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The scary truth about the FDA and the skincare industry

Written By The Lab Team 06 Aug 2021

It sounds insane but, right now you could mix a single molecule of spoiled retinol derivative with a gallon of a random lotion, put it in a beautiful bottle, call it "Super Time-Release Retinol X5R Concentrate" (or anything you want really) and sell it nationwide...and it would be COMPLETELY legal. The only way you would cross into illegal territory would be if you put "significant" amounts of a "known toxic, poisonous or decomposed substance" in it. Even then you wouldn't get in trouble unless someone filed a formal complaint against your product and submitted it to the FDA for examination. 

This gives you a sense of the total unhinged, free-reign the skincare industry has when it comes to creating and marketing products. In this setting, it's safe to assume the the vast majority of products (we'd say well over 90%) on the market are built to maximize sales, not to maximize effectiveness. We know this because we built products to maximize effectiveness and were laughed out of all the top skincare manufacturing labs in the country––and then had to turn to the aerospace industry to help make them. (More on that later).


How the skincare industry became completely divorced from science and medical dermatology

It all stated with a law that was written in 1938.

In 1938, US policy makers decided that skincare products (primarily perfumed creams for women at the time) did not serve a medical purpose and thus would be classified as "cosmetic" for the rest of eternity. Along with that classification, came the complete lack of regulations on:

  • The actual contents inside skincare products
  • Effectiveness of product and effectiveness claims
  • Product naming accuracy
  • Manufacturing practices 

The one little guidelines that the FDA put in place was that skincare products should not contain, (and this is a direct quote):

"anything poisonous or other filthy, putrid, or decomposed substances." (Source)

So no decomposing dead animals in your skincare products. Ok. They've since updated that to require skincare companies to exclude significant amounts of known toxic chemicals. But small amounts of known toxic chemicals are still totally cool. 

This distinction of skincare as more of a hobby-industry than a science-backed, effectiveness-focused industry is a core reason why skincare products seem to have almost no connection to established dermatological science––where there is little mystery about which ingredients work and which ones don't. 

Dermatologists like Dr. Dray, have dedicated their time to explaining this distinction and dispelling a lot of the myths around ingredients that have been proven to have very little benefit but that the skincare industry continues to sell at exorbitant prices. You can see our Lab Team's list of products like this in our post 5 Products Our Lab Team Doesn't Spend Money On.

One illustration of this is to look at Vitamin C serums throughout the industry. Vitamin C needs to be in the ascorbic acid form and at a pH of 3 or less to be absorbed by your skin. This fact has been measured and demonstrated for decades and yet almost no Vitamin C products on the market are in this range (also why no brands list the pH of their serums). This is simple, established skin science that is just completely ignored because it makes products more difficult to manufacture and handle.

Brand-sponsored studies vs. Peer-reviewed studies