Ingredients including hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, retinol, and collagen peptides are at this point well known to consumers. And when we see these ingredients on skincare packaging, we tend to believe the product will have some sort of beneficial effect on our skin.
Scientists have published research showing the ingredients’ effectiveness, and science doesn’t lie, right?
It’s true that science doesn’t lie, but sometimes packaging does.
While many brands have become more transparent in recent years as consumers become savvier and expect more information, other brands have muddied the waters when it comes to ingredients. A misleading practice called “fairy dusting” has flourished thanks to vague marketing and spotty oversight.
The beauty and personal care industry has already made $534 billion in 2022, and the projections for the skincare industry increase yearly. Unfortunately, it often comes down to consumers to educate ourselves and make sure our money is going towards quality products, not shady marketing.
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What Is Skincare Fairy Dusting?
Fairy dusting means brands list a trending ingredient on their product packaging even though it contains only a trace amount of the ingredient. High-quality ingredients are more expensive, so brands will add very small amounts and then put them on the list of ingredients.
They can then go a step further and advertise the effectiveness of those ingredients, even though the amounts are probably too small for you to reap any of those benefits.
How Do Brands Get Away With It?
Fairy dusting is certainly unethical, and it’s not exactly legal. But oversight is an issue.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve cosmetics before they’re brought to market. Rather, the agency is responsible for regulating products after they’re already being sold.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does prohibit “the marketing of adulterated or misbranded cosmetics in interstate commerce.” Fairy dusting would certainly fall under misbranding, which according to the FD&C Act, “refers to violations involving improperly labeled or deceptively packaged products.” A cosmetic is misbranded if “its labeling is false or misleading.”
The catch is enforcement. The FDA can pursue action through the Department of Justice and the federal court system to remove misbranded cosmetics from the market. But that’s not an easy process, and misbranding may not top the agency’s list of to-dos: “FDA takes regulatory action based upon agency priorities, consistent with public health concerns and available resources,” according to FDA.gov.
How To Avoid Fairy Dusting
Ingredients are listed from highest to lowest concentration on labels, and in some cases, you’ll want to look for products where the advertised active ingredients are listed higher on the label. If the product lists the ingredient’s concentration you can do a little of your own due diligence (i.e. Googling) to make sure it’s an effective amount.
However, not all ingredients follow the top-to-bottom rule. Retinol, for example, can be effective at lower concentrations. So be sure to look up the concentration levels for effectiveness on whatever ingredient you are curious about.
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Another way to avoid fairy dusting is to research the brands that you use. Check out the product’s website to see if they have performed any clinical studies and what those results found. Remember that just because a product is more expensive doesn’t always mean that it will be more effective. And be cautious of brands that don’t list specific concentrations on their products.
It is also important to watch out for products that make scientific-sounding claims. If the product promises to change your skin at a “cellular level” that might warrant some skepticism. If cosmetics really did some of the things they claimed, they would be considered drugs and would then need FDA clearance before they could be sold and marketed. There are medical-grade skincare products that you can buy from your dermatologist’s office, which can save you the headache of figuring out which products will actually work.
Fairy dusting is one more reminder that it’s important to know what you’re putting on your skin, and knowing these sneaky marketing tricks will help you become a more conscious consumer—and save money in the long run.
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