How to Spot False Claims in Your Wellness Products

You can’t browse a grocery store or pharmacy without being subject to flashy labels that promote health benefits. In the beverage aisle, for example, you might find “prebiotic” sodas that supposedly support “gut health.” In the beauty department, you’ll see “medical-grade” serums, “probiotic” facial creams and “skin detoxing” treatments. Go to the supplements section for promises of “immunity support,” “hormone balance” and “energy enhancement,” among other things.

Marketers have been using scientific-sounding buzzwords to sell products for centuries. But it’s becoming more common, said Timothy Caulfield, a research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta. Mr. Caulfield coined the term “scienceploitation” to describe how brands borrow language from emerging areas of science to market unproven products.

Scienceploitation crops up in far more places today than ever before, including in search results, on social media platforms and from influencers, Mr. Caulfield said. Consumers are often inundated with confusing options as more companies position themselves as healthy. Buyers are prioritizing scientific evidence, said Sienna Piccioni, an analyst and head of beauty at WSGN, a trend forecasting company. But they can’t always separate fact from fiction: A 2021 study suggested that people who trust science were more likely to share false claims that contained scientific references than claims that didn’t.

In December, the Federal Trade Commission revised its guidelines for health-related products, emphasizing that companies should support health claims “with high quality, randomized, controlled human clinical trials.” But experts said it’s unlikely that the commission can closely monitor how companies market their products, at least not without a huge increase in funding.

“There are just too many brands,” said Kevin Klatt, an assistant research scientist in the department of nutrition sciences and toxicology at the University of California, Berkeley.

So, for now, we’re on our own. But you can still arm yourself. Here are some marketing tactics to be aware of:

Companies often try to cash in on fads like adaptogens and activated charcoal, which you can find listed on items including cookie packaging and toothpaste tubes. Even ingredients that are known to be effective can be manipulated: Beauty and skin care brands, for instance, might use 0.2 percent of vitamin C in a moisturizer even though evidence shows the amount would need to be higher to have any effect, said Michelle Wong, a cosmetic chemist who runs the blog Lab Muffin Beauty Science and helped popularize the term “science washing” in beauty circles.

This is why it isn’t necessarily helpful to scour a scientific-looking list of ingredients, she said. Most don’t say much about the quality or quantity of each ingredient, nor how it interacts with other ingredients or its stability — all of which affects efficacy.

Manufacturers use words without clear and specific definitions, like “aids,” “promotes,” “supports,” “stimulates,” “boosts” and “optimizes” to suggest positive health outcomes. There’s no quantifiable way to measure an ambiguous word like “support,” said Jonathan Jarry, a scientist and science communicator with McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.

Supplement companies, which do not have to prove effectiveness to the Food and Drug Administration, frequently rely on the terms used above. But there’s often a small disclaimer on the bottle that says the product “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

“They’re implying the product works, and then on the same label, much less visible, is the fact that there’s no evidence that it works,” said Josh Bloom, the director of chemical and pharmaceutical science at the American Council on Science and Health. Still, he said, people see a word like “supports” and might assume the product will treat their symptoms.

Other phrases, like “clinically tested,” “research-backed,” “doctor recommended” and “evidence-based,” show up in the beauty or personal care aisle — and often lack the context they’d need to be verified, Dr. Wong said. When you see these terms, you should wonder: What were the results of the tests? What was the quality of the research, and who conducted it? Was the researcher or endorser a legitimate authority in that field?

Wellness brands might pad their websites with links to studies. But some are simply summaries of the emerging data without any mention of the product in question. Many companies include research that is unrelated to the claim. Evidence cited by a company “could be one poorly designed study,” said Nick Tiller, a senior researcher in exercise physiology at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center. “It could be cherry-picked.”

“What you want to see are the results of actual rigorous studies of the product itself, showing that it works,” Mr. Jarry said. “But that’s almost never the case,” he added.

If you’re trying to get a feel for the legitimacy of a product, the Federal Trade Commission recommends doing a search for the name of the product online, plus the words “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”

You can also check to see what respected professional associations and major public health organizations like the National Institutes of Health or C.D.C. say about a specific product, protocol or ingredient, experts advise.

If an herbal supplement claims to address high blood pressure, for instance, you might search the sites of the American Heart Association or the American College of Cardiology, as these organizations often have articles, position statements and meta-analyses on them, said Dr. Danielle Belardo, a cardiologist who hosts the podcast “Wellness: Fact vs. Fiction.”

When considering a buzzy ingredient or product, remember that “one exciting study” doesn’t mean much, Mr. Caulfield said. Kombucha bottles often say they have “microbiome-friendly” benefits even though microbiome research is still in its infancy. So, before shelling out money, give more credence to sources that include a larger body of evidence on a topic, he said.

And keep in mind no single ingredient can change your health overnight. If a product was indeed a cure-all, every medical organization would be rushing to endorse it, Dr. Klatt said. “Anything that sounds too good to be true is probably too good to be true,” he added.

Rina Raphael is the author of “The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care.”

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