The desire for brands to meet these growing demands without breaking the bank has given rise to a phenomenon called "fairy dusting," in which brands add a low amount of a buzzy active ingredient to their formulas so that they can advertise its benefits on the label—and, in effect, get more people to buy their products. It's a shady shortcut, for sure, but it isn't exactly a well-kept secret within the industry. "It’s a recognized term within the cosmetics and skin-care industry as a deceptive practice that involves brands and manufacturers misleading consumers by adding an insufficiently small amount of an active ingredient and claiming it will produce measurable results or benefits," explains Shuting Hu, PhD, cosmetic chemist and founder of Acaderma. This practice allows brands to claim that an active ingredient is present in formulas (because technically, it is) without having to spend the amount of money it would take to include it at an effective concentration.
Most of the Food and Drug Administration's regulations around beauty products have to do with poisonous or hazardous ingredients and the sanitary conditions in which a product is formulated. Therefore, the organization isn't keeping close watch on how companies market their ingredients—as long as they're considered "safe." "So, unless there is a hazardous ingredient or false health benefits printed on the label, like 'niacinamide helps control oil production,' brands can fly under the radar," says Priscila Fadul, founder of skin-care brand Lendava. "This is the main reason why fairy dusting remains unchecked and completely legal."
And since fairy dusting doesn't technically involve breaking the law, many brands continue to view this practice as a viable method for keeping their production costs down. According to Dr. Hu, brands choose to fairy dust because it allows them to promote the latest 'it' ingredient—even if that means sacrificing the quality of their formula. She explains that they're able to get away with this without losing credibility because since they're not disclosing the concentrations of the actives they're using, they assume consumers won't be able to hold them accountable when a product doesn't deliver results.
There's a lot to unpack here, but educating yourself will ultimately prevent you from wasting your money on products that don't live up to their promises.
Knowing the '1 percent rule' can help you understand your actives—and avoid fairy dusting
To understand why fairy dusting is problematic, it's first important to understand how active ingredients work and how they're listed on product packaging.
"Actives are ingredients that are backed by lab research to exert a desired effect on the skin," says Jessie Cheung, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Chicago. Vitamin C, for example, helps to brighten skin; hyaluronic acid aids in hydration; and retinol diminishes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
However, simply adding actives into your routine doesn't guarantee that your skin woes will go away. "You also have to be mindful of the specific concentrations of each ingredient, because that's what's necessary for the desired effect to occur, and is [what makes] the difference between a skin-care routine that works for you instead of against you," says Dr. Cheung, referring to how much of the full formula a specific ingredient comprises. For example, vitamin C works best when it's concentrated between 10 and 20 percent, and glycolic acid requires at least a 10 percent concentration (ideally at a pH of 3.5) to be effective.
Figuring out whether or not a brand is fairy dusting one of these actives requires doing a little bit of detective work on a product’s ingredients list—which starts with educating yourself on what cosmetic chemists call the "1 percent" rule.
According to Fadul, ingredients that make up more than 1 percent of the formula are listed on the label in order from highest to lowest concentration. “The first ingredient is the one that has the most amount in the product, whereas the last one listed has the least," Paul Pestano, senior database analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that provides information and research on ingredients in its Skin Deep database, previously told Well+Good.
To use the 1 percent rule to your advantage, Fadul recommends familiarizing yourself with the most-used inactive ingredients like phenoxyethanol, parabens, sodium benzoate, ethylhexylglycerin, and glyceryl caprylate. “These ingredients are usually equal or lower to 1 percent, which means everything listed after these will be [concentrated at] less than 1 percent, too,” she says. “So, if you see a brand list a key ingredient, like vitamin C, after these filler ingredients, you’re being fairy-dusted."
She adds that fairy-dusted products containing vitamin C and glycolic acid will be the easiest to spot, since these ingredients are known to work best at higher concentrations. Generally, if a product contains an effective amount of either, it will be one of the first few ingredients listed.
The 1 percent rule isn't foolproof, though: "Many actives are effective at low use levels, like retinol, so they’ll be found lower on the ingredient list even when used at the correct percentages," says Emmy Ketcham, co-founder and CPO, R&D of Experiment Skincare.
More ways to shop smarter
Beyond looking at the order of ingredients, there are a few other tell-tale signs that a product won't be able to deliver on its purported benefits. “Always be wary of brands that list these ingredients without specific concentrations, have zero clinical data reports available online, or use broad marketing terms like 'technology' or 'complexes' to assure you an active ingredient is present,” says Dr. Cheung.
"Purchasing medical-grade skin care help protect consumers from false claims—they have a higher potency of active ingredients, and are backed by physicians, research, and data," adds Caren Campbell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Francisco. "It's a safer way to spend your money."
And remember: If you reach out to a company for more information, and they won't give you a direct answer, steer clear. There are tons of brands who pride themselves on being transparent about ingredients and sourcing and are happy to share clinical data to back up claims on their products.
Common fairy-dusted ingredients to look out for
"Peptides and hyaluronic acid are pretty common since they're very popular but very costly," says Ketcham. "So brands' formulations will typically include cheaper, yet more effective, hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin, while attributing the efficacy to hyaluronic acid in their marketing." In other words, brands may concoct an effective glycerin-based serum (the ingredient is known as one of the best universal hydrators on the market) and sprinkle in a little bit of hyaluronic acid so that they can claim the formula gets its hydrating powers from the buzzy active and charge a premium price... even if it's not doing much at all.
Collagen is another good example of an ingredient people tend to overspend on: Its molecules are too big to penetrate the skin, so applying it topically won't do much for your complexion. But that hasn't stopped brands from adding the ingredient into expensive anti-aging formulas and touting it as a miracle solution for diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Plant and fruit extracts and oils are also frequent offenders, because though these ingredients typically don’t significantly contribute to efficacy, they’re highly valued in marketing. "A lot of these extracts sound great, but they aren’t clinically efficacious, which means they don’t work," says Dr. Campbell. What's more, certain buzzy botanicals—like tea tree, citrus, and lavender oils—can cause irritation on sensitive skin.
While there's no real harm in using fairy-dusted products—as Ketcham mentioned, many affordable ingredients are actually more effective than their popular counterparts—investing in them simply isn't worth the cost. "A lot of the beauty industry is built on making people feel 'less than' or 'lacking' and utilize marketing to help fill that need to feel 'good enough,'" says Dr. Campbell. "But while good skin can help you feel better on the inside, it's important to invest your money and time wisely into products that work made by brands you can trust. "
Since we know brands have to compete for our dollars and attention, the most important thing to do to avoid wasting your time and money is to educate yourself and do your research. The more informed you are, the less likely you’ll be to fall victim to unethical beauty industry practices.
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