Skincare Products: Are You Being Deceived?

By Fayne Frey, MD | Published 9/20/2020 4

expensive skincare products 1280 x 960

Photo source: Pixabay

Chances are you’ve been victimized by the deceptive strategies of the skincare industry. Think about it. How often have you spent money on skincare products that now sit, unused, on your bathroom shelf?

One jar may contain an inexpensive product purchased at the drugstore. You thought it would give you a more youthful look. Another is an expensive cream that promised to tone, nourish, and rejuvenate your skin. Yet another promised to smooth out the crepey skin around your eyes.

No matter the price, they are all sitting on the shelf because they have failed the marketing claims and your expectations.

In the meantime, the cosmetic industry is valued at over 500 BILLION dollars and growing. Its profits are based on false claims and broken promises…at your expense.

Consumers, it’s time to wake up!

The industry is in need of true transparency

Don’t get me wrong. There is a portion of the skincare industry that manufactures personal care products that are effective. These products truly benefit consumers’ health and well-being. Unfortunately, the good actors are drowned out by the marketing frenzy created by the “beauty” industry as a whole. 

This is an industry that – 

  • withholds vital information from the consumer,
  • redefines beauty as a superficial virtue of eternal youth and, all too often
  • offers bogus solutions to skin health.

A large portion of this industry oversells itself. This includes making deceptive claims that neither science nor personal experience can validate.

This industry is in need of transparency…TRUE transparency.

Validating the benefits of skincare products

Science can validate the health benefits of moisturizing the skin. And, many skin conditions improve with the use of moisturizers.

These conditions include –

  • acne
  • eczema
  • psoriasis.

I can say with certainty that many reputable skincare companies manufacture effective emulsions that truly increase the water content of skin. How do I know?

Because I objectively measure the hydration level of the skin surface with an instrument called a Corneometer. This is the same machine that is used by researchers who study skin function. But, right now, it is difficult for consumers trying to decide which moisturizer to buy to know with certainty which one might actually work.

Related content: Formaldehyde: What Is it and What Is it Doing in My Cosmetics

An easy-to-understand rating system that would allow consumers to choose products that truly improve skin hydration and which do not, would be beneficial.

Science can also validate the health benefits of applying daily sunscreen. We know it works for both long term improvement of skin appearance and for prevention of skin cancer.

Unfortunately, there is no validation for the claims of many skincare products. Their ads claim that wrinkles will disappear, age spots will fade, the skin will look younger, and so will you. But, they have no scientific evidence to back up their claims.

The ethical marketing of beneficial products is laudable. But what about marketing that exploits the consumer?

Related Author Content:  Stop Wasting Your Money on These Skincare Products

How we get tricked

Selecting skincare products can be confusing.   And, can even be overwhelming as there are so many of them with so many different price points and claims of benefit. This makes it difficult for the average consumer to determine exactly what they are buying. 

Here are some of the ways we get tricked into buying skincare products:

-Deceptive repackaging

Furthermore, deceptive repackaging practices can add to the confusion. Let’s look at the example of a commonly used moisturizing body lotion found in most drugstores and pharmacies. The manufacturer may repackage it as a moisturizing baby lotion complete with pictures of smooth-skinned smiling babies. Or, it may be repackaged in a very small tube to sell as an expensive hand cream.

The average consumer may not have the chemistry knowledge or interest in deciphering ingredient listings. They are left to rely on product claims, many of which are not validated. How can we say that is in the consumer’s best interest? 

-Seductive claims of anti-aging skincare products

Skincare aisles are stocked with facial products labeled with terms like “anti-aging” and “age-defying.”  Although these facial moisturizers may be beneficial as moisturizers, they’re not “anti-aging.”

They can’t actually change the skin or the law would classify them as drugs as defined by the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act. And this would require premarket FDA approval.  

Science has yet to discover a single ingredient that can reverse or slow the aging process. Thirty years as a board-certified dermatologist has taught me that wrinkles and grooves of the face cannot be removed by an over-the-counter “anti-aging” cream. Or by any moisturizer for that matter. My colleagues who practice plastic surgery, especially the ones that perform facelifts, are grateful for that!

Related Author Content:  
What You Need to Know About Anti-Wrinkle Creams
Cellulite: A Review of Currently Available Treatments

-The eye cream myth

Is there really a need for “eye” creams? Eye creams are formulated like any other facial moisturizer.

The skin around the eye is no different from the skin on the cheekbone. If a sample of each of these areas is examined under a microscope, a dermatopathologist cannot tell the difference.

Further, if facial moisturizers aren’t formulated safely enough to be applied near the eye, they certainly shouldn’t be applied on the cheekbone, one inch from the eye.

-Night creams that are also day creams

What about those small jars and plastic tubes called “night creams?” You know the ones. They usually contain an ounce or less of the product. And they are often quite expensive.

What would you say if I told you that the ingredients in “night creams” are the same ingredients used in daily moisturizer formulations? Do you really think the skin knows what time of day it is? Is this type of marketing hype fair to consumers? 

