Why Do We Keep Wasting Our Money on "Snake Oil" Beauty Products?

24 Jul 2014 at 3:50pm

Written by Christopher Kelsey

Why Do We Keep Buying Snake Oil Beauty Products

We’ve all made embarrassing purchases — an act that’s even easier now, thanks to online retailers and the ability to receive packages without interacting with anyone. But why on earth, in an age of easy-to-access information, do we still sometimes make hasty (dare we say foolish?) decisions on very personal products?

These are the too-good-to-be-true pills that promise to melt away fat without any diet or exercise — the ones that come with ingredients the FDA hasn’t approved. These are the devices that use tiny shocks to force our abs to contract repeatedly so that we might develop a rock-hard six pack while doing nothing but drinking wine and watching reruns of The Bachelorette.

Fat Loss BeltWe may laugh when we think about those old belts from the 1940s and ‘50s that would vibrate as if cellulite could be shaken off like dandruff. Yet, people believed in those belts. The unfortunate thing is that not much has changed. Even now, 60 years later, we still can’t resist the quick-fix claims of “snake oil” beauty products.

In part, it’s because sometimes snake oil works. The power of positive thinking (or, the placebo effect) can be very real. Really believing in something can cause a person to make subtle yet beneficial changes without even realizing it. Thus, when good things seem to happen like magic, the snake oil gets all the credit. (Just think about the positive power of The Secret.)

But the persistence of the snake oil market is also connected to a deeper reality about what happens when we confront what we want to change about ourselves. We often fear it may take a long time or require a “bolder” decision (like perhaps getting a cosmetic procedure), so we grab on to what seems like the easiest option at the time.

New York plastic surgeon Dr. Dana Khuthaila explains this conundrum: “So many [women] are searching for the quick fix — but just because a brand claims certain results does not mean the results are true. And just because a brand can convince enough people to believe what they’re advertising, doesn't make it true either.”

As RealSelf member varonec reveals, “After battling acne for close to 35 years and trying every Rx, home ready, witch [doctor], [and] any snake oil that I could find, I am FINALLY giving in and starting Accutane.”

It’s interesting that varonec uses the words “giving in.” They don’t suggest giving up; but those words sign that she considered Accutane to be a bolder choice, something that required more thought and personal commitment than she was prepared for until now.

Breast Enlargement Cream

Acne and body fat are certainly not the only things we seek out “snake oil” solutions for. When asked about breast enlargement creams, which continue to persist in the marketplace, Dr. Carmen Kavali plays it straight. “Breast enlargement creams don't work. If they did, don't you think everyone who wanted bigger breasts would be using them instead of having surgery? They belong on the shelf alongside penis-enlargement pills and most weight-loss or fat-melting products. Don't waste your time or money.”

Yet, many of us continue to waste our time and money. It’s important to remember, however, that while what we try is sometimes foolish, the process is not, in and of itself, foolish. It’s actually perfectly normal.

Dr. Stephen Prendiville sums it up nicely: “If a patient has aging changes such as jowls and neck laxity (and is bothered by these changes), the only adequate solution is a facelift. However, it’s not unusual for a patient to try a number of minimally-invasive treatments until they reach this conclusion themselves.”

Fountain of Youth

Seattle board-certified dermatologist Dr. Daniel Levy theorizes that, “People are leading very busy lives, so the market for non-surgical, no-downtime cosmetic products and treatments is booming. If something promises to ‘lift’ or ‘tighten’ or ‘smooth’ or ‘erase’ without surgery, it suddenly has potential to be the new ‘fountain of youth.’ We all want to believe that one magical ingredient or technology will be discovered that will erase all signs of aging, but that’s simply implausible.”

Sometimes exhausting all the least “scary” options eventually leads you to what you should have probably done in the first place, and that’s OK.


Shared-experience communities, whether they are composed of friends or “anonymous” contributors to an online community like RealSelf, can be a great help when it comes to figuring out what is and isn’t a real solution for you. Given the right community, you’ll not only have access to product reviews, but field experts and personal stories.

As such, peer-to-peer interactions online, especially when both sides have the option to be anonymous, can be enormously effective. They can motivate. They can persuade. They also require some caution. A book might not match the Amazon five-star rating that persuaded you to buy it; but if the item or service you purchase is to have an aesthetic impact, your decision is much more important. It may even be linked to a very personal struggle.

Shared Community

We should take our time when making an aesthetic decision, especially when so many competing solutions present themselves to us in magazines, on TV and the internet, and even in our social groups.

As Atlanta plastic surgeon Dr. Vincent Zubowicz says, “Any sane person would prefer a ‘treatment’ to an operation to fix a problem... [But] you really need to be a prudent consumer and make sure you get good information.” Making sure you’re in the right community is a good step towards this goal.

A number of RealSelf members have taken research into their own hands and have asked our board-certified doctors questions about creams, oils, and pills that promise to reduce dark spots or enlarge their breasts and buttocks. They’re all getting answers that steer them back to the basics of health and diet — and more importantly, back into the offices of their own physicians for true medical assessments.


