All too often, freelance reporter Cheryl Wischhover gets press releases from beauty and wellness brands promoting new products with language that sounds convincing—but turns out to be bogus.
A recent one announced a new line of products from a skincare brand and name-dropped the National Cancer Institute “without any context, in an attempt to convey the legitimacy of the founder,” Wischhover says. The release also mentioned “new technology” called H2A2. But this turned out to be a “made-up ingredient name meant to give the reader the idea that it’s scientific because it looks like it could be a legit molecular compound,” she told The Open Notebook in an email.
Wischhover, like other writers who cover beauty and wellness, says there’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to these topics. Commercial brands are often responsible for perpetuating unfounded claims, but the media tends to exacerbate this problem. Writers don’t always understand or report the scientific evidence relevant to their stories. Even well-established outlets, including some women’s magazines, outdoors publications, and major news outlets, have been guilty of inaccurate or careless reporting of beauty and wellness trends and products.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in lingo and the phrases skincare people and dermatologists use,” Wischhover says. “It’s meant to be confusing—jargon sounds more official. You have to break through that to really figure out what they’re saying.”
Reporters don’t have to carry any special “science journalist” credential to cover the beauty and wellness beats effectively. Wischhover, who doesn’t specialize in science coverage, says she often uses scientific information to sharpen her beauty and wellness stories. Her background as a former nurse has helped her examine whether there’s enough evidence to support brands’ grandiose claims and determine whether popular trends live up to the hype.
The key to informing readers without misleading them is to stay skeptical, dig into the research, talk to the right sources, and find a way to weave science into stories smartly and delicately.
Beware of Bold Claims
Because beauty and wellness brands may make bold claims or shell out misleading information to sway buyers, one key to writing accurately about these topics is to stay skeptical.
Wischhover, who regularly writes for Vox’s The Goods section, which focuses on consumer culture, says she looks for specific language or narratives that raise red flags. For example, brands may market their products as “natural” or “clean,” even though the meaning of these terms is murky. Some “green” beauty brands even claim that conventional skincare and makeup products contain toxic chemicals, and some media outlets go along with this. (While it’s true that beauty and personal care products are virtually unregulated, with some causing health-related complaints, there is not enough research to definitively suggest everyday products are harmful.)
Wischhover says she also finds it suspicious when brand founders talk about how their product cured their own lifelong issue. “It’s a common narrative,” she says. “Whenever a wellness brand or “clean” beauty [company’s] founder talks about having eczema, a stomach problem, nondescript health issues that were cured by [some] ingredient that is now in the product they are selling after years of trying conventional things, that gets some side eye from me.”
Those kinds of claims are what pushed consumer health journalist Angela Lashbrook to write about wellness and beauty topics through a science lens. Lashbrook freelances for The Outline and The Atlantic, among others.
“I mostly started writing about this stuff as a sort of response to a lot of the misinformation out there,” she told TON in an email. “The number one concern for brands is making money, so they’ll say whatever they legally can to sell a product for as high a margin as possible.”
For example, last fall, Lashbrook debunked the activated charcoal trend and the claim that it can “detoxify.” She reported that in fact, products containing activated charcoal don’t cleanse the body or skin and may even be damaging.
Diving into the Research
To avoid giving voice to misleading claims, journalists should also ground their stories in scientific evidence. Diving into the research literature both deepens a reporter’s understanding of the topic at hand and uncovers whether a particular product or trend has scientific backing.
“If journalists don’t understand, neither will consumers,” says dermatologist Fayne Frey, who regularly responds to media queries. For example, Frey recently responded to a query from a writer about how to treat eczema. It was clear the reporter hadn’t done their due diligence, because eczema is not a single condition but a group of diseases, and different types require different treatments.
Reviewing published studies (and reviews that provide an overview of recent research within a specific field) via resources such as Google Scholar or PubMed can help reporters get the background they need, Lashbrook says.
When science journalist Jill U. Adams starts reporting a health story, she says she does a PubMed search to collect abstracts of papers that seem relevant. These abstracts help her develop questions for researchers and practitioners about how scientific evidence might apply to the topic she’s covering.
Scientific papers can often be dense and hard to decipher, but key things to look for in studies are their sample sizes (which help reveal how conclusive the results are) and anything particularly informative or questionable in the methods, where researchers unpack what they did in a study.
Even if you don’t understand the studies through and through, freelancer Kate Morgan advises, reading everything you can will ensure that you’re educated enough to be able to ask good questions and understand sources’ points during interviews. Morgan has written from a science angle about health topics such as the Whole 30 and Keto diets for The Cut.
Journalists can also find press releases for many studies on EurekAlert! or on university websites. Press releases are usually less technical and thus easier to read than studies. But your research should never be based solely on press releases, since they are provided by the institution where the research was done.
While brands sometimes provide their own studies about a product or health issue, journalists should not rely on industry-funded research, Lashbrook says. She says she checks whether studies are peer-reviewed (this information can be found on journals’ websites). Lashbrook also looks for possible conflicts of interest, like a researcher being affiliated with a company. “It doesn’t mean the study shouldn’t be considered, but it should be taken into account when you’re writing your story,” she says.
It’s also important to avoid coming to any conclusions based on a single study. “One study doesn’t make a conclusion,” Frey says. “Multiple studies can come to a conclusion.”
One area where reliance on single studies is a common problem is in claims about skincare products. For example, natural beauty brands and even some media outlets cite the same single study when claiming that parabens, which are used as preservatives, are harmful. That 2004 study found traces of parabens in the breast tumors of women but didn’t suggest correlation or causation. And the study included samples from only 20 women, making its results less reliable.
