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We see many brands these days selling cosmeceuticals. This raises a question. Are cosmeceuticals effective?

What is a cosmeceutical?

The name is a combination of “cosmetics” and “pharmaceuticals”. They are defined as cosmetic products with bioactive ingredients, and they are marketed as having medical benefits. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for skin and hair care products that they perceive as having these sorts of benefits.

Globally, cosmetics and pharmaceutical regulatory authorities do not recognize the category of “Cosmeceuticals”. A product can be classified by these authorities as a drug, a cosmetic, or a combination of both.  But the term “Cosmeceutical” has no meaning under the various regulations.

Are cosmeceuticals effective?

For Cosmeceuticals to be able to demonstrate their effectiveness, they must be held to higher standards of scientific substantiation than cosmetic products.

First, can the active ingredient penetrate the stratum corneum? And can it be delivered in sufficient concentrations to its intended target in the skin?

Second, does the active ingredient have a known specific biochemical mechanism of action in human skin?

Third, are there published, peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled, statistically significant, clinical trials to substantiate the efficacy claims?

A useful scientific reference published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology in 2010 is How Much Do We Really Know About Our Favourite Cosmeceutical Ingredients?

These authors reviewed five popular Cosmeceutical ingredients. They included retinoids, kinetin, niacinamide and nicotinic acid, soy, and green tea.

Their conclusion was that these five popular Cosmeceutical ingredients fell short of acceptable standards of scientific substantiation. They identified a number of scientific shortfalls. These included a lack of statistical confirmation, and sometimes there was only one study.

While green tea and soy are well known for their antioxidant effects, there is an absence of clinical studies demonstrating efficacy as topical anti-ageing Cosmeceutical ingredients. They conclude that these antioxidants may be better at preventing the signs and symptoms of ageing than reversing the signs of ageing.

What are the lessons here for consumers?

So, are cosmeceuticals effective? Pharmaceuticals must undergo rigorous tests. These include tests for safety and efficacy. If pharmaceuticals claim to do something, it must be demonstrated scientifically. This can be a long and costly process for companies.

Cosmetics are also tested, but not so rigorously. They only affect the appearance of the skin, not its function.  Therefore, as long as they don’t contain any toxic ingredients and don’t claim to affect the function of the body, they can be registered with cosmetics authorities retailed.

Cosmeceuticals affect the function of the skin. Companies usually quote studies that support the efficacy of these products.  However, they do not undergo the same rigorous tests as drugs. Cosmeceuticals are often drugs, and companies exploit loopholes in legislation to present products as cosmetics. They, therefore, bypass all the expensive and lengthy testing requirements for drugs.

So how do companies get away with it? Many consumers assume that just because a product says “Cosmeceutical” it has some kind of higher standing. It doesn’t.

Companies use vague marketing language in their marketing and on their product’s packaging. No one wants to get in trouble for selling a product that doesn’t “do” what it claims. So instead of saying, “reduces wrinkles” they’ll say a product “appears to reduce lines and wrinkles”. “Appears to”? Now that’s vague.

You will often hear brands say, “ninety per cent of women saw an improvement in their skin.” Really? And just who were these women, and how many were there?

So that’s the deal. It’s hard to cut through the hype and cool lingo, plus the attractive packaging. For individuals, it comes down to trial and error in answering the question are cosmeceuticals effective? What works for you may not work for someone else.

My advice, ignore the hype and do your research. And yes, be prepared to pay. Cosmeceuticals do not come cheap. You may find Indochine Natural all-natural plant-based products just as effective.

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Dr Mike Thair

Co-founder & Master Formulator

Indochine Natural Sdn Bhd

Photo credit: Alia Wilhelm

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