We spend over £9 billion a year on beauty products in the UK, but how much of it is worth the money and how much is just marketing hype? Cherry Healey put the claims from cosmetics to the test

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1. Retinol works

Over-the-counter retinol products could offer an effective alternative to needles when it comes to addressing wrinkles. Speaking to Cherry, consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto referenced a study conducted by the Amway Corporation and the University of Michigan where the use of 0.1% retinol by participants over a four week period led to an improvement in fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation too. As a weaker form of prescription strength tretinoin (which Dr Mahto highlights as the most impressive no-needle option), improvements can be sustained over several months with continued use.

Her recommended plan of action? Use a product with a minimum of 0.1% retinol in it to begin with, building it up gradually. If only small amounts of irritation are experienced, upgrade to maybe 0.3% or 0.5% in a few months’ time. Once you’re used to it, try building it up to 1%. Caution is advised though due to the risk of redness and irritation.

MORE GLOSS: Retinol and retinoids - the skin experts’ guide

2. Splurge on eyeshadow and mascara, save on foundation and lip gloss

High street beauty has come leaps and bounds over the years - a point highlighted by the next experiment. Pitting budget against blowout products to see which ones testers would pick if their branding was covered, it provided a useful guide for what to save and splurge on. In the battle of the foundations, Rimmel interestingly won against MAC, with beauty journalist and author Sali Hughes  commenting that high street foundations have really upped their game  in recent years. However, when it came to eyeshadow, Illamasqua won against MUA due to its higher level of pigment and greater staying power. Lip gloss-wise, Collection’s purse-friendly option beat Dior’s more expensive alternative, but Lancome ensured the war ended in a draw, winning against L’Oreal Paris in the mascara category.

“If you want a big bang for your buck with things like eyeshadow and lipstick, then I think you’re going to fare better with more expensive things,” Sali explained. “But if you want quite a sheer colour like for a lip gloss, blusher or a bronzer, you’re perfectly fine to get something cheaper because you’re just looking for a hint of colour.”

3. You don’t have to spend loads on a moisturiser

Scientific research tends to focus on those with clinical skin conditions and products that aren’t on the high street and so with this in mind, Cherry and the University of Sheffield conducted an experiment which to their knowledge, hadn’t been done before. 25 volunteers with healthy skin were asked to try out a trio of best-selling creams within three different price brackets over three weeks on one side of their faces - Nivea Soft, Clinique Dramatically Different, and Embryolisse Lait Creme Concentrate. Hydration and skin health were measured (i.e. how robust the skin’s barrier function  was to prevent water loss and susceptibility to dryness and irritation). Each cream’s packaging was covered up so the testers couldn’t see what they were using.

In terms of hydration, Nivea Soft and Clinique’s Dramatically Different provided the greatest amounts of improvement whereas the most expensive from Embryolisse, provided the least. Dr Simon Danby of the University of Sheffield highlighted that their high levels of humectants - chemicals that hold onto water - was a key factor. One of the most common types, glycerin, was high in their ingredients lists.

When it comes skin health, none of the creams provided any difference and an expert panel didn’t observe changes in appearance in any of the testers either. “As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that using moisturiser will have that long-term anti-ageing effect ,” Dr Danby said.

It was worth noting though that it was only conducted on a small number of people. However, it made an worthwhile point regarding the importance of reading your ingredients lists.

4. Wearing suncream - even in winter - will help keep wrinkles at bay

The sun’s bad for our skin  - it’s not groundbreaking. However, the fact that it was highlighted as more damaging than pollution and smoking in the programme, may come as a surprise for many. According to dermatologist, Professor Chris Griffiths, around three quarters of lines and wrinkles are caused by sun damage.

Volunteering to have their skin examined by a video machine, Cherry and bus driver of 40 years, Jill, had their wrinkles put under the microscope to gauge how each of them were ageing. Despite being in the confines of a bus, Jill had much more prominent wrinkles on the right side of her face which Professor Griffiths attributed to the ability of long wavelength ultraviolet light A (UVA) to penetrate glass. Cherry also exhibited greater signs of skin damage than he would have expected for someone of her age (36), most likely caused by the sun and its effect on the elastic fibre protein called fibrillin, which runs through the skin.

