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Cosmetic Bogus Science


The cosmetic industry is notorious for its use of bogus science to promote beauty products. Advertisements for creams, moisturisers and cleansers are made to sound all the more convincing when scientific terminology is added to the narrative. Much of this science is bogus – a combination of half truths and fiction made to sound authentic through clever use of scientific vocabulary.

Although the use of terms such as ‘nanoparticles’ and ‘pentapeptides’ may be compelling for some people, more discerning types will quickly spot the lack of supporting evidence and recognise flaws in the ‘scientific’ explanations given. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but gives an idea of the more common areas of bogus science to watch out for the next time you view a cosmetic advertisement:

1. Nanoparticles

Nanoparticles are tiny particles of a given substance (often metals), less than one hundredth of the width of a human hair. Some cosmetic manufacturers have included nanoparticles as ingredients of their products with the claim that they penetrate the skin, carrying other active ingredients with them to deeper subdermal layers. This supposedly leads to enhanced action of the skin care treatment.

Although nanoparticles do have genuine applications in science, skin penetration is not thought to be one of them. Recent studies conducted by several universities have shown that the skin is a highly effective barrier and remains so even after suffering slight abrasion. No such entry of nanoparticles has been observed, and it is thought that earlier studies may have mistaken entry into tiny skin folds as true penetration. So, the skin is not permeable to tiny objects after all – just as well, considering its role is to protect us from infection by micro-organisms.

2. Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a substance made from both carbohydrate and protein. It is widespread throughout the body and is a major constituent of the extracellular matrix, a type of scaffolding material that holds cells together in the body’s tissues. Hyaluronic acid is sometimes used in cosmetic treatment as a type of filler material, being injected under the skin and acting to smooth out wrinkles. This type of treatment is effective for up to six months, after which time the hyaluronic acid will need to be reapplied.

Several cosmetic creams now include hyaluronic acid as an active ingredient, emphasising the anti-wrinkle effect described above. However, the crucial detail they omit is that hyaluronic acid must be injected in order to act as filler. Again, the skin is a natural barrier to most substances and this is no exception. If hyaluronic acid was effective as a cream, then logically there’d be no requirement (or indeed demand) for administration by injection.

3. Pentapeptides

Pentapeptides are proteins composed of five amino acids. In the body, pentapeptides are naturally produced as local chemical mediators and act as chemical signals between cells. Pentapeptides have a role in signalling cells to produce more collagen, a structural protein used to repair internal damage and wounds. Several cosmetic skin creams now contain pentapeptides, claiming they promote repair of the skin surface and prevent wrinkles from developing.

While there is some truth in the involvement of pentapeptides as signals that indirectly promote repair of internal tissues, there is no evidence suggesting the same applies to the skin surface. Extensive studies conducted with various cosmetic creams have concluded that the presence of pentapeptides has no significant impact on the qualities of skin.

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