Finding the Right Sources
For writers covering beauty and wellness, there’s also an important balance to strike when sourcing stories. Stories should include the comments of unbiased experts while avoiding becoming a mouthpiece for brands’ claims.
Adams says she almost never interviews people who are connected to a brand or product. “I presume there’s a conflict of interest because they’re either getting paid to promote it or it’s their product,” she says. “If someone is hawking their product, I avoid that whole situation to start with.”
Wischhover, by contrast, does sometimes interview the people who have skin in the game. But she says she’s careful when talking to sources that brands provide. For example, beauty brands may hire dermatologists to come to their events. “In the beginning, I didn’t realize that dermatologists were paid to be there to lend credibility,” she says. “These dermatologists at the event function to trick the press a little bit.”
Like Adams, Wischhover says she also seeks outside sources to put brands’ claims into perspective. “Never ever just [interview] the person who’s selling the thing,” she says. “If I’m writing about a supplement, I’ll go to experts in that area who I know have done a lot of research or have spoken out about supplements.”
Journalists can find relevant researchers or experts through medical or professional associations, such as the American Academy of Dermatology, American Gynecological & Obstetrical Society, and American College of Physicians. SciLine, a resource by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also helps reporters on deadline find experts across all science topics.
If she’s in a time crunch, Lashbrook says she may reach out to university public information officers, who “usually know the perfect person for me to talk to.” She also advises getting at least two sources for every story “because there are a lot of opinions within scientific communities and people don’t always agree with each other.”
Once reporters find the right sources, they need to ask the right questions. First, they should ask up front about possible conflicts of interest, Frey says. “Doctors and dermatologists are supposed to be transparent about whether they’re paid [by] or working with a brand or company,” she says.
Then, get into the nitty-gritty of the topic or product you’re covering, Adams advises. “Ask, ‘How does it work? Does it work for everyone?’” Studies on wellness topics are sometimes too narrow to offer information consumers can use, Adams says. “I usually find research on very specific populations, or very specific clinical trials for a specific medication,” she says. “It can be hard to find a study that covers regular people with everyday complaints.” So asking questions about how a product may benefit the general population helps reporters fill in the gaps.
Wischhover says she occasionally sends outside sources press releases or links to products. These resources serve as good fodder for interviews. She suggests first asking open-ended questions like “What was your first impression of this product description?” and then diving in with more specific questions about the brand’s claims.
Furthermore, Wischhover says she even asks her outside sources to support their comments. “I have asked [dermatologists] and cosmetic chemists to send me studies too, to back up things they tell me,” she says.
Weaving In a Science Angle
Once you understand the science behind a particular topic or trend, incorporating that information into a story without condescending to the reader or veering into false balance is vital.
Wischhover says she’s mindful of how she adds in scientific points that could debunk a product or popular trend—she doesn’t want to talk down to her readers. “The audience doesn’t want to be preached to,” she says. “There’s a way to debunk something gently without making readers feel duped or stupid.”
So she first acknowledges that how well a particular beauty or wellness product, such as a sheet mask, actually works isn’t the only important question. Sometimes the experience of using it is just as important—even to her. “I’m well aware that there are a lot of gimmicks out there and sometimes not a lot of science to back things up, but I use and love skin care anyway,” she says.
When weaving science into stories, writers also need to be wary of false balance: giving the same weight to scientific information and to unproven claims or pseudoscience. “There’s often the idea that [writers] have to include a lot of products or ideas that are not evidence based, that have been debunked or have been shown not to work,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who often talks to the media about consumer health and wellness issues.
In September, for example, Adalja was interviewed for a story about vaginal inflammation known as vulvovaginitis. In the story, the writer lumped science-backed treatments together with natural remedies that have not been proven. It’s not necessarily wrong to include discussion of non-evidence-based treatments, especially if they’re commonly used or part of a growing trend, Adalja says. But it’s important to acknowledge where there’s a lack of evidence.
Adams says she avoids false balance by carefully separating anecdotes from scientific evidence. She might lead with a person’s anecdote, or her own experience, as in this story about recovering from pneumonia. But then she follows it up with a physician’s voice and summarizes a study or two.
Journalists should also keep in mind that some outlets may be less open to adding a science angle to stories about beauty and wellness, especially if it involves debunking. It’s rare to see mainstream outlets tear down brands or ingredients, Wischhover says. Doing so may risk losing access to products, interviews, and perhaps even advertisers.
Morgan ran into that issue when a women’s magazine assigned her to report a story about the artificial sweetener Stevia. She talked to nutritionists and scientists who study metabolism and ended up reporting that there’s little evidence that Stevia is healthier than sugar. But the story got killed after a substantial rewrite.
“I was left with a feeling that the publication or editorial staff had a preconceived notion about what they wanted to say about Stevia,” Morgan says. “They weren’t necessarily looking for a hard science explanation [of the topic].” (Morgan’s piece ultimately landed at The Cut.)
One way to avoid such situations is by pitching outlets that have shown willingness to question beauty and wellness brands’ claims. In discussing a story’s angle and potential sources with editors upfront, Wischhover advises, it’s sometimes a good idea to explicitly ask whether the publication will remain interested in the story no matter how well a product’s or brand’s claims stand up to scientific scrutiny. And if the editors say no, you might want to consider pitching the story elsewhere. After all, incorporating scientific evidence into a beauty or wellness story benefits readers by helping them better understand and make informed choices about products or trends being marketed to them.
Julissa Treviño is a freelance science and health journalist. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, Medium, Smithsonian magazine, Vice, Rewire News, BBC Future, Pacific Standard, and other outlets. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Association of Health Care Journalists. Follow her on Twitter @JulissaTrevino.