Consumer Perception of the Cosmetic Industry

By Louise Hidinger
September 15, 2017

illustration of a beauty potion

Gaining consumer trust and loyalty is a major issue for any industry, but particularly the cosmetics industry. Cosmetics use and manufacture is deeply entwined with the frailty of the human condition. Taking advantage of this, the history of cosmetics is littered with examples of harmless “hope in a jar” at best, and toxic concoctions at worst. As a result, cosmetic companies have always been viewed with some doubt. Over the past decade, the negative perception of the cosmetics industry has greatly increased. During this time, the cosmetics industry has come under fire from environmental groups, who have successfully played on consumer fears, by portraying conventional cosmetics and personal care products as being “dirty”, contaminated with toxins, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors. In light of these issues, how is the cosmetics industry currently perceived by consumers?

What Consumers are Asking About
As a science communicator, I write and speak publicly about the science behind cosmetics. I have given numerous public seminars at libraries and community organizations, and have had the chance to speak with many members of the public and hear their concerns. Based on personal experience, I have found this to be the best and most effective way to reach the public and to educate and inform.

The people who attend my seminars tend to fall into the following categories: (1) people concerned with safety issues (usually parents); (2) people with chronic skin conditions or cosmetic issues that cause emotional distress (e.g., acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, ageing skin, scarring); (3) environmentally conscious consumers who are convinced that natural is better and are seeking affirmation of their beliefs; and (4) people over age 50 who are most concerned with finding “anti-ageing products”.

At every seminar, I get questions from the audience about whether their personal care products are harmful, and what ingredients to avoid. Upon further questioning, it often turns out that these questions are motivated by fear and suspicion that the cosmetics industry is tricking consumers with false product claims, while secretly poisoning consumers with toxic ingredients!

Questions commonly heard often center around whether a product works as claimed. People often bring their own skincare product to the seminar and ask for a review of the ingredient list, to determine whether it is “safe” to use. Audience members are also concerned about beauty myths and fads that have usually been spread via social media, and are curious about whether such things are true. Examples of such myths include “being hooked on lip balm”, “toothpaste on pimples”, or “all alcohols are bad”. Finally, I am almost always asked for product recommendations for specific skin concerns, and how these products should be used in order to gain the most benefit.

Based on discussions with audience members, there appears to be a great deal of frustration that people have when going shopping for personal care products. Oftentimes, they say they are going by recommendations from friends or family, and recommendations from the Internet, as well as cosmetics sales associates. There is a great deal of suspicion, that people are being lied to by the sales associates and by the marketing/advertising put forth by cosmetics companies. There is distrust of the cosmetics industry and the chemical industry as a whole. This is particularly the case with those who are battling chronic skin conditions and are frustrated by lack of any progress. Within this demographic, I have encountered a number of people who have turned away from the scientific and medical community, and have embraced alternative therapies such as naturopathy and homeopathy.

There is also a great deal of confusion over the competing and sometimes conflicting claims made by cosmetic companies, the scientific and medical community, and environmental groups. Unfortunately, there is the perception that many scientists and doctors are not trustworthy, as they may be financially beholden to industry interests or are seeking to profit somehow from the public.

At the root of these negative perceptions, is a lack of science literacy. Many people do not understand the basic chemistry concepts behind personal care products, and they also do not understand the biology of skin, its anatomy, and how it functions. Perhaps as a result, there is fear of anything related to chemistry. Even the word “chemical” often engenders fear, and has led to many people seeking products that are labeled as chemical-free.

The Spread of Misinformation
Many audience members who attend my seminars preface their questions by saying, “I read about this on the Internet…” Misinformation has always been a problem for the cosmetics industry, but the Internet has greatly compounded the problem, as there are no editors or filter to remove false information. There are numerous websites which feature “click bait” articles with catchy titles that grab people’s attention yet contain very little substance, often featuring bad science. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter feature trending news that allows for the viral spread of unfiltered and unedited content. In addition, Facebook social groups allow like-minded individuals to form virtual echo chambers that reinforce their own beliefs and views, while excluding any critical voices that may seek to provide facts.

For members of the general public, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between websites containing false information and those that contain the truth. Another problem is that although there is an abundance of information available online, there is no context or explanation, which often lets people, especially those without a science background, to cherry-pick and misinterpret data. There are also very few science communicators and scientists who are dedicated to public outreach, leading to a significant information vacuum and a communication gap between experts and the layperson. Health and wellness gurus and celebrities have rushed to fill this void, such as Dr. Oz, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jessica Alba.

There are less obvious sources of misinformation which are perhaps more insidious, because they appear altruistic. In 2004, U.S.–based Environmental Working Group (“EWG”) created the popular EWG Skin Deep online database, which ranks thousands of ingredients and cosmetic products according to their perceived toxicity. The findings posted on the Skin Deep database are often questionable in terms of validity. In 2010, The Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental group, published a report entitled “What’s Inside? That Counts: A Survey of Toxic Ingredients in Our Cosmetics”, along with “The Dirty Dozen” list of cosmetic ingredients to avoid. The findings of the Suzuki Foundation’s report are similar to those in the EWG Skin Deep database, but it provides a short list of chemicals grouped together under an easy-to-remember name.

Numerous green beauty brands have adopted “The Dirty Dozen” list as a major marketing tool, touting themselves as free of all supposedly dirty chemicals listed therein. At the same time, there has been a boom in companies promoting apps and certifications that rate products according to how “clean” or how “dirty” they are.

Rather than pushing back at the misinformation presented by environmental groups, many conventional cosmetic companies have responded to consumer demand by reformulating their products to be free of supposedly dirty ingredients, and to incorporate naturally derived ingredients. Unfortunately, these changes have been perceived by the public as a tacit admission that the original formulations were indeed filled with dirty and toxic chemicals in the past, and further underscored the perception that the cosmetic industry has been cheating the consumer by only adding natural (and therefore better) ingredients under pressure.

Unfortunately, lost in the rush to cash in on consumer ignorance, is the fact that the reasoning behind “The Dirty Dozen” was flawed: for many of the chemicals identified as “dirty”, data was cherry-picked and misinterpreted. In the absence of any pushback from either industry or the scientific and medical community, the messages put forth by environmental groups like EWG continue to dominate consumer perception of the cosmetics industry.

Bridging the Gap Between Consumers and Industry
By now, many consumers have had the chance to try out green beauty brands. In recent times, I have received questions from members of the public who have experienced skin irritation or allergic reactions to naturally-derived cosmetics, or they have found these cosmetics performed no better (and sometimes worse) than the comparable conventional product. As a result of their experiences, they have become motivated to learn why these problems are occurring, seemingly contrary to the popular belief that naturally-derived products are supposedly better than synthetic products. This is an opportunity for science communicators and educators to motivate members of the public to learn about the science behind the products they buy. The renewed interest also provides a chance for cosmetic companies to reset their relationship with consumers, and overcome the suspicion and distrust that have dogged the cosmetic industry.

When marketing cosmetics, the traditional approach has been to assume the consumer knows little about what goes into personal care products and is not interested in knowing. Marketers tend to skip any explanation of how a product works and instead blanket the consumer with effusive claims about what the product can do. This leaves an information gap that can readily be filled by whatever misinformation that may be found on the Internet. Cosmetics companies may be able to regain consumer trust, by being more transparent about how products are formulated. This could be done with customer outreach, which might include educational programs that teach the science behind cosmetics, how specific ingredients work and why they are used in a formulation. Whatever approach that is taken, cosmetic companies must step up and fill the information gap with facts and information about their products, rather than allow other voices to fill the void and thus affect public perception.