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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Buyers beware

As long as cosmetics meet minimum safety standards here, there are no rules to stop products from claiming they have been dermatologist tested
The Straits Times - July 14, 2011
By: Lea Wee
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Buyers beware

When public relations associate Goh He Lin, 26, needs to brighten up her skin, she turns to dermatologist-tested skincare products. She does not mind paying $80 to $120 for each item.

'They are more concentrated and work faster,' said Ms Goh.

She uses a product with hyaluronic acid, a moisture-retaining ingredient, for instant hydration and another product with vitamin C for rejuvenation.

She assumes that dermatologist-tested products have been tested on various skin types with no adverse reactions.

'This is important to me as I have sensitive skin,' she said. However, she would head straight for a dermatologist whenever she has an acne outbreak that normal pimple creams cannot remove.

More cosmetic skin products in the market are claiming to be 'trusted or tested by dermatologists'.

Some are also marketing themselves as cosmeceuticals, claiming to have ingredients which affect the structure and function of the skin.

A walk through pharmacies and beauty shops here found at least 15 'dermatologist-tested' products. As for products which are named after doctors, there are at least 10 around, mostly from the United States.

Just what do the terms mean and do they imply that they are safer and more effective than run-of-the-mill products?

Dermatologists here said 'no'.

'When it comes to buying cosmetics, it's all about caveat emptor (buyer beware),' said senior consultant dermatologist Anthony Goon from the National Skin Centre.

Dermatologist tested or recommended are loose terminologies which can be interpreted in many ways, said Dr Derrick Aw, a consultant dermatologist from the National University Hospital (NUH).

Many products do not define what tests the dermatologist performed. The dermatologist could have tested the product on himself or on one or more patients.

Similarly, a product carrying a doctor's name could mean the doctor re-packed existing skin products into his 'brand' or worked with formulators to create a new cosmetic product, said Dr Joyce Lim of Joyce Lim Skin and Laser Clinic.

The 2008 Asean Cosmetic Directive, which regulates cosmetic products here, has no ruling against cosmetic products carrying a doctor's name or stamp of approval.

Instead, it prohibits claims that cosmetic products can treat or prevent a disease, which only drugs can claim to do, said DrAlain Khaiat, vice-president of scientific and technical affairs at Asean Cosmetics Association, in an e-mail interview.

Whether the product carries a doctor's name or not, all cosmetics are required to be registered with the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore (HSA) before sale.

They need to meet certain safety standards. They cannot, for example, contain banned substances such as diethylene glycol, which can damage the liver and kidneys.

Preservatives such as parabens, which have been found in trace amounts in breast cancer tumours, must conform to specified limits.

The HSA conducts random quality checks on cosmetics. Last year, two nail products were recalled because they contained benzene, a prohibited carcinogen. There were also two cases of cosmetic-related allergic reactions reported to the HSA.

While cosmetics here are generally safe, they are unlike drugs in that they do not need to be assessed by the HSA to be effective before being sold.

The efficacy claims of a product is never a given, said National Skin Centre's Dr Goon.

The gold standard of efficacy is a double-blind placebo-controlled trial on humans, but these are costly and may take five to 10 years to complete.

Big cosmetic companies may be able to afford such trials, but even they may not find them worthwhile.

Said NUH's Dr Aw: 'By the time the product is out, the company may have lost out to competitor companies who have gone ahead and launched products with similar efficacies, proven or not.'

Many cosmetic companies take one to two years to develop their products.

Studies, if available, are usually done in the laboratory, rather than on humans.

Dermatologist Jean Ho from Jean Ho Skin and Laser Clinic said there is good anecdotal evidence for many ingredients in over-the-counter products, but they have limited studies to support their claims.

'Some ingredients such as vitamin C are already so widely available in cosmetics, it does not make economic sense for a company to spend on a clinical study to prove their effects,' said Dr Ho.

Doctors who create their own cosmetic products follow safety standards but may not conduct efficacy tests.

Even then, they may have an edge over, for instance, imported cosmetics.

Aesthetic doctor Georgia Lee said: 'Skincare formulated for users in other countries may not be suitable for us because we have different skin types and a different climate.'

Dr Lee introduced her skincare line DrGL into the mass market in 2009.

Dr Joyce Lim, who created her own skincare range for her patients as part of a treatment regimen, believes that doctor-created products may be more effective than those created by non-experts.

She said: 'Most dermatologists would know what is effective from scientific studies and incorporate these into their products.

'They also have the opportunity to use them on their patients and, therefore, the experience of knowing which would work best for a particular problem.'

Which may be why certain cosmetic companies, such as Clinique, prefer to work with dermatologists to formulate their products. A spokesman for Clinique Singapore said its products undergo both safety and efficacy tests. Some products with stronger active ingredients have been classified as quasi drugs in countries such as Japan. An example is ascorbyl glucoside, a vitamin C derivative found in one of its whitening creams.

Quasi drugs have ingredients that are more active than those in regular cosmetics but are not strong enough to be classified as drugs.

There is no separate category for quasi drugs in Singapore, but some cosmetics here have been marketed as cosmeceuticals (formed by the words cosmetics and pharmaceuticals).

Dermatologist Eileen Tan from Eileen Tan Skin, Laser and Hair Transplant clinic said cosmeceuticals is a marketing term that does not necessarily imply a product is backed by more scientific studies.

She said: 'It's best for consumers to read the ingredients list to see if they are suited for their skin concerns.'

Dermatologist-tested or doctor-endorsed, cosmetic or cosmeceutical, the bottom line appears to be: skin products are generally safe to use. As for efficacy claims, it is up to the user to find out.

More stories on pages 14 and 15



Silent thief of sight