How to Debunk Bad Science in Beauty and Wellness

How to Debunk Bad Science in Beauty and Wellness

Results supported by concrete scientific findings are important when it comes to something as challenging as hair loss. It's what determines whether something will work or not. Robust scientific studies can measure how good a product is, and how reproducible its results are. With every beauty and wellness brand claiming that it's “backed by science”, it can be difficult to differentiate what’s real and what’s snake oil. 

At Revela, it’s our goal to help you spot the differences - this guide will show you 4 simple ways to evaluate scientific data and think like a scientist. 

1. Look for clinical trial data.

"Clinically-shown results" or "clinically-tested" are phrases that are frequently thrown around by hair loss companies. But what does that really mean?

Clinical trials are controlled studies with human volunteers to test how effective and safe a product is. They are extremely important. Non-human lab experiments are great models for how the human hair or skin will react to a new product, but they never translate 100% to clinical results.

Look through the websites of popular hair loss brands and ask yourself these questions:

Or do they merely state "clinically proven" without showing results. Or worse, do they fail to mention clinical studies at all. Even minoxidil, the current subpar standard for hair loss, has gone through several clinical trials after its approval. Without clinical trial data, you can't be sure it will both work and be safe for use on humans.

2. Find published scientific papers or official reports that show data

Hair loss companies that say they're rooted in science should have accompanying reports that show their data and scientific processes. Look for either a published paper in a reputable scientific journal or a white paper on their website. If a brand is linking a scientific paper on a blog or their website, it’s important to make sure it's reputable. If there's a white paper or similar document, look at tip 3 to see what kind of details the data should have.

What makes a scientific article reputable?

Figuring out whether or not a scientific article is reputable is not that different from the process you go through when purchasing a new product or trying a new restaurant. You look for reviews from other people or you see if it's mentioned by another trusted source like a magazine or influencer. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you stumble upon a publication in a scientific journal:

If a brand has created their own official document like a white paper, the next tip (tip #3) will be helpful in determining how reliable their information and data is.


3. Details in the data should show the full picture of the experiment

Once you find those scientific papers and reports, there are certain details you can look for to see if the data is legitimate. If it's good science, the data shouldn't be hiding anything! Here’s how to read a plot, the right way:

a) Look for baseline comparisons.

When researchers are collecting data, they always compare it to a baseline. This is known as a “control” in the science world.

For example, this data shows that Product X can grow new hair. It is compared to hair placed in the exact same conditions, but with no product (water) which is the negative control, and a known hair growing product (minoxidil) which is the positive control.

b) See if there are error bars and/or individual points on graphs.

Consumer facing data on a brand's website tend to omit things like error bars and individual points to present a cleaner looking graph. However, if you find a scientific paper or official report about the product that contains data, it should have these elements.

Let’s take a look at a simple experiment to see WHY error bars are important:

Conclusion: The right hand can choose almost twice as many blue M&Ms which means the right hand is better at picking that specific color, right? Common sense tells us this is false, but with something as complex as hair loss, we can't always rely on intuition.

c) See if they reported statistical significance.

Statistical significance is often confusing, but understanding when to, and what is, appropriate to report is extremely important. This is because statistical significance shows if a trend is actually real and not caused by random chance. Look for text at the bottom of graphs with phrases like "p=0.032,Student T-Test" to denote that statistics were analyzed. Other statistical analyses might be used but it should be reported as good practice.


4. Make sure experts in the field are involved in the research.

The fact of the matter is, experts with an MD or PhD (or both!) have gone to school for years and received countless hours of intense education and training. They know all of the nitty gritty details that go into designing a successful experiment that would otherwise go unnoticed. And more likely than not, an expert in the field will want to put their name on science that is relevant and important!

Having a “Dr.” in front of a name doesn’t necessarily mean expertise.

A person with a PhD in astrophysics would probably not be able to write a dissertation on biology and vice versa. It’s important to see that the science conducted by a brand was done by a real expert with good credentials. Here's what to look for:

The truth is, brands should be working overtime to prove their science is legitimate.

When all is said and done, a brand’s goal is to sell you a product. All of their research efforts are made with that end goal in mind. In the science world, we call this a conflict of interest because it introduces a certain bias to the research. Actually, when a scientist publishes a scientific paper on their research for a company or brand, they are required to report it. To be clear, a conflict of interest is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it’s important that a brand or company address it transparently.

They should be putting in work to show you that their bias did not affect their data.

If they truly believe in the science of their product, it will be obvious. They will want to work overtime to really show it.

With these tips in hand, never get tricked by bad science again!

In this guide, we discussed some tricks on how to differentiate good science from bad. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many nuances to scientific communication and data presentation that it would take a book to cover it all. However, the key takeaway is this: each of these 4 points relates to transparency. A brand that truly believes in their science will show it proudly because there is simply nothing to hide (and scientists just get really excited about presenting cool findings!).

Equipped with these tools, you can be a science-savvy consumer and be confident in making decisions about choosing your next beauty and wellness products.

Profile photo for Avinash Boppana

Reviewed by: Avinash Boppana, BS

Avinash is a computer scientist. He completed his BS from Princeton University, concentrating in Statistics & Machine Learning. He has deep experience in computational research, working for reputable institutions, including Harvard Medical School, the Flatiron Institute, and the NIH.

Written by: Revela Editorial Team

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