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June 3, 2011 10:07 pm

Fairer trials?

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A beauty class in New York in 1958

A beauty class in New York City, 1958

“One hundred per cent of women felt an improvement in the elasticity of their skin!” “After four weeks, look 10 years younger!” “Erase every flaw!”¨

We’re so used to hearing this type of hyperbole from the beauty industry, it’s hard not to dismiss every product claim as more snake oil vying for attention. But, well – “That could all be about to change!”

Actually, that’s not a line. Over the past few years, beauty brands have increasingly borrowed techniques from the pharmaceutical industry in order to test their latest wonder creams and back up their claims.

The concept of a clinical trial isn’t new, of course. However, previously it tended to remain the province of the pharmaceutical industry; though cosmetics have long had to prove their safety for use, they have not had to prove efficacy. If the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) receives a complaint about what a product claims to be able to do, the manufacturers might have to show evidence that they can support their words, but beauty products don’t have to undergo the testing required before bringing a drug to market.

But now there is Olay Professional. Currently available in the US as Olay Pro-X and coming to the UK in August, the range includes an age-defying day moisturiser with SPF 30, a wrinkle-smoothing cream and a deep wrinkle complex. These three products will be sold as an anti-wrinkle kit (£44.99) that is “designed, tested and proven to deliver a reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in 28 days”.

So far, so hope in a jar – except that in the British Journal of Dermatology last February, Olay published results of an eight-week clinical trial that compared the Olay products to a prescription product. In the trial of nearly 200 women, a number of skin parameters, including “number of wrinkles, wrinkle depth, dryness and redness” were assessed. Half the women used the Olay products, and half the women used 0.02 per cent tretinoin, a topical drug that is considered the benchmark prescription therapy for improving the appearance of fine facial wrinkles. Results showed that the Olay products were as effective as the tretinoin and caused fewer side effects, such as dryness and irritation.

And the paper wasn’t a one-off: six months later, the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology published a report that showed Clinique’s Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector (£38) had similar powers to hydroquinone, the most popular prescription product for tackling pigmentation.

Not that the Olay and Clinique trials were perfect. The gold standard for a clinical trial is the randomised, double-blind, controlled, peer-reviewed trial. This means that you take a group of people, separate them into two groups, and give one group the product you’re testing and the other a placebo, or a comparative product. Neither those running the trial, nor the participants, know which group is which. The results are independently assessed and published in a relevant scientific journal.

For cosmetic products, this might mean the British Journal of Dermatology or the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, but for a drug relating to heart disease, say, it could be the British Journal of Pharmacology, or the Journal of Cardiology.

“Neither the Olay nor the Clinique trial included histological data [data derived from skin biopsies examined under a microscope], which would have made them more robust,” says Dr Tamara Griffiths, a consultant dermatologist at the University of Manchester. “And, as the authors acknowledge, the Clinique trial would have would been better if the tests addressed actual pigmentation problems, such as melasma, rather than the rate at which a UVB-induced tan fades.”

Nonetheless, seeing this sort of research in print is quite unusual. While in the past some companies have published details of research into individual ingredients, or skin mechanisms, the Olay paper focuses on proving the efficacy of a finished product. But according to Dr Chris Flower of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Many more trials are carried out than you’ll ever see published,” he says. “That’s partly because journals are reluctant to publish cosmetic science papers, as they think it gives companies free advertising. But also because the beauty industry doesn’t prioritise making its science publicly available. Submitting a paper to a journal actually takes up a lot of time, and most companies would rather their scientists spent that time creating a new money-spinning product. This is a shame, because keeping this research under wraps gives the misleading impression that there’s no science behind the industry.”

But this has started to change as brands have begun to recognise that showcasing their science can be commercially advantageous. On the BBC’s Horizon programme in 2007, scientists at Manchester University led by Professor Chris Griffiths showed that Boots No 7 Protect & Perfect serum (£21, “Intense” version) could improve the appearance of wrinkles and skin texture. The result? Sales of the product rocketed overnight, a clear indication that consumers want more than empty promises.

Unfortunately, this in turn has meant that less reputable brands that don’t want to spend time and money on proper research are occasionally wont to claim “clinical trials show that” when actually they’ve just asked a handful of women if they liked a product.

This might sound illegal but, while the term “clinical trial” has a legal definition in a medical context, it’s not been similarly defined for beauty products. In fact, the only way that a company can be stopped from making a claim like this is if someone makes a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. If the ASA decides a brand doesn’t have the evidence to support their assertion, the company can no longer use it.

So, how can you know whether to believe a product’s claims? “You can’t tell just by looking at an advert where the figures have come from, so to know how many women the product was tested on, whether they tested the actual product or just one ingredient, how any changes were assessed and, crucially, whether the research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, you have to go back to the companies and ask,” says Dr Sile Lane from UK campaign group Sense About Science.

“I would like to see the small print in every advert pointing consumers to a company website where all the evidence that underpins the claims is readily available,” says Dr Flower. “We’re not there yet, and it’s going to be a long journey, but we are moving in the right direction.”

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