Referred to as the ‘tent pegs’ of the skin, it provides support to the epidermis. When sunlight damages it, it leads to sagging and wrinkles. Although we need a small amount of sun exposure for the body to produce sufficient levels of vitamin D , if we want to protect skin, a daily sunscreen containing a high SPF  to counteract UVB rays (which can cause burning) and a 4 or 5 star UVA rating to protect against ageing was recommended to be worn all year round - even in winter.

5. Dry body brushing reduces cellulite

In an experiment conducted at the University of Sunderland, a group of women put three popular cellulite treatments to the test. After five weeks,  body brushing  provided the greatest amount of improvement when compared to toning exercises and a caffeine cream.

The group who did a daily exercise routine surprisingly came last, seeing a 11% improvement. However, it should be noted though that the group felt better in other ways - greater energy, increased firmness... to such a degree that they didn’t actually care about their cellulite .

In second place came the caffeine cream, with a 15% improvement. Its claim was that it destroyed fat cells however, the ultrasound used to measure fat content beneath the skin showed no change. The show’s experts concluded that the hydrating and smoothing effects of the cream was probably more likely the cause for the change in appearance.

Those who did daily dry body brushing though saw an improvement of 26% (35% for one woman), to make it the most effective treatment in the experiment by far. That being said, clinical dermatologist Dr Raj Natarajan did caution that this could be due to it just moving and redistributing the fat around the area rather than removing it. However, the testers were keen to continue doing it after seeing the results.

6. Beauty claims aren’t always what they seem

Do the claims on our labels actually mean anything ? When actually broken down, many of the most well known may not be as convincing as we think. For instance, ‘clinically proven’ doesn’t necessarily mean that a product will meet expectations. Cosmetic chemist Colin Sanders commented for instance, that if a product claims to reduce wrinkles by 10 per cent, it might not actually be noticeable without a magnifying glass.

‘Active ingredients’ was another buzz term to watch out for too, due to the absence of regulation regarding the level testing required to use it, as was ‘Dermatologically tested.’ Colin cautioned that in theory, you would only really need to test the product out on one person for a product to qualify as that.

Although the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association issued a statement saying that a report from the European Commission, “found that 90% of cosmetic claims were compliant with the current criteria,” it’s worthwhile bearing in mind that certain popular product claims could be tinged with a marketing slant.

7. Low self-esteem sells

The results of an experiment devised to explore what drives our product purchasing process made for a slightly uncomfortable albeit, fascinating watch. A cleanser called ‘Face’ was sold in two different types of packaging and by two different looking sales assistants.

The first, a no-frills option by a sales assistant in casual clothing, enticed three out of 18 customers over a two hour period.

The second with fancy packaging and sold by the same sales assistant having been given a lab coat and glamorous makeover, made the product twice more likely to be bought. This difference in outwards appearance had instantly made it a status product and given it an aura of credibility.

However, the more intriguing aspect arose from the results of a questionnaire that had created for the customers to complete. Designed to see how the product made them feel about themselves, it aimed to measure their self-esteem  at the point of purchase. Interestingly, it was higher for the cheap product compared to the fancier looking alternative. Dr Yousaf, who led the experiment, explained that when we observe a luxury product, it causes our self-esteem to drop, so we compensate for that by buying it. The concept’s called self-discrepancy theory, and goes some way to explain why brands spend so much on packaging.

8. We’re our own biggest critics

When it comes to our self-perception, it seems we judge ourselves a lot more harshly than others as demonstrated by the programme’s last experiment. A group of strangers were invited to come together and meet each other briefly face to face. Following that, they were asked to rate their own attractiveness and that of the others in a gallery. In the gallery, boards were set up, with seven pictures of each person on each one featuring one unaltered image and six digitally manipulated images to look more or less attractive. Each volunteer was asked to look at them and select the one that best represented how they and the people they’d just met really looked.

More than 70% of the time, people chose pictures of someone else that had been enhanced to look more attractive, but for themselves, they chose images that were made to be more unattractive. The reason for this difference? The pressure piled on us everyday to enhance our appearance was highlighted as a key factor, as it causes us to focus on our flaws more often.

However, it’s not all bad news as the fact that participants picked pictures for others that were more attractive versions of themselves showed that attractiveness perception is also influenced by their personality. It’s called the ‘halo effect’ and essentially means that one quality has an effect on the perception of another quality such as physical appearance. The fact they all met first was a big reason for their choices and showed how even a brief interaction can have a huge impact on how someone is perceived. A silver-lining in our screen dependant world for sure.

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