In case you've been living in a cave and hadn't noticed, the organic industry is booming. And it doesn't just stop at the grocery store, but has found its way into our cosmetics, too. While that seems innocuous enough, the medical community seems hell-bent on letting us know that, in large part, claims made by those selling these herbal and organic products aren't supported by medical review.
While not entirely an indictment against the merits of these products, the very fact that anybody bothers to speak up seems, at the very least, a precautionary warning against spending your hard earned money on something that promises results on which it may not be able to deliver. Seems reasonable enough, right? But there's often a catch. Cosmetic companies rarely make any real promises at all.
In pitching their products, cosmetics companies often use what I like to call Caveat Advertising. To understand what caveat advertising is, you need only compare the following claims:
1) This herbal skin care product will reduce wrinkles
2) This organic cream will reduce the appearance of wrinkles
It's that single word (appearance) that makes this caveat advertising. Pitch 1 promises an actual result while pitch 2 promises the illusion of results. Caveat advertising has led millions of consumers down the wrong path with hopes of real results. In the end, the chosen terminology protects the company because they didn't promise you anything more than a temporary trick of the light or cover up.
Of course, caveat advertising isn't a phenomenon reserved strictly for cosmetics containing herbal or organic ingredients. This deceptive practice is also common with all kinds of cosmetic and hygiene products such as creams, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioners. I'm sure you've seen plenty of commercials in which the makers of a brand of shampoo promise "healthier looking hair." The caveat in that pitch is the word "looking." Your hair won't actually be healthier for using that particular brand, it will simply appear to be healthier. In fact, as vital oils and nutrients are stripped away, your hair may actually be far less healthy than had you used water alone.
For all of the criticism we could hurl at the cosmetics companies for what I consider to be deceptive advertising, there are two more parties in the mix to whom we really should call attention starting, first, with those who quickly call all claims by cosmetics companies into question for lack of proper scientific or medical review. Generally referred to as the "medical community," these folks make the argument that claims, absent clinical trial and medical review are generally suspect.
While certainly not the same degree of dishonesty practiced by the companies selling products (or, at least, not intentional dishonesty), there's a bit of a misperception about the integrity behind the anti-organics stance as well. See, the assumption is often that the "medical" community would have no reason to deceive because they have nothing to gain by driving you away from over the counter chemical, organic or herbal skin care cosmetics. But the real truth is that doctors very much do have skin in the game. If you've read anything about such products as the prescription skin care options offered by Obagi, there's your incentive right there. You don't think all of those skin care product brochures displayed in your doctor's office come without a bit of cash incentive for him or her, do you?
Even were that not the case, it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss the validity of cosmetics claims based solely on the absence of adequate medical study. First of all, the reverse also holds true. If it isn't fair to claim a product DOES something because there isn't enough study then it is also reasonable to say it isn't fair to claim it DOESN'T do something due to inadequate study. Seems to me there's inadequate evidence to make a claim either way if lacking scientific review is the soapbox you're on.
I imagine another point to consider (against the medical community) is that a staggering number of the very products they do advocate and push, prescription medications, have their roots in organic or herbal ingredients. A perfect example of this is one drug we're all familiar with; Aspirin. Hippocrates left record of the use of powder made from willow bark used in the treatment of headaches and for the treatment of pain and fever. Modern medicine managed to refine the process but it is still that basic compound, salicin, from willow bark we have to thank.
Thousands of medical treatments owe their existence to the herbs and organic substances from which they are drawn (or from which they were originally discovered prior to being synthesized). With that in mind, it is a bit frustrating that there seems to be a rush to discredit the potential of herbal cosmetics by mainstream science. Ultimately, though, I'm inclined to believe there is a benign motive driving the medical community that is grounded in both their commitment to process (something must be proven before it can be claimed) and their long-standing opposition to snake-oil marketing.
And that brings us to the third responsible party in all of this; you, the consumer. Your responsibility is to be neither fool nor lemming. Can you believe the cosmetic companies? The folks creating those herbal cosmetics often have valid scientific degrees in chemistry, after all. Or should you believe the unaffiliated medical practitioners who advocate skepticism first absent medical proof? I say you should apply a bit of logical thinking to your shopping habits and be the master of your own cosmetic fate. That means keeping some of the following in mind.
1) If the product you are buying had real medical benefits, it would require significantly higher FDA scrutiny and would be marketed and sold as a drug rather than a cosmetic (and might even require a prescription).
2) Being a cosmetic rather than a drug does not mean a product DOESN'T work. It stands to reason that it takes a great deal more effort to jump through the bureaucratic hurdles required to gain drug status and many cosmetic companies may opt to forgo the "medical" claims just to get their product to market quicker (and to more potential buyers) as a cosmetic.
3) Being a cosmetic rather than a drug should, however, imply to you that the product you are considering is more likely to be (but not necessarily) a cover-up or masking product rather than one that has any significant medical potential (as in a wrinkle cream that hides or masks wrinkles rather than actually reducing them).
4) Look for caveat marketing in the product literature. If it contains caveats (reduces the appearance, for example) then you should know right away what you're getting.
5) Know that simply containing an herb (regardless it's success record) is no sure indicator of its potential. How much, how it is processed, packaged or stored can all contribute to making even the most beneficial compounds virtually impotent if not managed properly.
6) The internet serves as a great way for unbiased consumers to come together and voice their real opinions. Take the time to see what others say about the products you are considering. Let the majority opinion guide you. Even here, though, don't be led by the nose. You are your own person, after all.
We see "natural" or "organic" or "herbal" on packaging these days and all too often jump to the conclusion that those terms mean it works or is better for us. All too often, those terms mean nothing more than the fact that cosmetics companies understand shopper psychology. By no means are all cosmetics companies out to sucker you. By no means are all members of the scientific community blinded by arrogant elitism. But there is enough of each out there to lead you astray. The only defense you have against either one is to be an educated consumer.