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Defining Cosmeceuticals

Sara Mason
  • As the term cosmeceutical is unregulated, it has found its way into describing any number of beauty products. However, it is generally thought to denote a more active, pharmaceutical beauty product.
  • The value in the term is using it in conjunction with ingredients and products that offer real results. Otherwise, the message can be easily muddied.
  • Testing information is highly important in cosmeceuticals. Consumers expect more scientific backing from such products.

Cosmeceuticals are widely referred to as cosmetic products with active ingredients purporting to have medical or druglike benefits. According to Michael Anthonavage, technical fellow, active ingredients, Presperse, the difference between traditional products and the active ingredients used in topically applied cosmeceuticals really comes down to the level of biological activity within the skin—as opposed to applying a product to the skin’s surface for simply an appearance benefit. However, there currently are no requirements to prove such cosmeceutical products live up to their claims.

Companies often use the term “cosmeceutical” to more prominently feature ingredients that wouldn’t normally be seen in a cosmetic product—and maybe to imply better results. “Legally, cosmetics manufacturers don’t need to prove that their products do what they promise because they are not drug claims, but rather topical alterations,” says Heidi Lebel, global sales and marketing manager, AkzoNobel Surface Chemistry, Global Personal Care. But it can be misleading if the levels that have been clinically tested are not used. “If the consumer interprets a cosmeceutical to be similar to a pharmaceutical product, he or she may conclude that cosmeceuticals are required to undergo the same testing for efficacy and quality control as required for a medication,” says Lebel.

As consumers’ technology threshold raises and they are increasingly interested in maintaining a youthful appearance, their demand for these types of high-tech products continues to expand. Yet, the more educated the consumer becomes, the more important it is for the reputation of the industry to help consumers understand the term cosmeceutical and how it’s used.

Technology Evolution

Prior to the past 20 years, beauty products were marketed heavily based upon the promise of emotional and sensory changes in the skin. “The sales pitch revolved around how the product would make the consumer feel,” says Judith Sikora, founder of MJ Consulting, which provides marketing expertise to small business entrepreneurs looking to launch (or relaunch) their brand. “Cosmetic companies used words like ‘plumping,’ ‘smoothing’ and ‘softening’ in their marketing and education campaigns, with an emphasis on the impact the product would make to the consumer’s psyche and overall confidence level.” The industry steered clear of anything that changed the form or function of the skin because it scared consumers at the time.

However, as the industry became much more competitive and consumers’ expectations of benefits increased, beauty marketers were searching for clear points of difference to support their claims of ingredient superiority. Concurrently, a number of beauty manufacturers were acquired by pharmaceutical companies. “Science invaded the beauty industry in a very big way, and the industry changed direction and course as a result,” explains Sikora.

Cosmetic chemists began to innovate, using delivery system technologies, high-tech ingredients and synthetic compounds that were gaining popularity in the pharmaceutical world. “The cosmetic industry began using words such as ‘encapsulated,’ ‘microsponge,’ ‘ceramide,’ ‘anti-aging’ and ‘time release’ and ‘retinol’ in their marketing vernacular,” continues Sikora. And the product claims—benefits—the manufacturers were making took on a new level of science and sophistication. In fact, skin care products began sounding very therapeutic and extremely pharmaceutical. So much so that suppliers were finding beauty brands weren’t even interested in active ingredients that didn’t penetrate or have biological activity. Unless, of course, those ingredients were from the medical or pharmaceutical industry—even if they weren’t biologically active, according to Presperse. 

And thus a name was developed for this new category of skin care products making pharmaceutical claims: cosmeceuticals. “The word itself combines ‘cosmetic’ and ‘pharmaceutical,’ although there’s no medication to be found in the products,” explains AkzoNobel’s Lebel. “Like cosmetics, cosmeceuticals are topically applied and they improve appearance, but they do so by delivering nutrients necessary for healthy skin.”

