Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Beauty Bullshit: Urban Decay Naked Skin Beauty Balm

Urban Decay, we need to have a talk. I really like you guys. I think most of your products are great. That's why I am standing here giving you the same look your dad does when he says, "I am not mad, just disappointed". I know BB creams are the hip new trend, or whatever. I know that other companies are making wildly improbable claims about the efficacy of their BB cream in improving your skin. That doesn't mean that you have to. If other companies jumped off a bridge, would YOU jump off a bridge?

I do not appreciate misleading claims.
In all seriousness, as a consumer, it is really important to take a critical look at the claims a company makes before throwing down serious cash on on a make up or skin care product. That's why Urban Decay's "Naked Skin Beauty Balm" is Beauty Bullshit's next target.

I received a sample of this BB cream directly from the company when I purchased an eyeshadow palette from the website. The sample had a cardboard folder that contained a LOT of claims.

According to the packet, "Pepha-Protect® helps inhibit DNA damage while Vitasource and dGlyage® firm skin, improve elasticity and fight wrinkles." The text also states that "light-diffusing spheres"  will help the wearer look "professionally retouched".

"DNA repair, optical blurring, oil free"? One of those claims just doesn't belong. (And it is the last one, because it makes sense.)
The first thing you will notice is that all of those three components are either registered or trademarked. Upon further research, it is clear than NONE of them have been a part of any sort of research without conflicting interests. All of the research on all three of these products has been funded by the companies that own the trademark. That doesn't necessarily mean that their claims are bullshit, but it is especially good reason to look closer. So look closer I did.

Thankfully, all of the claims about the Urban Decay BB cream are MUCH stronger than the claims about the Fruit Beauty CC Cream. However, that's sort of damning with faint praise. The Fruit Beauty CC Cream claims were the most ludicrous, clown-like misuse of science that I have heard in a beauty product. These Urban Decay claims have theoretical reasons that they might not be bullshit, but they don't live up to their promise.

Pepha-Protect®

Pepha-Protect® is derived from Citrullus lanatus, which is really just regular old grocery store watermelon. It is owned by a company called Royal DSM, whose website features lots of ladies with their arms outstretched, and who produce everything from pharmaceuticals to plastics.

Pictured: Science!
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/durica/1062402066/
According to Urban Decay, Pepha-Protect® "helps inhibit DNA damage". That claim was automatically a big red flag for me, so I investigated further.

I tell you the following because I want you to know how tricky companies are being: when I first looked at the Pepha-Protect® data that the manufacturer released, my response was something along the lines of, "well, they did a bunch of assays. That's real science, you guys". (An assay is a procedure that lets biologists measure how much of a certain substance is in a material or solution of interest.) I barely looked at it and just assumed that it was done in a scientifically rigorous way. I closed the window. I expected that something else was going to be the subject of my next Beauty Bullshit post. I am much more knowledgeable about biology than Urban Decay's target customer, but without fully reading the material, I accepted the provided material without question. If you didn't take biology or chemistry in college, I can't even imagine how intimidating this material must look.

Luckily, a nagging feeling of, "But that claim does not make any sense!" brought me back to the page in question. They did four assays, all of which have very similar problems. For length purposes, I am going to focus on the one whose results Urban Decay is touting on their packaging.

This "efficacy test" involved a plasmid DNA assay. Plasmids are little of circular hunks of DNA that replicate separately from the rest of the chromosome. They are found in bacteria. Royal DSM did not release what plasmids they used for this assay, but if you were going to make a bet, I would highly encourage you to place your money on E. coli.

E. coli.
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bc/E_coli_at_10000x,_original.jpg
This plasmid DNA assay was used to determine to what extent DNA plasmid structure changes under stress. When DNA is exposed to stress it can either just absolutely fall apart or do something called "supercoiling", where it twists into little figure 8s. The researchers on this project determined that when DNA plasmids are incubated with watermelon extract, they are less likely to break and more likely to supercoil.

