I’ve been asked by people who know my background and interest in scientific study to comment on the NIOD line of products. My thoughts quickly evolved into something deeper. Of course. What follows are a few of my thoughts:
I’ll admit that, since I’ve been uber-focused on AB products, NIOD only came into my range of vision somewhat recently, mostly from following skincare instagrams. The little dropper bottles designed to look like laboratory solvents grace many a skincare enthusiast’s instagram feed, cabinet, and flatlay. I’ll admit, the streamlined, “sciencey” aesthetic seems awfully appealing, and does lend itself to the consumer assuming the product within is equally scientifically rigorous. This looks like something a hipster doctor would keep in his apothecary cabinet – it must be good!
I’ve also heard that the man behind the brand is reportedly a friend of a well-known contributor to the AB community, kindofstephen, who I greatly respect and trust. So I was definitely intrigued!
Knowing the growing demand in skincare communities for science-backed skincare, NIOD/Deciem/The Ordinary are certainly addressing a gap, and we are thirsty of products that address our concerns with seriousness and rigor. Everything about these products and their branding speaks to that. We desperately want to believe.
But before I get into the brand and it’s products, I want to talk about branding. Specifically, how a company describes its products, and positions them to address the kind of niche I just described.
Anyone who’s spent time browsing around the skincare obsessed corner of the internet has probably come in contact with the term “greenwashing.” The term had its roots in environmental concerns, and quickly spread as companies cashed in on the publics apparent love for all things “organic” and “natural.” It was inevitable that beauty, skincare, and cosmeceuticals would also fall prey.
In the case of skincare, greenwashing is the practice employed by both independent and major beauty brands alike to employ marketing messages and ingredient formulations that appear to be more “natural.” The definition of what constitutes “natural” will vary based on the goals of the brand and the product they are hawking, but you can bet THEIR product is “natural,” while their competitor’s is not. Formulation strategies can include using coconut and plant-derived sources for their compounds, addition of multiple botanicals, avoidance of preservatives, or use of “alternative” (read: more “natural”-sounding) preservative systems.
Greenwashing has finally started receiving the bad press it deserves. “Free-from” claims and general fear-mongering appeal to emotional decision-making, and emotional decision making means people will spend more money than they need to. This benefits producers while fleecing the public. This sows doubt in the minds of people who use mainstream products that they are somehow poisoning themselves and their family. This is the kind of thinking that embraces the idea of “toxins,” and (surprise!) they can sell you a juice cleanse for only $60/day that will eliminate them! This is the kind of thinking that enables vaccine avoidance, alternative vaccination schedules, and people who allow their child to die because they chose to treat their child’s meningitis with homeopathic herbs.
It also means that producers are formulating products that are unpreserved or underpreserved. This is a threat that goes beyond the theoretical and actually puts the consumer at risk of using contaminated products.
The backlash was inevitable. The internet has allowed consumers to be much more savvy. They can seek out reviews from other users, ingredient lists, and even search Pub Med for the primary literature. Helped along in this process are well-known bloggers like Paula Begoun and Caroline Hirons and the gentlemen of the Beauty Brains podcast (my feelings about all of these individuals vary, but that’s a topic for another time), who assume the identity of consumer advocates, and provide resources to empower other skincare enthusiasts to make informed choices.
Of course (OF COURSE) there was going to be someone to cash in on the “anti-anti-science”trend. Lo and behold. The Sciencewasher.
Like greenwashing, this is when product marketers create brand messaging that speaks to emotional associations. Only rather than appealing to fear of science, sciencewashed products are positioned to appeal to the noviate scientist. They use peptides and polymers, and isolates, and molecular names. They use lab equipment for their packaging and list percentages (yay!), just like a prescription would. They focus on delivery systems and uber-specification of buzzy ingredients like hyaluronic acid and copper. But most problematically, sciencewashing employs the terms of scientific study without actually providing evidence of the necessary scientific rigor. By rigor, I mean data.
I don’t necessarily blame producers for not conducting such studies. Clinical trials are notoriously expensive, cumbersome, and lengthy. And I truly appreciate brands and products that seek to incorporate ingredients and strategies that are at the forefront of scientific understanding.
What I DON’T appreciate is
- Implying that “sciency jargon” = science
- Implying that products that do employ clinically-tested and verified ingredients are somehow doing harm, harm that your innovative (and, of course, far more expensive) product eliminates
- Failing to provide evidence when making claims
That last point isn’t just a bugaboo of mine either; it’s one the FDA takes very seriously, and rightly so. If you are going to claim that a product does a certain thing, you need to provide evidence that this is the case. Why? To avoid snake oil.
And I’m sorry to say that I don’t trust these brands any more that I trust “natural” product companies. That is to say, I’m still interested in their products, and I’m still excited about their potential. But their branding squicks me out, and it’s about time that someone called these companies to task, just like others have with “all-natural” brands.
And I plan on doing just that.
Stay tuned for Part II!