A Fuzzy Line

Marketing for these high-science beauty products quickly took a new direction. Beauty brands began serving up claims focused on the aggressive innovation and cutting-edge technology of their cosmeceutical ingredients. “Cosmeceutical” had begun being used as a catch-all descriptive term for products targeting baby boomers, and now it’s being used on a wide range of products in markets ranging from prestige to mass. “Cosmeceutical is a name invented to market how their products work,” explains Presperse’s Anthonavage. “It is a fine line, and it keeps getting fuzzier.” 

However, there is a clear distinction between drugs and cosmetics. As defined by the FDA, cosmetics are “articles applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness or altering the appearance,” and they comply with only the most liberal of guidelines. And of cosmeceutical, Lebel says, “Since the term is not recognized legally by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are no set guidelines to set them apart from any other cosmetic ingredient.”

Beauty products—the classification cosmeceuticals fall under—don’t have to provide evidence of their efficacy, and they aren’t required to undergo approval before they are sold to the public. However, if claims are not carefully labeled to avoid indicating drug properties, the product may be subject to FDA review, which could trigger a demand for reclassification of the product to a drug (or a rejection of the product altogether), costing the manufacturer millions in fines and research and development fees.

It’s also a natural inclination to think of “pharmaceutical” as a synonymous term. As a result, the term created controversy, with many believing it was deceptive and meaningless. “It can be misleading because it carries with it a notion of having efficacy and having testing behind it,” said Anthonavage. “You’d like to think it’s substantiated, but many are using it without having the science to back it up.” He points out that two products on the shelf—one with high regulation next to a cheaper product with no license or substantiation—can both be considered cosmeceutical. The claims may be the same, and even the packaging can be similar.

However, Sikora points out, “Dermatologists and doctors of esthetic medicine endorsed the term [cosmeceutical], believing that it denoted a higher level of product and ingredient efficacy, as well as a higher level of brand credibility. They chose to use the term to successfully position and sell certain skin care brands in their practices to their patient database.”

R&D and Marketing Synergy

Cosmeceutical is a consumer-driven claim, a buzz word, but in order for it to be useful for a beauty brand, it has to make sense to the brand. Without consumers being savvy, they won’t be able to recognize when a product is clinically tested correctly. Therefore, cosmeceuticals should be associated with brands that can dedicate time to educate and explain this to the public. And it’s the brand’s job to use appropriate terminology that consumers can understand to convey the right message. 

From a supplier perspective, cosmeceutical is not a word that’s used too often. When ingredient suppliers talk with beauty brands’ R&D, they focus on active ingredients and efficacy, but they don’t often distinguish ingredients as traditional versus cosmeceutical. Data is the only thing that sets cosmeceutical ingredients apart from traditional ingredients.

It used to be that looking to an ingredient to provide an instant benefit was enough. “Now, you have to collect a dossier of information,” said Anthonavage. “In vitro testing, clinical and self-assessment testing, market testing, before-and-after photos, and so on.” Expectations are higher and substantiation is critical. And the synergy between R&D and marketing becomes that much more important. 

“We aren’t looking for another excuse to regulate,” said Anthonavage. “What consumers want is product performance that measures up to what’s said in advertising and on package.” Consumers can see the claims being made on the box. If the product performs as promised, consumers will keep buying it. Otherwise, they won’t. The value to your product is in having both R&D and marketing working together. “By integrating ideals, both the brand and the consumer benefit,” Anthonavage explains. “You are then telling the whole story, translating science to an experience the consumer can relate to.”

New Frontiers

As cosmetics grow more sophisticated and the line between cosmetic products and drugs continues to blur, it will likely become more and more difficult for beauty marketers to use a term such as “cosmeceutical” to describe a category of products or ingredients that has not been recognized, defined, measured or tested by the FDA.

“I can see a new cosmetic category with expanded boundaries and definitions emerging to encompass a new product classification: pharmaceutical beauty products,” says Sikora. “Somewhere between moisturizers and eye cream on one end of the spectrum and Botox and Latisse on the other will potentially reside a new ‘high-tech Rx’ category of skin care, which I believe will inherit both the legacy and potential of cosmeceuticals as we know them today,” she concludes.

Sara Mason is a freelance writer based in the Chicagoland area. She was previously managing editor of GCI magazine.

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