There are a lot of reasons why this research is not sound, so I will list some of them below in no particular order:
  1. Neither you nor I are E. coli. These researchers are assuming that all DNA behaves equally in these conditions, but they are using circular DNA (our DNA is not circular) and then testing for a structural change like supercoiling. That is sort of ridiculous.
  2. This research is not using their product. It is using watermelon extract. According to Royal DSM, the extract used in this experiment "was used to formulate Pepha-Protect®". Why did they test this random watermelon extract instead of their actual product? My guess is that they did and their actual product did not yield statistically significant results. In other words, it didn't work.
  3. "Stress" is sort of a nebulous concept, isn't it? We don't know if they introduced a chemical, radically changed the pH, radically increased the temperature... But they won't tell us what they did, so we just have to guess.
  4. In order for this study to mean anything, this aforementioned "stress" must somehow mimic actual stress that affects your skin. You probably don't pour weird chemicals on your skin or burn yourself extensively on a regular basis. Also, your skin products ought to be formulated to be a pH between 5 and 6, which is healthy for skin. It is highly unlikely that this "stress" really does have applicability to your real life skin.
  5. Your skin is not a giant mess of DNA. DNA in humans and other eukaryotes is located in the nucleus of the cell. To get to your DNA, this product would have to travel through your cell membrane AND through your nuclear membrane to get to your DNA. Your cell membranes and nuclear membranes are designed to keep random shit out of them.
So, in conclusion: someone who has financial stakes in the results of this research did a study that really doesn't make any sense and has either limited or no applicability to your actual face.

dGlyage®

dGlyage® is a product owned by a company called Lipotec. Lipotec is such a fine upstanding company that they assert on their website that "communicating publicly" about any information on their website is "an infringement punished by law". Luckily, I am a rebel (and I am pretty sure that I am allowed to write about their publicly accessible information), so I am writing this blog anyways. 

Lipotec argues that aging is caused by transition metals accumulating in the cell's cytoplasm over time. They observe that, through a process known as Fenton's reaction, transition metals are able to generate free radicals. Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron and are (usually) highly reactive. Basically, the molecule wants to snatch up an electron wherever they can grab one so their electrons will be paired. Then, the next molecule in the chain becomes a free radical (because their electron was just stolen). This keeps happening until an electron is stolen from something that can't function without it, which causes serious cellular problems. I will likely do a future blog post discussing the overzealous embrace of this theory and its implicated solutions (antioxidants), but for the purposes of this post we are going to assume that there is validity to this theory. 

dGlyage® binds to these transition metals, supposedly preventing the free radicals from destroying your DNA. 

It's been a long time since you guys have gotten a picture... so have this one.
Source: http://periodictable.com/Samples/029.28/s7s.JPG
Like with Pepha-Protect®, assays were used to determine the efficacy of dGlyage®. Unlike Royal DSM, Lipotec kindly told us what plasmid they used for the assay: pBR322. This is an E. coli plasmid.

They incubated said E. coli plasmid with copper and hydrogen peroxide both with and without Tripeptide-9 Citrulline, which is one of the components of dGlyage®. They found that the DNA structure changed less when in the presence of Tripeptide-9 Citrulline.

Most of these criticisms are exactly the same as those for Pepha-Protect®, so I will go over those very quickly: We are not E. Coli. One component of your product is not the same thing as your product. You have cell membranes and nuclear membranes. 

I also found it interesting that the researchers incubated the plasmids in hydrogen peroxide, which is toxic to cells. They presumably made this choice because hydrogen peroxide is necessary in order for Fenton's reaction to occur. By incubating in hydrogen peroxide, they are able to substantially increase the amount of free radicals that copper produces, exaggerating their results. However, if your cells had anything close to that amount of hydrogen peroxide in them, they would be dead, making this an exceptionally poor model for anything that is actually occurring in your cells. 

