Skepticism and Beauty

Browsing the aisle of a local retailer, recently, started me thinking about beauty products and how skeptical I am of some their claims. The shelves are stocked with dozens of different facial¬†moisturizers¬†alone, ranging in brand, size, and price. Actually, it’s surprising how wide the range of pricing is–from products that cost $5 for a large bottle, to tiny bottles selling for $30+. Now, I’m lucky that I don’t actually have any significant skin problems; however, I do find that I occasionally have dark circles under my eyes. There were plenty of different eye creams to choose from. But I wondered; why the big difference in price? Do they work? Is the higher price just trying to convince me it must be good? And, most importantly, where can I find reliable information to help answer my questions?

No makeup reveals slight dark circles under my eyes.

My little container of eye cream.

Well, fortunately, The Token Skeptic has covered this topic in a recent episode, On Myths and Makeup – Pseudoscience and Cosmetics. It’s a great episode that covers pseudoscience in beauty products as well as tricks used to market them. For quite a while I’ve been wondering if there are skeptical blogs dedicated to the topic of beauty and the episode points to a few, including The Beauty Brains and The Skeptical Beauty.

Personally, I love buying makeup. Different eye shadows, pencils, liners, bronzers, blush, and lipstick feels like having an artist’s kit of tools, paint, and brushes–which I guess it kind of is–and since I’m an illustrator and designer, I find it so much fun to apply different styles to my face. It’s kind of like photoshop…but for meatspace!

When it comes to products that start to use sciency-sounding jargon, I’m not a big fan. Though, to be fair, I’m not really (yet) in the market for anti-wrinkle/aging creams or other products that aim to fix beauty woes. But it’s really nice to hear some clarification and pointers on buying beauty products without getting ripped off. Like a lot of consumers, I actually enjoy using beauty products; I have a few face creams that I like simply because they’re part of a sort of mini-ritual that I enjoy in the same way I might sit down for a cup of tea. Most of the body lotions I have aren’t to treat anything–they just have a pleasant fragrance or pretty shimmer to them.

But, it turns out I’m right to question the big difference in pricing. Making a product expensive is a marketing strategy and doesn’t mean there’s a difference in quality. Like many industries, there’s a lot of bunk out there, but with the help of skeptical blogs like these, consumers have resources for learning how to make science-based decisions about their purchases.

4 Responses to “Skepticism and Beauty”

  1. Wow, thanks for checking it out! A transcript of one of the interviews will feature on the CSICOP website, very soon!

  2. The first of the interviews I conducted is now featured at the CSICOP website at – thanks again!

  3. John Greg says:

    Back in the early 70s, a CBC television program — I forget the name of it; Marketplace, maybe? — did an expose on items such as cosmetics that were priced high for the simple fact that a large majority of consumers believe a higher price reflects higher quality.

    The practice then, and I have no doubt it maintains today, was for a corporation to produce several versions of a single item, with no actual difference in manufacturing or contents, and provide them all with different labels and a wide range of prices. That way the corporation could ensure that the product would sell to a wide range of consumers with different income levels.

    The program provided several instance of makeup, soap, toilet paper, and many other items that for each specific item were in no way different from each other but which had a very wide range in price.

  4. Jambonette says:

    My favourite resource for evidence-based cosmetics info is You can look up ingredients and actual products most things are cited. I find it much more useful than The Beauty Brains who often go by opinion. Beautypedia is run by a woman who has her own cosmetics line but will still honestly evaluate competing products.


  • Sara E. Mayhew

    International award-winning mangaka and 2009 TED Fellowship member, Sara E. Mayhew is a Canadian writer and illustrator striving to produce manga that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. Canada's prestigious graphic arts magazine, Applied Arts, featured her in their Young Blood article on "new talent commanding our attention". She has spoken on the TED Fellows stage at the TED 2009 conference in Long Beach, CA, and more recently at TEDActive 2010 in Palm Springs, CA. Currently, Sara is working on producing a new series, Legend of the Ztarr, that aims to introduce manga readers to skeptical and humanist values through storytelling. Her blog, There Are Four Lights, combines art and skepticism, with occasional pepperings of general geekdom and random cuteness.