The most ubiquitous words in beauty are no longer ‘natural’ or ‘pure’—but ‘backed by science’. In part one, we look at the evolution of ‘active ingredients’—from arsenic to retinols—and the beauty cult of chemistry. In part two, we go looking for scientific evidence for some of the most popular ingredients in your serum.
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Researched by: Rachel John
Skincare: A history of death-defying insanity
Women have long been poisoning themselves in the name of beauty—as a quick romp through history reveals:
- Cleopatra and her peers lined their eyes with black and green powders that contained lead. Prolonged exposure to that stuff can kill you—so it’s a good thing ancient Egyptians didn’t live past their 30s.
- The Romans were partial to ‘whiteface’—masking their skin with heavy powders that also contained lead.
- 16th century Italian women used nightshade—aka belladonna—to dilate their pupils. A wide-eyed look that greatly shortened their life spans.
- Elizabeth I used a mix of lead and vinegar—called Venetian ceruse, or the spirits of Saturn—to cover up her smallpox scars. Too bad it also caused rotten teeth and hair loss and, inevitably, death.
- In 19th century America, women ate ‘Complexion Wafers’ containing arsenic—an ingredient favoured well into the 1920s. If you couldn’t afford the wafers, you could always go the DIY route—soaking fly papers in the stuff.
- Mercury was a common cure for blemishes—but also caused kidney and liver disease, birth defects, tremors, depression… and, yes, death.
- If that sounds kooky, how about the craze for literally radiating your skin to make it, um, radiant. Soon after the Curies discovered radium in 1898, it became a popular skin cream ingredient. According to one ad: “If placed on the face where the skin has become wrinkled or tired the radio-active forces immediately take effect on the nerves and tissues.”
- And did you know X-rays were once marketed as a perfectly safe way to get rid of body hair? But you needed to be exposed to the machine for 20 hours—a surefire recipe for cancer.
Quote to note: Here’s a skincare regimen from Victorian England that perfectly sums up the insanity we have endured in the name of beauty:
To keep the face fresh, she advises coating the face with opium overnight, followed by a brisk wash of ammonia in the morning. For the woman with sparse eyebrows and eyelashes, mercury was often recommended as a nightly eye treatment, eradicating the need to use heavy makeup. “The look of the consumptive was very desirable: the woman with the watery eyes and pale skin, which of course was from the cadaver in the throes of death.”
Signs of progress? Skincare products are still about spending stupid amounts of money to achieve “all natural beauty”—which is entirely unnatural. Take, for instance, the ‘exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate’ mantra that was trendy until a few years ago. Women were sold on a regimen of “chemical violence” delivered by ingredients like retinols, chemical exfoliants, and alpha and beta hydroxy. A cult French product called Biologique Recherche P50 combined different acids—including phenol, “‘a numbing antiseptic that has some safety concerns’ such as its propensity to cause burning, nausea, vomiting, and coma.”
And we brown folks are just as crazy about super-whitened skin—willing to slather on creams that contain hydroquinone— "the biological equivalent of paint stripper" that causes skin cancer and fatal liver/kidney damage. But, hey, at least we’re not mainlining arsenic.
The ‘scientific’ era of skincare
Cosmetic or drug? The beauty industry today straddles the line between ‘drugs’ and ‘cosmetics’—making carefully worded claims—and here’s why:
Cosmetics are innocent until proven guilty. Their ingredients don’t have to be proven safe, or effective. Even if a particular ingredient has some evidence behind it, cosmetic manufacturers aren’t required to prove that the ingredient works in that product’s specific formulation, or at that particular concentration. Often, the only way to figure out if something works is to try it.
And yet, beauty products today religiously list their active ingredients—which make their claims sound “clinically proven” and therefore true. The industry today includes hordes of ‘citizen scientists’—who religiously share their wisdom about these ingredients on subreddits and YouTube videos. This obsession with chemicals, in turn, reinforces the industry’s marketing strategy—which has made skincare an estimated $155 billion industry today.
An ordinary example: One of the most successful brands in recent years—The Ordinary—became wildly popular by selling serums labelled with just their active ingredients and concentrations. Example: ‘Niacinimide 10 percent + Zinc 1 percent’. The products then spawned social media groups “with users sharing spreadsheets of their routines and talking about ingredient interactions.” As its CEO said back in 2018:
We’re led by the fact that they do have this appetite. They do want to learn. They no longer want to just believe in hocus-pocus potions. They want to actually understand what ingredients they’re using at what percentage.
But do we really understand what we’re using? As Jessica DeFino sums it up:
Over the past few years, Big Beauty has strategically co-opted science as a sales tactic. “Science-backed” has eclipsed “clean” (and “natural” before it) as the marketing term of the moment. Brands with single-ingredient offerings (The Ordinary, The Inkey List) taught customers to cosplay as cosmetic chemists, and dermatologists used their medical degrees to market self-branded skincare companies.
In fact, Allure even released an Ingredient Index deliberately styled after the periodic table of elements:
The BIEB effect: In an insightful Atlantic essay, Timothy Caulfield argues that the industry suffers from a “beauty-industry efficacy bias.” Everyone with skin in the game is invested in proving the efficacy of the products. Most experts are not independent scientists but dermatologists—who earn their bread and butter from the industry. As for the media: “Publishers don’t generally sell magazines by reminding readers that nothing works.”
The same bias influences the scientific research within cosmetic companies, as an product formulator admits:
In truth, companies have very little incentive to investigate ingredients further than initial, promising results. They almost always will find that the effectiveness isn't real. And if they find that it is real, they don't get much extra marketing bounce. There is no financial incentive for a marketer to determine what is really true.
Most importantly: There is very little scientific research outside the labs of cosmetic companies:
For many beauty products, there seem to be either no data or only small studies produced by proponents of the product. To some degree, this is understandable. Government research entities, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, have little interest in funding big double-blind placebo-controlled studies on the efficacy of, for instance, the bird-poop face cream used by David and Victoria Beckham. So there isn’t a lot of good science to draw on.
Most of the so-called evidence in the beauty industry is anecdotal—users sharing their trial and error experiences with products. These testimonies may, in fact, be true but are not very useful in making science-based claims.
The bottomline: In part two, we will look at some of the most popular ‘actives’ in skincare today—and see if there is scientific evidence to back their claims. Spoiler alert: some of them actually do work.
We highly recommend two older Atlantic essays: Timothy Caulfield on the BIEB effect and Julie Beck’s more sympathetic take on citizen scientists. Jessica DeFino rips apart the ‘science ‘of skincare at greater length. The Cut has an excellent list of the most insane beauty treatments in history. Atlas Obscura has more terrifying beauty advice doled out to women in the past. The Outline takes on the chemical violence of exfoliation.