You don't want this in your cells.
 It's also worth noting that Urban Decay is claiming that dGlyage® "firm[s] skin, improve[s] elasticity and fight[s] wrinkles", while this research is claiming that dGlyage® decreases "changes in DNA secondary structure". Those are not even kind of the same thing.

Vitasource


Vitasource is owned by a company called Thibiant International, Inc. I couldn't find a lot of information about this product, which isn't unbelievably surprising given that their trademark was registered in 1999 and thus a lot of this information probably never made it to the internet. Without more detailed information about how this product was tested and developed, I can't do a full critique. However, I feel pretty comfortable asserting that if the fountain of youth had been invented more than 13 years ago, there would be some fucking information about it somewhere.

Scutellaria baicalensis. At least the flower is pretty!
Source: http://www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/potd/scutellaria_baicalensis1.jpg

According to Center Chem, Vitasource is made from the "roots of Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi", which is a flowering plant. Interestingly, there is evidence that this plant may be helpful in one aspect of aging. Unfortunately for those of you wishing to rub it on your face, that aspect is dementia... and the extract has be injected.

"Light-diffusing spheres"

Urban Decay suggests that their product gives an airbrushed look thanks to "light-diffusing spheres". The Urban Decay website adds that the purpose of this is to "'blur' imperfections".

In optics, diffusion is a process by which light is scattered such that the light source is large relative to the object. For example, you might reflect a light through a big pane of frosted glass in order to make the light less harsh.

Pictured: How diffusion actually works.
Source: http://images-en.busytrade.com/176406500/Light-Diffusion-Polycarbonate-Sheet.jpg
The problem is that this product is not a big pane of frosted glass that you can carry around so that you are always in flattering lighting. The product is already on your face. 

If light diffuses through the spheres, it is going to diffuse THROUGH the spheres. And since there are no people in between your makeup and your face, that diffusion isn't going to be super helpful. 

Your imperfections really would be less noticeable in diffused light, but the solution to that is to avoid uncovered bulbs in your house, not to put this stuff on your face. 

It seems likely to me that this is simply working as a filler and "light-diffusing spheres" is a term that sounds more fancy and high tech, so that's what they went with.

(Disclaimer: I am not a physicist, so I am less confident in this information than in the biological sections. If you happen to know what I am mis-characterizing something about diffusion, let me know in the comments and I will make an update. There are some explanations online such as an article at Wise Geek that claims that light diffusing makeup "works by filling in fine lines, wrinkles, and other imperfections, and reflecting light away from them", but that 1. is not what light diffusion is and 2. would make all of your wrinkles more noticeable, not less.)

One of the most important things to understand about the above information is that without a valid clinical study, this is expensive pseudoscientific gunk. 

Urban Decay's "Clinical Study"

But WAIT! You might be saying to yourself. Urban Decay DID do a clinical study! It says so on that same packet!

And indeed it does. According to Urban Decay, after 8 weeks of using this BB cream:

  • 93% had significant firmer, more lifted skin.
  • 90% had significantly more radiant skin that looked better overall.
  • 84% had a significant improvement in fine lines.
  • Over 84% had significantly smoother and more hydrated skin. 
Although I appreciate the fact that they attempted to do a clinical test, this is not an appropriate way to do so. What it seems that Urban Decay did was give a bunch of ladies their BB cream and then say something like, "Did you have significant improvements in fine lines?" or asked them to agree or disagree with the statement "I saw a significant improvement in fine lines".

That is problematic for lots of reasons. Firstly, people like to please the experimenter. Urban Decay gives you a free product to test, most people are going to want to say nice things about it. Secondly, the way that survey questions are worded can make a huge difference in responses. Since this is being conducted by Urban Decay themselves, who have a vested interest in getting a positive result, and since Urban Decay did not release their survey questions, I do not trust that they accurately worded questions to avoid effects such as acquiescence bias. They are also making claims that do not reflect the research. They say they are preventing DNA damage, but they are asking about whether or not people have "radiant skin".

