Yesterday morning I nearly spit out my Corn Flakes as I read the latest New York Times “Skin Deep” feature, “Treating Cellulite, It’s Still There .” And not because, “the ass pictured is almost cellulite-free, while the story is about the terrible problem of cellulite,” as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan put it.
Ladies, it shouldn’t be news that anti-cellulite treatments don’t work. Or that cellulite is incurable. Also what shouldn’t be news-but, maddeningly, is-is that most anti-cellulite products and anti-aging creams are illegal and flourishing under the unconscionably laissez-faire FDA. It’s ironic that the “Skin Deep” column takes its title from the great muckraking book of 1934 by Mary Catherine Phillips-one of several books that led to the creation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which is supposed to protect consumers from bogus cosmetics and drugs.
The act states in no uncertain terms that cosmetics cannot claim to “affect the structure or any function of the body of man.” In other words, cosmetics companies must stick to matters of appearance, not therapy. Cosmetic companies cannot market products that claim to change any aspect of your skin or your skin’s structure or function: Collagen-plumping serums? Illegal. Free radical-preserving goop? Illegal. Cellulite-busting unguents? Illegal.
If a product does makes such a claim it is, by definition, a drug, and needs to go through rigorous testing at the Office of Drug Evaluation and Research to prove not only that it is safe but that it also works . So if a cellulite reduction cream claims to melt cellulite or tighten skin then legally, the claim needs to be tested and cleared by the FDA. This is a basic consumer protection provided by the Act. We should stop tolerating less!
In the 1960s and then again in the 1980s journalists frequently reported on misbranded anti-wrinkle and anti-cellulite products, and the FDA challenged these companies in court. On April 10, 1988, when the FDA was in the midst of its last crackdown, The New York Times published the following in an op-ed : “All the FDA is asking is that fantasy and reality be kept separate. The cosmetic companies need only retreat back to fantasy”-meaning abandon the therapeutic claims for traditional “this will make you gorgeous” puffery-“and their customers will live as happily as before.”
As baby boomers advance into old age we’ve all had to adapt to the anti-aging-centric marketplace and have come to accept and even embrace the proliferation of cosmetics that are actually misbranded drugs. I’m sure the democratization of plastic surgery has a lot to do with this: why opt for a regular bottle of Oil of Olay body cream when you can benefit from the anti-cellulite version? But is it too much to ask the New York Times and other journalists to separate fantasy from reality? And, most crucially, if the FDA did its job we would have known that cellulite was incurable because the $47 million anti-cellulite product market wouldn’t exist and fool us into thinking-or misunderstanding, or blundering, or wondering, or hoping-otherwise.