-Skincare products you really don’t need

Many of the skincare products sold are completely unnecessary. Exfoliants, masks, scrubs, toners, astringents, and products with “natural” plant-derived ingredients may temporarily feel good on the skin.

However, they lack scientific evidence proving health benefits. Worse, some of them may be harmful and lead to adverse effects, such as excessive drying. Many of these products disrupt the natural life cycle of the skin without bringing any benefit to the user.

Scare tactics and “free-from” skincare products

We’ve all seen display ads proclaiming that a skincare product is “free-from” some particular ingredient. This is usually just a scare tactic employed to imply that the skincare product is now safer because it is “free-from” that particular ingredient.


Parabens are a commonly used class of preservatives that have been researched for decades.

To prevent contamination, all water-based products (which include the vast majority of all facial and body moisturizers) require a preservative. Without one, mold and bacteria would spoil the product in less than two weeks.

Parabens have not been proven to be toxic in human beings when used in approved doses of less than 1%. However, there are stories in the media that attribute negative health effects to the preservative. 

For example, parabens have been accused of being endocrine disruptors. However, their activity as estrogen disruptors is magnitudes weaker than natural phytoestrogens found in foods, including:

  • soy products
  • flaxseed
  • tomatoes–

These are foods that many of us consume every day.

A poorly designed 2014 British study found parabens in breast tumor tissue samples. The author herself clarified that the study never concluded that the parabens caused the tumors.

Media and consumer advocacy groups created a firestorm, perpetuating this erroneous conclusion. This was fake news!

But, it did create a completely unnecessary consumer demand for paraben-free products. The result: a new market segment to exploit.

But an important question remains. It is one that consumers are unlikely to even think of to ask. What alternative preservative is being used in the paraben-free products?

Has the paraben preservative been replaced with DMDM hydantoin, a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (not terrible unless you have an allergy to it or are eczema-prone)? Or is phenoxyethanol or iodopropynl butylcarbamate being used? The safety of these chemicals is not as well documented at that of parabens. That is because they are all less studied alternatives.

-“Natural” skincare products

“Natural” or “chemical-free” products are the fastest growing segment of the skincare industry today. But what do those terms really mean?

First of all, “natural” may imply where the ingredients come from (oils and extracts from herbs, plant roots or flowers). However, it says nothing about the safety or efficacy of that ingredient.  

And it is impossible to sell “chemical-free products” because every ingredient in a skincare product, including those derived from plants, is a chemical.

Further, there is an adage in toxicology: “the dose makes the poison.” It means that it is not the chemical itself that matters. Rather it is the dose or amount of that ingredient within the product.

Water is a chemical. It is a necessary chemical for a healthy body. But drinking 6 liters of water in one sitting can be fatal.

Botulinum toxin is a chemical; it’s also “natural.” Inject 50 units into a woman’s forehead and you can paralyze the muscles so she loses expression. And yes, temporarily, a few wrinkles. Inject 3000 units and she dies from botulism.

Whether claims about a product relate to is benefits or its risks, we need to be transparent. Consumers need to truly understand what they are buying.

-Good for the planet skincare products

More than ever, manufacturers of skincare products are proclaiming to be concerned about our planet. They say they want to be more “green.”

But to truly be sustainable, manufacturers should curtail the sales of products with unnecessary packaging. That includes those tiny little plastic non-biodegradable tubes of moisturizers (regardless of what body part they are marketed for or what time of day they are intended to be used). And, all of the products that are wrapped in separate nonbiodegradable plastic packages that wind up polluting our oceans and seas.

The bottom line when it comes to skincare products

The consumer (and the planet) benefits when fewer confusing, misleading, and unnecessary products are sold.

Skincare manufacturers should engage in trustworthy principled marketing that encourages consumers to purchase beneficial skincare products based on science.

Consumers deserve clear, honest, forthright marketing, without the BS.

We need TRUE transparency. Please!

Fayne Frey, MD


Fayne Frey, M.D., is a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York, where she specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. She is a nationally recognized expert in the effectiveness and formulation of over-the-counter skincare products.

She is a frequent speaker in many venues where she captivates audiences with her wry observations regarding the skincare industry. She has consulted for numerous media outlets, including NBC, USA Today, and, the Huffington Post. and has also shared her expertise on both cable and major TV outlets.

Dr. Frey is the Founder of, an educational skincare information and product selection service website that clarifies and simplifies the overwhelming choice of effective, safe and affordable products encountered in the skincare aisles.

Dr. Frey is a graduate of the Weill Cornell Medical College and is a fellow of both the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.


  • Great beauty tips for every person who is concerned about their beauty maintenance.

  • Thank you Ori for your comments and for visiting The Doctor Weighs In. I developed a Skincare Product Selector that includes a database of recommended moisturizers, cleansers and sunscreens on my educational skincare website I hope you find this tool helpful. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Thank you for the comment and kind words. Dr. Frey has created a fabulous website to help consumers select products with an unbiased approached. Dr. Frey does not endorse any one brand but rather presents products in a way that the consumer can make an educated decision, based on their skin type.

  • Deep thoughts in those articles. Never crossed my mind to think of it this way. I’d be glad to know what skin care product you’d recommend?

    Love your blog!

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