However, the real problem is the lack of a control group. What they should have done is a blind study where half the participants get a product lacking Pepha-Protect®, Vitasource and dGlyage®, and half get the full-blown BB cream. A "blind" study is one where the participants do not know which product they received, meaning that there is no placebo effect and they cannot act to try to please the experimenter. All they can do is answer as accurately as possible. At the start of the study, they should have had the particicipants rate their skin on X, Y and Z factors. Then, after the study, they should have them rate their skin on X, Y and Z factors again. (This makes it so that the participants do not have to guess what their skin looked like 8 weeks ago. It doesn't matter, for this design, how good their memory of their skin is because that data has already been taken.) If the experimental group had significantly more improvement than the control group, Urban Decay could make a claim about improving wrinkles and all that jazz.

ANY RESEARCHER would know that that is how this should have been conducted. They did not choose a different experimental design out of ignorance. They chose their design because they do not care if their product works. They care if you buy their product. And they believe that sounding vaguely science-y and running rigged clinical trials is the way to do that.

Either they are being manipulative or....
No valid clinical trials can be conducted without a control group, period. If you see "clinical studies" whose results are framed the way that Urban Decay's were framed in their literature, you should disregard it immediately. It doesn't automatically mean that the product doesn't work, but that is NOT valid evidence that the product is effective.

Furthermore, without real clinical tests that are conducted in an empirically valid way, this theoretical stuff does not matter. Many drugs that have been used for decades have mechanisms that are still fuzzy and unclear. (For example, lithium is the best treatment for bipolar disorder, but we really don't know what it is doing at a molecular level to achieve a mood stabilizing effect.) What we know about these drugs is that they do work and that their side effects are sufficiently minor as to justify mainstream clinical use. That is what matters. And that, unfortunately, is where Urban Decay's BB cream falls completely flat.

If you have any beauty claims you want researched in future Beauty Bullshit blogs, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

    31 comments:

    1. so I'm really freaking glad that this was posted on reddit, because I'm now going through your blog and kicking myself that I haven't been following you foreverrrrr. seriously. You're so funny and awesome while still doing some kickass makeup reviews. whoop whoop I'm now a member of your fanclub.

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      Replies
      1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate the feedback.

        Also, don't kick yourself too hard. This blog is only a few weeks old.

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    2. I hadnt even seen their BB. but i probably wouldnt have tried it anyway since i dont typically do bb creams. good info tho. great job.

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    3. I have zero interest in makeup, but this was a fun and interesting read. Keep it up!

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    4. I am SO glad I got linked to your blog from reddit, it's amazing! I just wish I'd known about it sooner.

      I really love your Beauty Bullshit posts, they're exactly what I'd like to see more of in reviews. I don't have a background in much science, though it interests me, and your explanations are great and easy to understand. I'll definitely be a reader from now on :)

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    5. As a fellow microbiology researcher who is also a consumer of makeup, your review made me weep with tears of joy. Keep up the fantastically detailed and solid work. :)

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    6. This really is impressive. Keep up the good work

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    7. Wow, It's great to see this kind of review of a make up product. It's so tempting to just beleive claims made by brands. Sometimes we just buy into their fancy packaging and marketing, and don't stop to actually THINK about the claims being made.

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    8. Am so glad I found your blog (yes, via Redditt). I loved this review. And am settling down to read every single thing you've already written!

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    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    10. Just found you through Reddit. You are ridiculously awesome.

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    11. Stumbled across your blog from another beauty blogger, and I just have to say that I agree with the BS of the claims makeup can make. It's more about looking at the ingredients list and doing the right research. It's about knowing the difference between mineral oil, petroleum products, and parabens with fruit oils, nut oils, and vitamins. Thanks for posting this about the Naked BB Cream. I was actually looking up stuff about it and I was really hoping it would have good coverage! I'm really hoping I can get my hands on a sample of it, but if not, I'll stick to my same old routine! Thanks for your beauty input. You have a great blog! Keep it up!