The volume of advertising can easily confuse the legitimate products and the false ones. Major brands like L’Oréal and Maybelline often spend more than $300 million a year on advertising alone. Many of these recognized companies are also cashing in on the natural beauty trend by revamping products or buying up smaller, natural-based companies. (For example, Tom’s of Maine is now owned by Colgate-Palmolive, while Burt’s Bees was acquired by Clorox.)

Misleading ProductsThe problem is that many of these manufactures are changing what’s on the container of the product, but not what’s actually in it. According to a new report by ShopSmart, big brands like Aveeno and Neutrogena are using words like “healthy” and “natural” on the label, without using ingredients that live up to the hype. Formaldehyde was found in numerous hair straighteners and nail products, while coal tar plagued the formulas of psoriasis and eczema ointments. (You can read the full report here.)

Unfortunately, it only gets worse. Smaller companies also spend millions on advertising, but many them are merely scam artists using viral videos and false marketing websites. Furthermore, they may also tap into multi-level marketing (MLM), even getting you to sell the products yourself with the promise of greater financial returns for roping more people into the network. (We’re sure you have a Facebook friend or three telling the world she’s paid off her house just by selling X, Y, and Z beauty products.) While some companies have used an MLM strategy effectively and without significant complaints, others have simply used it as a pyramid scheme.

Before signing up for any MLM subscription plans, Dr. Levy advises you to “watch out for acquaintances, neighbors, and friends without a background or education in esthetics, who are suddenly trying to sell a skincare product or cosmetic device.”

It’s easy to see why people do it: MLM businesses account for roughly $30 billion in sales in the US each year.

But the line between real and snake oil in MLM can be hard to distinguish. The nutritional supplement company HerbalLife, for example, is being investigated for its MLM practices. The It Works! Body Wrap has also been a product sold user-to-user, but which both consumers and “distributors” have subsequently found themselves questioning.

MORE: It Works! Body Wraps: Scam or Real?

Dr. Khuthaila warns, “Brands often label their product as a vitamin, herb, or even a supplement. By doing that, they don’t have to be regulated by the FDA, [which allows them] to make these bogus claims.”

Nielsen Brand Exposure

Oh, I’m no fool, you think. Well, we all like to believe we can spot the difference between something real and something that’s just snake oil, but when it comes to beauty and personal care, our responses are very much on the level of appetite. In a late 2010 consumer confidence survey, Nielsen found that 51% of beauty and personal care purchases were motivated by exposure to brand advertising. The only industries that had anywhere near that success rate were food (68%) and beverage (36%).

That is why we’re swamped with beauty and body messages. We respond.

You might not think that acne cream you’ve stumbled upon will work, but you might just say, “What the heck,” and buy it anyway. It’s not much different than trying a new flavor of ice cream after an ad has planted the seed.

Fake Before and After“I think most people would like to believe that they are quick to pick up on bogus claims or exaggerated results,” says Dr. Khuthaila. “But I have found that many brands are using patient pictures that are not their own, or they use favorable lighting for the after photo, along with jewelry or accessories, to make the result more attractive.”

When it comes to before-and-after photos, there are some specifics to look for that a skincare product can’t achieve without a more invasive treatment. According to Dr. Levy, these include: “the disappearance of acne scars (usually requires laser, filler treatment, or both), the disappearance of frown and forehead lines (tell-tale Botox effects), lifting of the eyebrows (usually another Botox effect), the disappearance of extra skin around eyes (eyelid surgery), the disappearance of jowls (facelift surgery or liquid-lift), and/or complete elimination of all sun spots (usually requires laser treatments).”

The problem of snake oil isn’t limited to intentional deceit. It can often develop organically in pop culture, such as through the aid of celebrity endorsements, as well as through radio shows and television. The line between direct and indirect endorsement can be difficult to spot.

In June 2014, popular host Dr. Mehmet Oz found himself in hot water over what was perceived as an endorsement of a green coffee product aimed at weight loss. Dr. Oz may not have directly endorsed the product (the manufacturer was accused of some deceptive marketing practices), but his enthusiastic discussion of the product’s potential gave the appearance of an endorsement to his millions of viewers. Dr. Oz apologized for the incident before a Congressional committee and admitted that he sometimes uses “flowery” language to inspire his fans.

The best advice: When it comes to issues of health, ask questions and make an informed decision. Dr. Levy reminds us that “it's important to read about products and treatments, on forums such as RealSelf, and gather peer-reviewed information from expert skincare professionals before spending time, money, and hope on any cosmetic treatment.”

Oh, and if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is!

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Photo credits: Some right reserved by Jagrap; Courtesy of JCPenney; Courtesy of Brestogen; Courtesy of Burke Williams Spa; Some rights reserved by Ed Yourdon; RealSelf User Question; Courtesy of ShopSmart; Courtesy of The Nielsen Company; MelVFitness on Instagram