Why do women's magazines not promote critical thinking when it comes to beauty and health?

Women's fashion and lifestyle magazines have a bad habit of spouting pseudoscientific guff to their readers in in order to raise revenue through product placement, and advertising.

I like clothes, handbags and shoes but that doesn't make me stupid air-head or any less of a scientist. I want to know what the latest and best in beauty is, but I do not want to read rubbish science and products that claim to provide more than they will ever be able to offer.

I have seen very detailed and thought out articles on important issues like rape, women in the workplace and motherhood. But, when it comes to beauty and health, critical thinking seems to go out of the window and pseudoscience is used to disguise product placement.

Image From:
Commercial magazines rely on and exist because of the advertising revenue they get. Beauty product manufacturers must pay well to warrant this kind of treatment and exposure. Should there be more transparency when products are promoted in magazines? I know this discussion rages wildly in the bloggers-sphere. Should writers who are being paid to promote a product be forced to declare it? 

Women's lifestyle/fashion magazines have played an important role in the past, as promoters for womens education, a source of escape and a communication channel for women but, today the women's lifestyle/fashion magazine sector is shrinking

They claim to take an interest in what women want, like, and what is important in their lives. They sell themselves to women on these claims. Rather than bamboozling readers with nonsense science in order to gain more advertising revenue could they promote scientific literacy through critical evaluation of evidence in the beauty pages and carve out a new path to increase their readership?  

This is why I started thinking about the above.

I subscribe to Elle UK and, in the last issue (June 2012), I noticed that there were a number of articles that discussed health issues, and they even summarised some recent published research on the topics. It wasn't perfect, but it really stood out to me that maybe, just maybe, things were changing and they were trying to recognise the value in real academic research and bring in some informed and critical thinking. Good for them. 

However, in this months issue (July 2012) I was really disappointed with an article titled, 'The Truth About Sun Protection'

The article starts off well, highlighting the differences between different types of sun radiation (UVA, UVB, IRA) what that means, and what you should look for in a sun cream. Fantastic. 

Then it veers into the confusing and and suggests 6 specific products (none of which are a sunscreen).

First up, tomatoes prevent sun-damage but use a sachet to get the benefit instead. From Elle,

'Lesley Rhodes, professor of experimental dermatology at the University of Manchester, found that tomatoes boost the level of collagen in the skin, help to slow the appearance of ageing and even reduce the risk of sunburn. Rhodes's study found that participants who ate tomato paste had 33 per cent more protection. It's all down to lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, which is able to neutralise harmful free-radical molecules. ELLE loves Onca, £156 for 60 sachets, a supplement with the antioxidant beta-carotene that neutralises harmful molecules which can lead to a free-radical chain reaction in the skin.'

To me, this paragraph implies, but doesn't state, that these very expensive Onca sachets might help protect you from sunburn. Hang on, why not just eat tomatoes? And can tomatoes really stop you from getting sunburn?!

This is the press release from about the research about sun protection and tomatoes. The study was done on 20 people (very small), over a short period of time (12 weeks) with 10 exposures to UVR radiation (full paper here). The partipants were given tomato paste with olive oil on white bread. The control group were given olive oil and white bread only. The tomato paste was supplied by Unilever, but there is no declaration of any conflict of interest. The study assessed the amount of UVR (UVA and UVB) damage caused (by looking at the amount of mitochondrial DNA damage). They found that the 9 people taking the tomato supplement demonstrated a reduced amount of DNA damage post supplement, than they did before the supplement.

The press release states, 'Compared to the control group, the group who had eaten the paste were found to have 33 per cent more protection against sunburn, which can lead to skin cancer. The researchers calculated the protection offered by the tomato paste to be equivalent to a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 1.3...

...People should not think that tomatoes in any way can replace sun creams, but they may be a good additive." 

Interesting research, it does suggest that eating tomato puree with olive oil could help prevent SOME UVR damage. A longer, larger study is needed in order to verify and this is recognised by the paper authors and in the press release (from 2008). The paper does not show that tomatoes with olive oil can help prevent skin cancer. Nor does it show that it is the antioxidant potential of lycopene that is responsible. You also need to be eating blobs of tomato puree for a number of weeks before you can gain the massive SPF of 1.3. 

There has been a recent review published on the study of caratinoids (including lycopene and beta-carotene) and photodamage. It recognises that caratinoids have demonstrated a degree of photoprotection in some studies, but it also explicitly states that it isn't clear if it is an antioxidant mechanism that is creating the effects seen and also 'whether these effects are beneficial has to be assessed'.