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    12. Just found your blog and it's awesome. Nobody has really done much with the light diffusers-I'm technically a chemist, not physicist, but I had to take lots of physics classes. Most light diffusers in makeup are actually shiny(like mica). It's like having a bunch of tiny mirrors reflecting the light, not all at the same angle-the light is bouncing all around your face, like it does if it comes out of the filtered glass. So it makes color matching a bit easier, and you get a bit of the effect of not having uncovered light bulbs in your house-that would work better, but this is more portable. so, . . . not total B.S., though not a miracle either.

      Also, if you're asking for beauty B.S. post topics, please please do chemical free. I see those words used on products, and want to scream.

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      Replies
      1. yes chemical free is annoying...politicians and marketers looooove generating fear-uncertainty-doubt, and in turn that makes them a lot of money. I did a 5 part video on chemical vs natural vs organic vs gmo plus animal testing on my SkinCareTV channel on YouTube. I blog about it from time to time, and take the time to educate my clients on the subject, but the marketers keep winning because fear trumps knowledge :-(

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    13. Stumbled across this - you are an amazing writer and hilarious! Clearly very pretty too. Keep it up!

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    14. Could you compare the claims of US/European BB creams with Asian ones?

      In another post you wrote about looking for a HG full cover foundation, have you tried (Asian) BB Creams? Just wondering, since they are supposed to be an all-in-one product and cover well.

      Missha (Misshaus.com) is having a 40% off sale right now and the last time they had that was when I took the plunge and ordered a bunch to try.

      Would be interested to see your input on bb creams in general :)

      Vivian

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    15. Robyn, you are a treasure...I am catching up on your posts whenever I have time. Your writing is so spot-on, articulate, sincere common-sense, scientific, and just the right amount of humour. I am thrilled to know you (virtually)....

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    16. Awesome blog. . .And totally agree with this post. I had to call bullshit right on the packaging with "DNA repair." If they can repair DNA through a bb cream, shouldn't they be curing cancer or something?

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    17. A great many thanks for this excellent blog and deeply satisfying blog post. What a service you're providing to those (me!) who don't bother doing the diligent research we ought to be doing on the products we consume. It's not only incredibly valuable to see all this research done, but your explanations and advice for others who want to do this research deserves great praise! I am stoked to see what you'll post in future.

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    18. You are my new favorite person.

      ReplyDelete
    19. This blog is AMAZING and this stuff is crap-ola. I received a sample of it and had a giant WTF moment when I put it on.

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    20. I love that you share the article, very interesting, thank you in advance boss, healthy greeting Obat Perangsang

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    21. As a current biology and physics student, I loved this so much! You show 'em who's boss :)

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    22. You are wonderful and I love that I discovered this blog! I am in graduate school studying neuroscience, and I'm also obsessed with makeup, so this blog is right up my alley. It also helps that you're a great writer and hilarious!

      I just wanted to add re: the clinical trial. I'm not sure how UD conducted the study and what their methodology was, but it's incredible important to note that none of the results are even remotely valid if they didn't control for other beauty products, skincare items, diet, exercise, age, health etc. of the participants. They might have done this, but if they didn't then that's just one more thing that discredits their claims!

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    23. Robyn, thank you for deciding to blog!

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    24. This is by far one of the best beauty blogs I have ever read. Will be adding this to my bookmarks! :)

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    25. thank you very nice article...
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    26. I actually found this blog and that is amazing thing I enjoy reading this easy to understand stuff. Keep it up.
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      ReplyDelete
    27. Thank you Robyn! I absolutely enjoy reading every post you make. Unlike many beauty bloggers that just give half-assed, insincere reviews because they are obligated to from their free products, your reviews are so refreshing, succinct, scientific and impartial that no one can ignore! I do hope you'll keep doing this and continue to get more recognition! This blog is a gem!

      ReplyDelete

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