Cosmetic Cop Paula Begoun
The skeptic’s skin care expert

By Trish Randall

As a skeptical consumer you recognize cosmetic ads designed to appeal to your vanity, and you look askance at claims for miracle products. But we all use at least some items from the health and beauty aisles—soaps, shampoo, shaving products for men, and makeup for women. I consider myself a smart shopper, but for years my bathroom shelves have been stuffed with potions that turned out to be wrong for me. When I went to the store with a product in mind, I'd find myself facing a bewildering floor-to-ceiling array of pint-sized bottles. Which were what I needed? Which would turnout wrong for me? I was never sure.

It is unfortunate that it took "luck" for me to stumble upon Paula Begoun, Cosmetic Cop. Begoun helps men and women determine their skin care needs and assists them with purchasing the best products at the lowest price. She arms her readers with solid, science-based information about hygiene products, providing complete citations for the research she quotes. She exposes the "endless parade of useless and bizarre information" coming from cosmetic marketing departments. And, she documents the chains of ownership of the large cosmetics companies and discloses which discount store brands are identical in formula to the upscale brands.

Her website is well organized and packed with information. Despite being a dot-com site, the quantity and quality of its content rivals a dot-org. When you visit her website, click on "Learn." Among the subjects you will find are product reviews, skin care facts, and a cosmetic dictionary—complete with the meanings (or lack thereof) of common advertising verbiage, as well as descriptions of and references about chemicals commonly found in cosmetics. Take, for example, the entry for hypoallergenic: "Term used by the cosmetics industry to lead consumers to believe they are using a product that will not cause them to have an allergic or sensitizing skin reaction to a product. However, the word 'hypoallergenic' is not regulated in any manner by the FDA and it is therefore used indiscriminately by cosmetics companies without any substantiation or need to show proof of the claim."

Begoun swiftly dismisses misconceptions, demolishes old wives' tales, and discloses advertising puffery. Take for example, moisturizers. Here's a huge surprise for every female in the U.S. in the past century: Not everyone needs moisturizer. Only people with dry skin need it, and not because dry skin causes wrinkles—it doesn't. Moisturizer results in dry skin being more comfortable, flaking less, and allows other cosmetics to go on more smoothly. Mildly dry skin needs only the moisture in a good foundation. Moisturizer on normal or oily skin can aggravate acne or slow healing on damaged skin.

The target audience for is women who want to look good, take care of their skin, and save money, but the site presents useful information for everyone, including men. Under "Men's Skin Care," Begoun writes that most men aren't interested in skin care products and, therefore, are less likely to waste their money on useless ones. But she goes on to say, "While this monetary savings is significant, it probably means most men don't use sunscreen...and leave their skin at risk for cancer..." And she has advice to men about preventing skin irritation from shaving and shaving products.

Begoun eschews fussy routines, brand loyalty, and ingredients that research has deemed worthless. She recommends products with the fewest ingredients, fewest fragrances, and fewest preservatives. She does not promise miracles, and has little tolerance for those who do. No cream—or "creme"—can make wrinkles return from whence they came. But she advises how to prevent further damage and look your best with what you've got.

Despite the hype given botanicals, Begoun comes down firmly against them in cosmetics, cleansers and moisturizers. Most plant oils are irritating to the skin and a source of wrinkles. Botanicals decay quickly and diminish the shelf-life of a product. This necessitates adding more preservatives, which are also irritating, and more fragrance to disguise rancid odors that rapidly develop in "botanical" blends, all of which contribute to increasing the cost of the product. As if that's not bad enough, plant oils are far more likely than lab-created ingredients to clog pores and feed skin yeast and bacteria, thereby contributing to breakouts and aggravating skin conditions like rosacea and psoriasis.

The single most important message throughout all Begoun's writing is: Sun is the root of many skin problems. Sun causes almost all wrinkles. (A few, like folds around the mouth, are caused by movement.) She firmly recommends against tanning and tanning booths, and disapproves of skin care lines that fail to include at least SPF 15 sunscreen in their formulations. It makes no difference what one's natural skin color is, unprotected exposure to the sun is dangerous. Protection against the sun is her most important health and beauty recommendation.

Begoun's advice covers not just how to choose and use products, but important topics such as how to care for irritated skin—reduce the number of products to a minimum, use the gentlest cleanser, and eliminate any new products. She demystifies skin problems—that breakout you woke up with is probably not due to yesterday's chocolate bar or bad news, but perhaps to the new shampoo you've been using the past two weeks. And she reviews skin treatments such as facial exercises (a waste of time at best, and perhaps a way to increase wrinkles), skin peels, and surgical procedures. Always, she is informative and encourages making realistic attempts to look one's best.

Her first book, Blue Eyeshadow Should Absolutely Be Illegal, exposed tactics used in cosmetic marketing and focused on classic beauty advice. Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me reviews current products, their ingredients, performance, and price. It is updated every two years. The Beauty Bible is a detailed guide to skin care, covering makeup, skin problems, acne, and men and babies' skin care. The second edition includes a new chapter "Miracles, Frauds and Facts." Her latest book is Don't Go Shopping for Hair Care Products Without Me. Her research is meticulous, and she publicly updates information and corrects her own errors. Her advice can be found in her four books and newsletter, on her website, in her syndicated advice column, and from public appearances.

Thanks to Begoun, I no longer dread shopping for skin care products. Good information is the antidote to cosmetics ads with their baseless claims and unrealistic promises. Paula Begoun relies on available science to dispel the myths of this pervasive, low-level form of quackery.

Trish Randall is an O4R member and a professional comedian and artist from Vancouver, Washington.

Copyright (c) 2006 Oregonians For Rationality