Cosmetics have been used for millennia, and in every family, there are mythical beauty treatments, and all over social media, there are skincare routines that belong in a dystopian science fiction novel, and not on your skin. Dr. Michelle Wong, of the Lab Muffin Beauty Science blog, has made it her mission to debunk the many myths we have been subjected to, and to promote evidence-based beauty treatments. Her latest interview, with Wired magazine, highlights just how important science communication is in the cosmetics industry.
Cosmetics, Unregulated and Unscientific for Most of Its History
Cosmetics have been used since time immemorial, and yet, perhaps because they are viewed as a woman’s affair, something “frivolous” to use Dr. Wong’s word,, their development has proceeded on largely unscientific lines until relatively recently. Alongside a relatively unscientific development, there has, historically, been an absence of regulations. This is still true today in much of the world, although the European Union’s regulations are perhaps the most exacting in the world. In the United States, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) neither pre-approves cosmetics, nor even places much in the way of safeguards to ensure that cosmetics are made with the products they are labeled as being made from. So, the use of harmful cosmetics defines much of the history of cosmetics. For example, during the Renaissance, Venetian ceruse (white lead) was used, causing lead poisoning, skin damage, hair loss, and finally, death; and in the 1930s, the mascara Lash Lure led to blindness for hundreds of women. In the last century, as cosmetics have become more widely used, and their manufacture industrialized, their production has become more scientific. Today, the cosmetics industry earns billions of dollars in revenue every single year.
An actor wearing a contemporary version of 18th-century lead-based makeup. (Shutterstock)
Yet, some of the early challenges remain. Although the cosmetics industry is increasingly science-driven, it is distinct from the field of aesthetic treatments like BOTOX and dermal fillers, which are typically administered by medically trained professionals after completing an aesthetics course. The cosmetic industry primarily focuses on the development and marketing of products for beauty and skincare, not on medical aesthetic treatments. Therefore, the educational pathways and industry roles significantly differ between those working in cosmetic product development and those in medical aesthetics, with the latter often requiring extensive medical training, unlike the former. This distinction is crucial to understanding the varied facets of the broader beauty industry.
The Need for Science Communication
Given this history, it is not surprising that when people buy cosmetics, they are often faced with products they should not trust, and they often know more by way of myth than by way of science. We saw during the pandemic just how important it is for science to be communicated in intelligible ways to its audience, and that need for science communication remains.
Dr. Wong, whose PhD is in cosmetics, has over a million followers across various social media platforms, from where she educates her audience, debunks cosmetics myths, and promotes good science. For example, her latest blog post takes issue with an episode of the Science Vs podcast, Is Anti-Aging a Scam, where the claim that vitamin C doesn’t help in skin care treatment was made. She looks at the scientific evidence, and points out that vitamin C’s efficacy is “one of the most evidence-supported skincare ingredients”.
People are hungry for an honest, science-backed looked at what is possible with cosmetics, and Dr. Wong certainly seems to meet that need. She is one of the pioneers in science communication in the cosmetics business, but today, she is not alone, with many other scientists chiming in to help people understand the science better, so they can make better decisions about what products they use and what regimens they try. After millennia of dangerous products, this cannot have come too soon.