The Benefits and Limitations of Skin Care Product Reviews

A good ingredient-based review needs to have a rubric or grading system.

As I frequently write on two websites that feature numerous product reviews, I figured it would be prudent to discuss how they should and should not contribute to an individual’s (or consumer’s) knowledge base, his perception of the product, and the likelihood to make a recommendation. There are two types of skin care product reviews: ingredient-based reviews and personal reviews; both will be discussed.

Ingredient-Based Reviews

True to its name, this kind of product review theoretically evaluates a product based on the ingredients present.

Pros:

  1. Good ingredient-based reviews typically present a complete ingredient list, while documenting which ingredients are important and why they are so.
  2. They typically use a rubric to normalize, standardize, and express a more objective score or rating. Besides its creation, the one on my blog only has one subjective aspect to it.  
  3. This type of product review is excellent when considering which “star” ingredients to implement into your routine. For example, if I introduce a product with niacinamide into my routine, reading various ingredient-based reviews can help me weed out undesirable or inappropriate choices.

Cons:

  1. When evaluating how much of a particular ingredient is present, the amount can only be judged based on how high or low its position is on the ingredient list. So when a review says that “high amounts” of an ingredient are present, that could actually translate to 10% or 1%. There’s no way to know for sure. Furthermore these adjectives such as “high/medium/low” are subjective and can certainly influence a reader’s perception.
  2. Because manufacturers aren’t obligated to list ingredients from highest to lowest concentration when the ingredients are present at less than 1%, they could make barely-there ingredients appear as if they were present in much higher amounts. Therefore, the published ingredient list can certainly trick reviewers.
  3. Ingredient-based reviews can’t tell how deeply a product will penetrate into the skin. Yes, a good review will make evaluations based on an ingredient’s chemical properties, vehicle type, and known penetration enhancers. However, those are only approximations. Furthermore, different skin types will have varying levels of the stratum corneum and therefore the epidermis, which in turn will affect penetration and efficacy. And speaking of efficacy…

Personal Reviews

These are empirical articulations or declarations that don’t talk about the ingredients; rather they’re about the reviewers’ personal experiences with the product.

Pros:

  1. Good personal reviews typically tell you the user’s skin type; their skin problems; why they decided to purchase this product; their initial impressions; how they used the product in their routine; what positive results were seen; what adverse reactions were experienced; and ultimately, does the product warrant a recommendation and for whom.
  2. This type of product review is good when considering any of the aspects listed above, but more importantly, how many people reacted this way.
  3. Most personal review websites have a rating system, so products with an overall higher rating based on multiple reviews, will appear as a “good” product.

Cons:

  1. Just because a product does something for the reviewer, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
  2. When a personal review says that a product is good, it usually can’t decisively attribute that positive effect to a specific ingredient or group of ingredients. Unless the ingredient has a known and dramatic effect on the skin, (for example the hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids do), positive changes may actually be attributed to the vehicular base with its various emollients, humectants, and occlusive rather than say, to the pomegranate content. Yet personal reviews can incorrectly attribute that change to the pomegranate, even if it’s at the bottom of the ingredient list.
  3. The results of personal reviews are not controlled regulated in any way, so changes can’t be again decisively attributed to the use of this product. For example, they’re not placebo- or vehicle-controlled, blinded, nor blinded. Furthermore, the success of one individual is irrelevant to a community at large. What about diet, behavior, and/or even stress? What about the rest of the routine?
  4. Because not all products are created equal, you can’t differentiate between a mundane formulation and a good formulation if they both have the same ratings.  
  5. Personal reviews are very subjective, meaning that they can vary greatly in terms of quality and usefulness, at least more so than ingredient-based ones.

So Which is Better?

Nuclear fusion: The combination use of ingredient-based and personal reviews is the best way to evaluate a skinc are product!

I’m sure most of you have realized by now that the best approach is to evaluate products using ingredient-based AND personal reviews. Use theoretical ingredient-based reviews to narrow your field of potential contenders. Then read personal reviews of the products in the now narrowed field in order to make your final decision. Sometimes if I can’t decide whether or not a product is better than another, I use the average rating of multiple personal reviews as the tiebreaker.

I know this post is a bit different than what I usually write, but seeing so many people fall prey to personal reviews and testimonials, I had to make these pros and cons known.

What did you think of this post? Did you learn anything? Share in the comments section, and feel free to add your own pros and cons!

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2 thoughts on “The Benefits and Limitations of Skin Care Product Reviews

  1. Eileen says:

    Hi John,

    Your article is a wonderful tool for those people who are at a bit of a loss when it comes to selecting skin care. Determining whether a product is right for us will always be a combination of objective and subjective reasoning, so your list of pros and cons for each type is a good place to start. Ingredient lists, the quality and quantity of ingredients, the delivery system, the type of container that houses the product, an individual’s specific skincare needs and concerns–all of those things should be considered when making a decision as to whether or not a product should be given a try.

    All of you who contribute skin care articles have helped Future Derm grow into a wonderful resource for information that is timely, educational, and easily accessible.

  2. John Su says:

    @Eileen

    Thanks for your kind words to me and the other writers! I too hope that more people use this post and similar ones to help them gauge a product’s value when considering the ideal routine.

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