know what coenzyme meant.
  • 48% did not know what microneedling meant.
  • 33% did not know what micellar was.
  • 33% did not know what prebiotics meant.
  • 36% did not know what retinol meant.
  • 41% did not know what hyaluronic acid was.

A spokesperson for Vitabiotics Perfectil commented on the findings: "The health and beauty industry is based on scientific advancements, but that means there are often a lot of buzzwords and terms that aren't always obvious. All of the buzzwords show the research and science that has gone into that product, allowing people to feel they can trust the product. But this can mean it's confusing, and we want to help people have a better understanding of the terms to ensure they are doing the right thing for their skin and appearance."

While the findings from this study were heavily based upon terms associated with the brand's supplement SKUs, other brands have also found traces of consumer confusion in their own research. In late 2022, skincare start-up Amatus revealed findings from their study surrounding consumer knowledge of skincare, which showed that 26% of Gen Z admit they do not know what is inside their skincare products.

This confusion surrounding ingredients also comes with risks, as it may lead to consumers misusing products. With social media usage increasing and TikTok being used as a search engine, there is a lot of room for misinformation to spread, as well as everyday consumers becoming self-proclaimed beauty gurus. This has led to users unintentionally spreading false information about ingredients, resulting in problems for those putting into practice trends created by beauty fans who know little about the technical and the scientific ins and outs of personal care and cosmetics.

As a result, there are several incidents of TikTok users encountering trouble, one notable example involving rosemary oil, which trended on the app for its benefits in treating hair loss. However, ironically, several trying the trend had no knowledge of the safe concentration levels of rosemary oil to apply and ended up causing hair loss, as shown by TikToker Hasini Kay, whose content is dedicated to warning people about the dangers of following non-research-backed TikTok beauty trends.

As bad as this example is, other examples reveal even more serious health risks associated with the spread of beauty trends online. Last year, the myth that sunscreen causes issues with hormones and cancer rose in popularity on TikTok, and several users jumped on the bandwagon to share the false news. As a result, several decided to ditch SPF products and sunscreen, which can lead to sun-damaged skin, scientifically proven to be a significant contributing factor to melanoma. Despite several doctors publishing evidence to the contrary on the app and other social sites like Instagram, users discarded the scientific proof. Today, several videos claiming sunscreen causes hormone damage are still being uploaded. Videos of people creating their own SPF products as an alternative can also be found on the app, which is again another risk, as many everyday people will not know how to correctly make such a product in hygienic settings and ensure it is efficacious.

"Ingredients can’t be named as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without the context of how they are being used. We want to encourage the consumer to question the ways in which the industry is speaking to them."
By Dionne Lois Cullen, Chief Brand Officer, DECIEM

Aside from TikTok spreading misinformation, the clean beauty movement has also been criticized for doing the same thing. It is estimated that one-third of the US product market is now labeled as clean, with an increase of 12% expected by 2027. However, there is an ongoing debate within the industry suggesting that several brands claiming to be clean are spreading misinformation, using a term set to their own standards to meet consumer expectations instead of actually fulfilling clean beauty criteria.

The term “clean” then becomes confusing, because some brands advertise themselves as clean due based on a lack of synthetic ingredients. In contrast, others argue that synthetics are more environmentally friendly than clean, as they need to overpopulate land to grow, or require cheap labor. This can lead to consumers believing what brands are claiming due to trust in the company's name, which only promotes further confusion when other trusted brands share contradictory information to benefit their own marketing and sales.

Initiatives such as Clean at Sephora attempt to tackle such issues, in their case labeling SKUs as clean if they fall into accordance with its list of requirements, including having less than one percent of synthetic fragrances and no undisclosed fragrances. However, even these programs can be tied to allegations of unfair play; a consumer argued that the retailer's definition of clean beauty was unclear and confusing, requesting a jury trial against Sephora for alleged damages of $5 million.

Despite this, other retailers have not been discouraged, as Walmart recently revealed its Clean Beauty at Walmart initiative. While such initiatives are seen by many as a step towards more precise definitions of clean and, therefore, better understanding by consumers, others are not so sure, as some retailers allow certain ingredients to be labeled as clean that others do not, once again causing further consumer confusion.

To address this ongoing issue of ingredient confusion, some brands are creating their own ingredient lists. An example is Stratia's Ingredient Glossary, which uses simple definitions to explain all the ingredients used within its products and the benefits they bring. Other brands like The Ordinary are pioneering ingredient clarity through science, working with appointed Chief Science Officer Prudvi Mohan Kaka to provide science-backed ingredient knowledge for its consumers. The brand has often spoken on the importance of understanding ingredients before applying products containing them.

“The overarching message we'd like to get across when it comes to judging ingredients is the core principle of toxicology—the dose makes the poison. Ingredients can’t be named as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without the context of how they are being used. We want to encourage the consumer to question the ways in which the industry is speaking to them,” Dionne Lois Cullen, Chief Brand Officer at DECIEM, told BeautyMatter. “With the echo chambers created by social media, it's often difficult to know who the opinions we have absorbed actually belong to. Where did they start? Are they backed by evidence? Who is benefiting from the narrative? For us, it's about stripping everything back to present the simple facts, and allowing the consumer to come to their own conclusions.”

While it would seem the easiest way to settle ingredient misinformation and reduce consumer confusion would be to create legislation addressing this issue, this solution seems almost out of reach after little action has been taken despite several requests. However, in the EU, it was recently revealed that tighter regulations surrounding green claims from businesses had been put in place, providing some hope that restrictions and rules around ingredient definitions could be the next frontier in debunking confusing claims and providing clarity for consumers. In the meantime, it is once again down to beauty brands themselves to be as transparent as possible with consumers, addressing hard-to-understand ingredients and claims to create a more transparent, safer, and, in turn, more beneficial beauty industry for all.


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