In summary, tomatoes and beta-carotene might help sun damage and prevent sunburn, a bit. However, these benefits weren't compared to the benefits of a normal suncream with a high SPF, nor were they used in combination with suncream. There is no suggestion that they boost the effects of a suncream and they certainly do not appear to be adequate protection from sunburn. 

The Elle article also links to a new 'wonder pill', Colladeen Visage that claims to give the skin a natural boost of SPF 10. These studies appear to have been only conducted by the product manufacturer. I am not sure if they are independently verified as I cannot find any published research. The makers state that the SPF of 10 will vary between people, and that the pills should be used in addition to a normal sun cream. Elle magazine fails to mention this, as do other advertisers of the product. I can't help feeling that that is irresponsible. Personally, I am highly skeptical of this product, but in the U.K. there are no specified guidelines for the testing that products must complete in order to claim they contain SPF. This makes evaluation difficult.

The article also mentions products which claim to; protect your hair (fine), visualise the sun damage on your skin (fine) and protect nailcolour from bleaching (I've never personally had that problem, but fine). 

Lastly, a recommendation was given for a vitamin D supplement for when you have no sun (OK but there are risks, and these weren't mentioned in the Elle article).

Sun protection is important and the advice can be confusing. A balanced approach with a better analysis of what is on the market, rather than a pushing products with unclear benefits might have been a better and more responsible approach from Elle. 

I highlighted my concerns about the products in the article to the writer. This is the response received

Hi Heather,

Many thanks for your email, it's always very valuable to get feedback on our features.

Unfortunately we are limited on space (two pages for this particular story) and it's always a challenge condensing the many studies we research while at the same time making sure the information is accessible for our readers and doesn't become scientific study in itself. However, we would never recommend forgoing sun screen, in fact the entire feature has been designed to promote the use of UVA/UVB protection plus additional antioxidants to give the broadest protection possible from the sun.

But many thanks again for getting in touch and we'll be sure your take your feedback on-board for future features.

Kind Regards

More about the Onca sachets (for the skeptical types)

This website goes one step further and puts the claim that Elle alludes to together, suggesting the sachets offer sun protection -
Screenshot taken on the 9.5.12 from the freakdeluxe.co.uk website

The Onca sachet website, does not state these claims and includes a statement that the Onca satchets are not a medicine, treatment or cure for any disease or condition, but an extensive list of benefits from the ingredients in the satchets have been shown in clinical research, hospital studies and scientific journals.

It isn't clear if the levels of beta-carotene (a caratanoid) in the Onca satchets are comparable with levels of caratanoids that have offered protection in the literature.


  1. This is a critical question. One of my biggest pet peeves is that a headline will say "The Science of Beauty" and not one wit of science is in the article. It is nauseating, which is why I've made a few science videos with cosmetic products and plan to do more!

    1. Yes, when products are hidden under what appears to be a well researched investigative article.. it's misleading and annoying!

  2. Hey Heather,

    Shonagh went in to get her hair chemically straightened in the hairdressers to sit and listen to a half hr speil (that had obviously been rehearsed) about how there were no chemicals in the product and that's why is was good for her hair!! Nonsense!!
    I know it's not exactly the same point, but I don't understand why those using and endorsing hair and beauty products aren't educated properly so then people actually understand what is happening and why.


  3. We have several women in America that are in the process of creating a magazine for women who think. We want to have academic journal style writing that includes endnotes/footnotes when appropriate and the is for the purpose of educating and pushing woman to think outside of her box--what ever her box might be.

    We are approaching current woman who are writing to not promote an agenda but to present information that make you re-examine your conclusions or opinions by respectfully listening to people's through their writings.

    We - at the same time - do not want to deny the feminine and relational side of women. We want to appeal to all that is beneficial and beautiful about life which includes family, homemaking, pure foods education, style, reading, entertainment, the arts and personal development (inside and out). This will not be fluff but meaty with facts that are not in pop-women magazines.

    I encourage you all to keep looking and dreaming. We have so many opportunities to create thinking materials and environments for women around the world.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Hey – great blog, just looking around some blogs, seems a really nice platform you are using. I’m currently using WordPress for a few of my blogs but looking to change one of them over to a platform similar to yours as a trial run. Anything in particular you would recommend about it? gipsydharma.com

  7. Great post full of useful tips! My site is fairly new and I am also having a hard time getting my readers to leave comments. Analytics shows they are coming to the site but I have a feeling “nobody wants to be first”. Gypsy Dharma


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How many papers should academics publish per year?

How to help someone that is writing up their thesis

Getting Women into Science, EU Directive